Winter Birding Notes 2.

An exotic winter visitor and our own resident beauty.

Waxwings are in town ! One special winter event that birders always look forward to seeing is the arrival or winter eruption of these exotic-looking and generally rather scarce avian visitors from Siberia and Northern Scandinavia. Invasion years tend to happen when the berry crop in their own areas has failed and the winter weather becomes really severe, so they move in huge numbers into more western parts of Europe in search of a food supply. They are well known for turning up almost anywhere where there are rowan or hawthorn trees sometimes from streets in towns, supermarket car parks to urban gardens.

Waxwings belong to the family Bombycillidae which contains 8 species, the most well known are the North American Cedar waxwing ( Bombycilla cedroran ) and our Eurasian Bohemian waxwing ( Bombycilla garrulus ). This scientific name is rather curious, the Bombycilla part comes from the Medieval Latin word bombazine which was a twilled cloth of silk or rayon. Maybe a reference to the bird’s smooth feathers and silky crest. The cilla part means a hair maybe be a reference to the waxwings hair-like crest.

The garrulus part is rather odd as Garrulus glandarius is the scientific name for our Eurasian jay a member of the crow family. As jays also have a colourful pinkish-brown body colour , waxwings became known as the Bohemian jay and as garrulus means a chatterer ( like jays are ) and although waxwings can be rather silent , the name now really looks even more unsuitable. So even though there is no connection between the Bohemian waxwing and the jay, the garrulus name seems to have stuck.

Waxwings do get to the UK in most winters but usually in small numbers along north eastern fringes of the country but in an invasion year numbers can reach several thousand into all parts inland. The last time I saw them was in Thame in winter 2018, this time in January 2024 there have been at least 20 (maybe more ) in Longwick, recreation ground. So its worth keeping an eye out on any local hawthorn or rowan trees that have berries. Waxwings can be rather tame and allow close views, so to see this beautiful and distinctive visitor is a real winter treat to savour.

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Another winter birding treat to savour is the sight of a bullfinch on a dull January or February day, the pinkish-red colour of a male just seems even brighter. Bullfinches are always rather secretive and shy keeping to thick twiggy cover so the usual view you get is a disappearing one of a white rump and almost forked tail. Any reasonable view shows how beautiful this rather stocky finch is , both sexes have the long black cap, black wings with a broad whiteish wing bar and the prominent white rump. Females are generally duller with a pinkish- brown underparts and olive grey above compared to the male’s blue-grey upperparts. They are often seen in pairs or maybe in the winter in small groups of 4 or 6.

A good way to locate a bullfinch in thick cover is to listen for their rather sad but distinctive single note call , a low soft ‘deu’. This repeated note really does carry well and it’s sad quality seems like they have nothing much else to say ! The song is a quiet wheezy warbling, not often heard and not really understood. However there is a Continental race of bullfinch in northern Europe where the males are brighter and the females paler. These bullfinches also have a different trumpeting call instead of the sad piping whistle. Back in the day captive male bullfinches were found to be good mimics and could be taught to whistle and sing other bird’s songs. This does seem really out of character of a bird we really hardly ever hear.

For a bird that used to be so common in the 1950’s and 1960’s , its sad to think that bullfinches are now a red listed species. Famously they became a horticultural pest to growers in the fruit-growing industry because of their habit of eating and damaging the buds of apple, pear and plum trees. Hundreds were shot or trapped and destroyed. With the decline of orchards, now bullfinches can go back to feeding on a more ‘natural’ food supply like the seeds on the ash-key crop. In winter months they will sometimes come to garden feeders , so if you are lucky enough to get them enjoy this gorgeous and beautifully different finch.

Male bullfinch. Pyrrhula pyrrhula

Bohemian waxwing . Bombycilla garrulus. From Russia with Love…

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Report by Colin Strudwick.

Bullfinch photographs by Sally Douglas.

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