Living in the North East of Scotland, we are very lucky to be the first part of the UK to become the winter home to flocks of the tufted and brightly tipped Bohemian Waxwings.
Bohemian Waxwings reside and breed in Scandinavia during the summer months where they will raise one brood of on average 5 or 6 chicks every year. As winter approaches some will migrate south when the population gets too big for the food available, to countries where food will be more abundant. Flocks of these stunning starling sized birds start to appear as early October in the North East of Scotland around Aberdeen and having seen lots of stunning photos and tweets about their location (@WaxwingsUK) we decided to go out and look for them!
We stopped at Allenvale Cemetery in Aberdeen on a very dull, wet day. After a good twenty minute wander around the grounds with no success we noticed a couple of others with large camera lenses and made our way over to them. As we approached we could easily see a group of twenty or so waxwings perched in a bare tree.
Waxwings are berry eaters, particularly Rowan berries, which are commonly found within cemetery’s across the UK. They do eat a variety of other fruits and also consume insects, mostly midges and mosquitoes but berries are definitely their favored food.
They were inactive for 10 minutes before they were scared off across the cemetery by a car parking. They were also very hard to photograph; very high up with little light didn’t make for the best photographs.
We stayed a little longer after the flock took off and had a further look around the area but couldn’t see them so decided to go looking for otters instead. Throughout the winter waxwings move further and further inland on the hunt for more food as larger numbers of them arrive so by December they can be spotted anywhere where there is sufficient food.
A few weeks later as I drove home from a morning watching a Kingfisher in Fife there was a flock of around 50 of them in another bare tree right by the road. I managed to stop slightly further up the road and walk back. This time they were almost at my eye level and a lot closer allowing me to take some close up’s although the light still wasn’t great.
Waxwings get their name from the red tips on their white wing feathers which looks like a wax seal at the end of the feather. You can make out the red tips and the lovely yellow tail feathers above.
They are very charismatic little birds with their red crests, black masked faces, brightly coloured wing tips and tail feathers making them easily identifiable but also magnificent to sit and watch.
They were in the area as there was one bush full of berries right next to the road that they were after. Every time they landed on it a car would pass and they would fly off, circle back round and land at one of three trees close to the bush, make sure it was safe before descending upon the berry bush again to get their fill. It made photographing them difficult as I had to constantly move up and down the road between the trees and the bush but it was amazing to have a front row seat to watch them stuff their faces.
If uninterrupted they can consume huge amounts of berries. There have been numerous recorded sightings of individuals consuming hundreds of berries, more than double their body weight in a couple of hours! A lot of the berries, including Rowan berries, that Waxwings consume contain very small amounts of alcohol. When they consume large amounts of them in a small space of time it can get them drunk and result in the bird being unable to fly (sounds like Christmas!).
This bird was taking a break from feeding while others continued to clutter and demolish one branch. Shortly after this photo was taken the branch actually snapped as there were too many birds on it, the flock got scared from the noise and flew off again! When the food source is too small for the whole flock to feed on together they often split into smaller groups and take turns to feed.
Although this was an improvement on our previous sighting of Waxwings we still hoped to get shots of these birds in better light.. Eventually our perseverance was rewarded. One afternoon on our way home from the Tay Reedbeds we saw a large flock of birds fly straight into a tree directly in front of us on a clear day. Instantly being able to identify from their crests and colours we grabbed the camera;
The flock were patiently sitting in a tree waiting for a nearby berry bush which had two crows on it to become free.
Every now and then they would all flock to the berry bush together but as soon as they landed on the bush the crows would immediately and loudly chase them off.
They would then return to the same tree and watch for their next opportunity..
After 3 or 4 unsuccessful attempts the flock decided to try elsewhere and flew off but we were happy to get a chance to photograph them in better light conditions but also just to stand and watch them.
We look forward to continuing to watch and photograph these birds in the future.
Our tips for watching and photographing these birds;
- Waxwings are very flighty so you have to be patient with them and give them their space but they are full of perseverance so if they do get scared off the will fly around the area land nearby where they were trying to feed and once they feel safe land back on the berry bush. A good strategy would be to stay near the berry bush where they were feeding as they will likely come back to it.
- Perseverance was key for us to get the pictures we wanted. Each encounter only lasted 10 to 30 minutes but by going to areas we knew they might choose to feed we gave ourselves the best chance of seeing them and were lucky to do so on 3 seperate occasions.
- By New Year in the UK you should be able to be seen them in most areas as the numbers that have migrated will have peaked and the flocks that arrived earliest will have traveled very far inland in search of more food.
Thanks for reading.
Elliot & Kirsten.