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Waxwing sitting on a branch

A waxwing winter

Waxwings have arrived in their thousands this winter. We take a closer look at this exquisite bird – and find out why there are so many visiting the UK

Of all the winter-visiting birds that arrive in the UK each year, the waxwing is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated.

And this year we have had a waxwing winter – thousands of the birds have been spotted across the UK, with the species visiting some places for the first time ever.

These exquisite birds are a little smaller than a starling. They have sleek, pink-grey plumage, a black face, and bright markings of black, white and yellow on their wings and tail. The species gets its name from the bright red waxy tip on its wing.

Waxwings also have a distinctive crest of head feathers, which, when raised, gives them a slightly punky appearance.

Waxwings breed in Scandinavia and Russia, only visiting the UK – usually the far north and along the east coast – when the food sources in their home countries are depleted. Most years, a few hundred waxwings will arrive – but this winter, the UK is having what's known as an 'irruption', as large numbers of the birds flock here to find food.

In irruption years – which happen around every eight years or so – waxwings will move further south, and further inland, than usual, in search of berries.

Red berries are their favourites, and waxwings can often be seen feasting on rowan and hawthorn trees. They'll also eat yellow and white berries once the red ones have gone.

Waxwings are not particularly fussy about where they eat – they're often seen in urban areas and supermarket carparks, where 'amenity' planting usually includes berry-laden shrubs such as cotoneaster, viburnum and berberis.

Waxwings inland

You know you're in an irruption year when waxwings are spotted in large numbers in the Midlands.

Waxwing against blue sky
Waxwing eating a hawthorn berry

In January, huge flocks of waxwings took up residence on the Monsal Trail, near Bakewell in Derbyshire – the UK county that's furthest from the sea.

More than 300 birds were recorded along the trail – one of the highest numbers of these birds ever recorded in Derbyshire.

We were lucky enough to visit the Monsal Trail to see the waxwings – a fantastic experience, and the first time we have been fortunate enough to see and photograph these beautiful birds.

One thing that struck us was how tame they were – they seemed totally unphased by the large numbers of photographers and birdwatchers that had gathered to see them.

Hawthorns grow all along the Monsal Trail, and it's likely that the abundance of these berries is what attracted the waxwings to the area. It's been a bumper season for hawthorn berries across the UK this winter – in fact, autumn 2023 saw one of the biggest crops of haws recorded since records began 20 years ago.

Waxwings aren't the only birds to enjoy hawthorn berries. While marvelling at the waxwings, we also spotted fieldfares, redwings, blackbirds, thrushes, starlings and chaffinches feasting on the haws.

Other notable sightings of waxwings further south and inland include Corby in Northamptonshire, and Bushy Park in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. It's believed that this is the first time ever that waxwings have been spotted in Bushy Park.

There are three species of waxwing worldwide. The UK's regular visitor is the bohemian waxwing, while cedar waxwings are found in North America, and Japanese waxwings are found in Northeast Asia.

The UK's visiting bohemian waxwings will start to leave again in March – and by the end of April, they will all have returned to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Russia.


Little Green Space February 2024

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