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Waxwings in Shetland 2012

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Thursday 3rd January 2013 | Birding in Shetland

One of the main highlights during November was the wonderful arrival of Waxwings throughout the isles. The first birds were actually beginning to arrive during the last days of October but by November an ‘invasion’ was well underway. Probably well over 1,000 of these berry-eating beauties were recorded thanks to an online appeal by the Nature in Shetland website and facebook page asking everyone to send in their sightings.

On the same day that Vaila, my wife, had an amazing count of over 30 in our garden (while I was out of course!), a flock of 55 were seen at the Baltasound School just a couple of miles along the road. All across the islands bird enthusiasts were urged to put out fruit for the hungry visitors to replenish their energy reserves. We put out apples in our garden for coming on for two weeks; it was astonishing just how quickly they could devour one when cut in half. On one of the best days for them around ours here on Unst on the 5th we had over 30 feeding at ‘fruit stations’ I set up. I counted an amazing 16 swarming over a cluster of dead branches I had impaled two apples onto, it was like bees to honey! Watching this I was surprised to be able relate to the fact that in days of old Waxwings were often referred to by some as ‘plague birds’ as their arrivals were often said to coincide with epidemics! I’d never have thought to refer to such a beautiful bird in such a way.

Rather remarkably whilst photographing them on this same day (and with my adrenalin already racing through my body with the awesome sight of so many waxwings), two Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll landed just a few metres from where I was set up. What was even better is that at least one of them proved to be different to the flock of five already seen in Baltasound, more on that soon!

Waxwing arrivals such as these are known as ‘irruptions’ and happen in years when their primary food sources of berry crops fail in the north eastern regions of Scandinavia and beyond. They then move southward in search of food and this is why if we experience easterly winds at these times can enjoy these birds.

Waxwings are sure to attract the attention of even the most uninterested of passers-by. Their voice too is in perfect accord to their striking appearance; a wonderful whistling trill, not to dissimilar to what one might hear on a mobile phone ring tone or perhaps a front door bell!

In a day a Waxwing may eat up to its own body weight in berries and can consume hundreds in just a matter of hours. It was such a treat to have the chance to study them each day, watching their aggressive behaviour and how they would defend rights to food supply, our apples. It was fascinating and also at times, amusing to watch.

It was a real delight to be fortunate enough to be able to try out various compositions, attracting the Waxwings to where I wanted to photograph them just by moving the fruit around. Capturing images of them in flight was something I hadn’t attempted before but I am sure as anyone with experience at this will know, it is very simple to do and can be effective as long as the wind direction is compatible with the light. A massive apple in the images however makes it loose the authenticity I like in an image, but maybe I shouldn’t over think that.

I find it impressive how their exquisite attire is such a compromise of ‘beauty’ and ‘bad-ass’. There is no getting away from the simply mean expression created by the striking black ‘Dick Turpin style robbers mask and yet with an eye catching crest, beautiful uniform pinkish-buff plumage; intricate detail and vividly coloured decoration on the wings and tail it is one of the most delectable of birds you will see.

Read more about this year’s November influx in Shetland the Nature in Shetland blog

To tail of the influx we had a lone straggler in our garden on Christmas day, a welcome sight indeed!