Country diary: Willing the waxwings south | Birds

It starts with four words on the Birdguides app: “Six by community centre.” It’s mid‑October, the community centre is in the Northern Isles and the “six” are the first indication that over the next few months we may be in for a treat.

It’s looking like a waxwing winter. Distinctive birds, waxwings. Stocky, starling-sized, their soft beige plumage tinged with pink. Black eye-mask and prominent crest lend a bandit-punk air, and they accessorise with style: yellow wing flashes, matching tail band, contrasting sealing-wax-red spikes – the origin of their name – on the secondary wing feathers.

Those early sightings are usually in Shetland or Orkney. First landfall from Scandinavia, a tired and hungry bird grateful for respite after a lonely trek over the vast, cold sea. Most years they remain sporadic, a comparative handful overwintering, offering some variety to the usual winter fare.

But every so often circumstances collude to send them our way in abundance. A population boom in their breeding grounds coincides with a poor crop of their favoured rowanberries, and off they head, the dangerous journey yielding rich rewards for those that make it.

Waxwings have one thing in common with urban planning departments: they love a red berry. Cotoneaster, hawthorn, pyracantha, viburnum – all grist to a waxwing’s mill. So they’re known as urban birds, highly sociable and not averse to human company, feeding acrobatically, stripping trees bare, then moving on.

The reports accumulate.

“Five opposite Tesco.” “Twenty by Post Office.” “Thirty-eight at entrance to fitness centre car park.”

I monitor them from my south London home. The frontline spreads down the map – Caithness, Cleveland, Norfolk.

Come on. Come on.

Back in 2016, seven turned up in Balham, just a few miles from here. I went on a pilgrimage, binoculars in hand, wild gleam in my eye, listening for their trilling, bell-like call. Ssiiiirrrr ssiiiirrrr. Naturally, they scarpered 10 minutes before I got there.

Maybe this winter they’ll make it to my patch and I’ll see them. Chomping the cotoneaster by Tesco Metro, hanging from the hawthorn in the cemetery, entertaining the locals and triggering a spark of interest in the natural world in a solidly urban environment.

We can but hope.

Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

Recommended For You