Wednesday 31 January 2024

A Waxwing Winter

I'm sure that all birders are already aware that this year is an irruption year for Waxwings. These charismatic winter vistors normally only grace our shores in modest numbers each winter, usually up in Scotland or along the east coast of the country. However, occasionally we get a "Waxwing Winter", an irruption year when they come over in much greater numbers. During such winters, they gradually work their way down the country and further inland so in such years Oxfordshire has a fighting chance of hosting them as well. This winter, I, along I'm sure with lots of other county birders, watched with impatience as the line of reported Waxwing sightings crept gradually southwards down the country. When it got more or less in line with Oxon it seemed that some invisible force field was keeping them out as counties on either side of us were getting sightings but we were not. There were one or two single-observer untwitchable records in the county, only "possible" or "probable" - it was all very frustrating. In December, in frustration I buckled and made a sortie in Bucks to near High Wycombe where there had been regular sightings. However, the Waxwings weren't seen that morning I got no reward for standing in the cold for three hours. There was one county sighting where they were reported just outside the Oxford ringroad near Hinksey which I thought was close enough to warrant a try for them. However, despite some great looking berry bushes, there was no sign of any Waxwings.

Early in the new year I was pondering going to see the Northern Waterthrush on the Friday after it was first found. However, the lack of firm news first thing rather put me off so instead I elected to pop over to Cheltenham where there were some pretty much guaranteed Waxwings to be had at Naunton Park. EU had already messaged to say that he was going for them and reported that four had been seen this morning though had presently flown off. When I arrived they'd just turned up again with five companions. They were immediately on view in their "lookout tree" which was surrounded by four Sorbus trees as well as quite a few photographers, all waiting for them to descend once more on the berries. 

Naunton Park, Cheltenham: there were four Sorbus trees surrounding a larger central look-out tree

Sitting in their look-out tree


...and on a berry raid!

For the next three quarters of an hour they would make occasional raids onto the berries where they would stuff their faces as quickly as possible before heading back to the safety of their lookout tree. After that, they flew up into a more distant very large tree where they were little more than blobs sitting in the tree top. Then they flew off somewhere else. EU and I decided to go and find a café where we ejoyed a pleasant chat as we put the world to rights.

We came back to find the Waxwings were back in a different distant tree. Suddenly they came back down to their lookout tree and the whole process started again. The crowd has grown in the meantime and there was more furious papping and we too joined in. After a while I felt I'd had my fill and decided to go. At last I'd managed to catch up with these beautful birds.

Oxford Waxwings

At last in January, Oxfordshire started to get some definite sightings. Again, single observer and untwitchable but there was a noticeable uptick in reports. Then one evening someone on my local Port Meadow patch WhatsApp group reported that his father had casually mentioned to him that there had been a couple of Waxwings in some trees by the start of the Aristotle Lane footbridge over into Port Meadow. With the various members having been alerted, people started to look out for them again the next day and mid-morning, low and behold they turned up again. I was on the way out to do the weekly food shop with my VLW so we stopped off for a tick and run view of them sitting up in an Ash Tree lookout tree. Later that day I returned to find them still there and making occasional raids on the Sorbus bush.

A slightly blurry photo taking in the fading light

There were initially just a couple of adult birds but the next day they brought some youngsters along with 5 first winter birds also present. They were usually in the same location, using either an Ash Tree or a Silver Birch as the look-out tree before descending to the Sorbus for a berry raid. It was during the raid that all the photographers tried to get photos though these raids were often fleeting and the birds often obscured. On one occasion the flock relocated a few hundred yards down the round in someone's back garden where they could be seen resting in a more distant look-out tree. However, it was the original Sorbus Tree where most of the action was. On one occasion I managed to take some relatively OK video footage of some of the berry raids.

The Waxwings were with us for about a week or so, though not every day and not always reliable. Still, they were the first proper twitchable birds within the county and many people managed to catch up with them. At the time of writing, things have gone rather quiet on the Waxwing front with no reports in the county for a while now. Let's hope we get a few more before the winter is out.





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