Friday, 31 December 2010

Redwings and Waxwings

In the winter of 1963 I saw my first redwings. Those Scandinavian thrushes were everywhere. Before Christmas they were feeding on berries in the trees, but after the berries were gone they were always to be seen on the ground. That year, it was so cold for so long that they became desperately hungry and therefore approachable by the general public who had never seen them before.

This winter has got off to a similar start. The hawthorns are still full of berries and there are huge flocks of redwings devouring them. Where you have hedges on both sides of the road the birds play "chicken" with the traffic; constantly flying backwards and forwards at windscreen height. I suppose that they tug so hard at the berries using their full weight, that they fall off the hedge backwards and have to take flight. I saw a magpie carrying off a stunned redwing from the roadside, which explains why there are no bodies in the road.

Waxwings are also emblematic of harsh winters, but seen much less frequently here. They are birds of the Taiga; the great northern forest zone, that stretches across Eurasia, south of the tundra. They also occur in the corresponding Boreal forests of Canada, where they are called Bohemian Waxwings. Just now they are invading the USA in large flocks, especially in New England.

When I was a warden for the RSPB in Scotland, we used to see waxwings most years, along the railway lines in Fife. That's where I took the pictures. Aberdeen seems to be "Waxwing Central" and quite a few birds get captured and ringed there. One of those, a first year bird, has just been seen in Cambridge.

It's well known here that waxwings generally prefer supermarket car parks and industrial estates to the open countryside, but it makes sense to me. For a start there are ornamental plantings that often include rows of rowans and clumps of Cotoneasterbushes. It's also warmer here than in the countryside and there's a better chance of finding water that isn't frozen.

This winter may provide your best, once in a lifetime chance to see waxwings. I found mine with the redwings along the old Great North Road near Stilton. Go and find yours and don't forget to have a camera along with you. they are very tame and extremely photogenic.