Once again the historic walled City of York is under a Viking invasion, but no need to fear - it’s not from bearded barbarians with horned helmets this time, but from a delightful winter visitor to these shores whose antics will cheer up any dull autumnal day - the Waxwing.
Waxwings are birds of the high Arctic and boreal forest, the closest breeding populations being found in Scandinavia. Every few years, the birds erupt, possibly driven by good breeding seasons or by the result of poor berry crops (their main food source) and cross the North Sea to spend the winter here. They often congregate in towns and cities, usually choosing very public sites such as super market or council car parks where the planting of ornamental berry bushes such as rowan or cotoneaster provide great feeding opportunities.
This autumn has seen a large influx of these colourful and characterful little birds in the British Isles with several thousand involved. The largest such flock has involved 1000 around the Isle of Skye, but several flocks of up to 300 birds have been present in Yorkshire and the Humber region as birds move south through the UK having depleted berry crops further north. Licensed bird ringers throughout the UK have been catching, ringing and fitting these birds with colour-rings in order to follow their movement through the country over the winter, particularly in Aberdeen and Orkney. In previous winter influxes, birds ringed in Aberdeen in November have moved south to York in January and further south to Bedford by February and March, before returning north-east again in spring.
NNR staff and volunteers from the Lower Derwent Valley travelled a short 5 miles down the road into York last week to try and catch some of the 300 present around the York walls. Having gained permission from our partners in the City of York Council, a couple of nets were set around one of the Rowan trees beneath the city walls, and shortly after 12 stunning Waxwings were caught. This was a great result in its own right but it also gave us a good opportunity to engage with the public about these birds, the work and evidence of bird ringing and the wider work of Natural England and organisations such as the BTO.
After we had safely extracted each bird we were quickly surrounded by the local residents who had been watching with bated breath and who too had hoped that we would be able to get a catch. It was brilliant to be able to make someone’s day and to show them in the hand the amazing colours and detail on these Scandinavian beauties.
Out of the twelve birds caught, interestingly only one was a young bird. The majority of catch were stunning adult males, aged and sexed on the differences in plumage. Males have a larger crest, and much more yellow through the primaries which the females lack and more and longer waxy tips on the secondaries, some of these features can be seen on the photographs below.
Whilst waiting for the Waxwings to come down and feed on the berries, the troublemaker below did his best to chase them off and guard 'his' tree. They are well known for defending their territory but unfortunately for him he stood little chance against such a big flock. He could only look on as the Waxwings helped themselves to his berries, and whilst trying to warn them off he found his way into our net! We are ofcourse talking about the lovely and highly vocal Mistle Thrush.
Thanks to everyone involved today, and also to the local residents who welcomed our presence outside their homes and offered us hot drinks and a free parking spot!