On the wing with Gary Atkins

I want to see a Waxwing ... please let me see a Waxwing!

I’ve never seen one of these beautiful, colourful birds in Britain (the only ones I’ve ever spotted were in Canada, where they are a resident species) and yet so many people in Derbyshire – and much farther afield across the UK – seem to be finding them in their front gardens, local streets and supermarket car parks – anywhere basically where ornamental trees and bushes have produced a larder of juicy berries.

I have no berry-rich vegetation in my garden, so I’m missing out ... though I think I can still count myself unlucky not to have seen a few (they’re usually in small flocks) attacking someone else’s fruit-laden shrubs in a feeding frenzy that sees whole rowan or hawthorn trees stripped in minutes. They are also partial to cotoneaster, rose and pyracanthus.

If you’re wondering whether you’ve seen one, it’s fair to say you’re unlikely to overlook a Waxwing, which is quite simply gorgeous. Though largely sandy coloured, its flamboyant crest, elaborate black facial markings, splashes of white, black and red on its wing tips, a grey rump and a black and yellow tail each add to its striking appearance.

And it could quite easily be your ever first view, since Waxwings are not resident birds in the UK, as their full name Bohemian Waxwing implies. They spend the summer in and around Scandinavia, breeding in coniferous woodland with generous undergrowth, but in winter they roam and bulk up on berries.

This often means getting up close and personal with humans – in gardens, parks and shopping centres. They seem much tamer than most resident UK species, and have even been known to feed from the hand.

Though essentially rare visitors from northern Europe, a small number of Waxwings call in on the easternmost parts of the UK most years. They tend to drift further south and west when their home territory has suffered a poor harvest of the berries that keep them going over the winter – and this year seems to have been a particularly poor year.

Further evidence of this is that other winter migrants seem to visiting the UK in very healthy numbers: birds like the scarce Brambling – very like a Chaffinch, but with an orange breast and a whiter belly – and the Fieldfare and Redwing, our more regularly-seen ‘winter thrushes’. And if you think you’re seeing more Jays, Blackbirds and thrushes than usual the reason could be the same – poor winter feeding on the continent, forcing them on a rare winter migration – so listen out for that unusual accent (just kidding!).