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Wax on, wax off

11 February 2013 | Posted in Author , Birds , Michael Blencowe , Wildlife

Author Michael Blencowe

waxwings / Mark Greco

Waxwings are still causing quite a stir on their winter tour of the berry bushes of Sussex. There once was a time when people believed that the rare appearance of a flock of waxwings was an evil omen; a portent of disaster, war or pestilence. Well, if Armageddon is the price I have to pay for a glimpse of one of these beauties - then bring it on.

Waxwings are dumpy, starling-sized birds which look like something from a Beryl Cook painting- all silky curves, coiffured crests and heavy make up. Imagine an orangey brown hand grenade wearing eye shadow and you're almost there. Add to it black, white and yellow wings wi-jazzled with a row of shiny, scarlet teardrops. These waxy red feather tips, which give the bird its name, are believed to be used in courtship; the biggest and best wing-bling belonging to the older males.

Waxwings roam in gangs - you're more likely to see twelve than one. To be next to a berry laden bush when a flock descends is akin to being sat in a quiet pub when a drunken hen party bursts through the door. Waxwings announce their arrival with high-pitched chattering and excited trills and greedily squabble over berries as if they were fighting over half-price handbags in the January sales.

Waxwings love berries. They can eat their own body weight in just a few hours. Once this flock of feathered pac-men have chomped their way through one berry bush they fly off to ransack another. Their reliance on berries is the cause of their irregular migrations or 'irruptions'. Every few years a failure in the berry crop in their eastern Scandinavian and northern Russian homeland sparks a winter-long, Europe-wide berry guzzling rampage which eventually leads them to our island. British 'waxwing winters' are by no means an annual event and we may go for years without any waxwing sightings in Sussex.

This winter we hit the jackpot. At the start of November 2012 thousands of them arrived on the Northern Isles and throughout December the advancing waxwing tsunami surged south, binging on berries in Banff then Bolton then Birmingham then Bracknell. By mid-December they hit Sussex and flocks of the birds were reported all over the county. They're not fussy where they dine; industrial estates, petrol station forecourts, parks and gardens - anywhere that can lay on a decent berry buffet. There have been some reliable flocks in Sussex at Newhaven, Eastbourne, Lewes and Durrington which have stayed around for a few days giving hundreds of people the chance to watch these amazing birds. Try and get out to see the beautiful waxwings before the invasion melts away and the birds fly back to their Scandinavian homes. It may be some time before you'll get the chance to see them again.

Waxwing eating berries in a Lewes garden / Jo Forbes


  • Mali Halls:

    12 Feb 2013 09:23:15

    Summed up in a very nice way…Cracking birds, I see nine come in off the sea at Pett in mid-december. They had a brief feed, and were gone as quick as they came.

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