I'll have a pint with you Sir!
Since the snow and freezing pipes had meant that I was relieved from work, Mrs Caley and I were in town buying some bird food for the garden feeders when I received a message via Birdguides that 4 Waxwings were still being seen next to a church in Northchurch just the other side of Aylesbury and only a 45 minute drive from home. No brainer then!
A Waxwing fix is essential for any birder in the winter period, some years they are easy to catch up with but in others are difficult for Southern based folk like ourselves. They are predominately a Northern European species that are prone to "irruptions" when the berry crop, their favourite winter food fails on the continent, and when it does there will be thousands in the UK and they spread far and wide throughout the country in search of sustenance. In good "Waxwing years" we've seen them in our home town itself and have had them just a few hundred yards away from our house but not yet in the garden, hence me planting half a dozen Rowan trees (the source of their most favoured berries) in an effort to entice them in. Last winter, numbers were low and we had to wait until the start of March to finally see some and that was in Elgin up in Scotland! This winter Waxwings had been present in the UK early in the period but not in any massive numbers but we had been waiting expectantly for some to our area. On January the 13th we had failed to connect with one that had been frequenting a Supermarket car park in Aylesbury so these 4 in Northchurch were an opportunity not to be missed.
There was less snow in Buckinghamshire than at home but it was still pretty cold. The drive east had been on almost empty roads, obviously most people had been put off going out because of the weather and had stayed at home. Arriving into Northchurch just after midday and driving up to the designated spot near a church I noticed some birders stood by the side of the road next to a canal bridge. Luckily there was a parking spot right next to them but as I parked the car I noticed that they were all chatting rather than looking at anything which is usually a bad sign since invariably it means that there is nothing to see! However before I'd even got the seat belt off I spotted a Waxwing perched in a Hawthorn tree just across the road. Before Mrs Caley had taken her seat belt off, I was already taking photos!
All 4 of the Waxwings, or as I affectionately call them Waxies and hence the title of this piece, were in the Hawthorn tree, an unusual setting for the species I thought since they are normally encountered in Rowans or other berry bearing trees and bushes. It soon became apparent that they were feeding on Rose Hips the fruit of the wild Rose that was intertwined in the tree. Rose Hips are a big fruit for a Waxwing to consume and they appeared to be having some trouble in swallowing such a huge meal but with perseverance were managing to do just that.
Such large meals were probably accounting for the fact that these were the most inactive group of Waxwings that I've seen, for the most part they just sat in the tree doing very little except for preening. Normally Waxies chose trees with much smaller berries and often have to perform acrobatics in order to reach the juiciest fruits at the end of spindly branches. For the Rose Hips they merely had to contend with negotiating a path through the tangle of the Hawthorn. Also you most often see Waxwings fly up to a high tree or a TV aerial to overview their feeding tree, and then descend to quickly grab a few berries when it's safe before returning when disturbed back to the loftier perch, these birds did none of that! But the inactivity did make for excellent photography despite the sleet, snow and heavy skies adding to the challenge.
Of course all those berries going in results in a fair bit of waste being produced. When editing the photos I noticed that I'd captured the exact moment that a bird had lightened its own load. From the looks of it they don't seem to get too much out of a Rose Hip since the excreted matter just looked like a streamlined berry! No wonder Waxwings have to eat so many.
Fortunately for the Waxwings there were other berries on offer with smaller Hawthorn fruits also taken. But they were harder to reach and the Waxies had to stretch right out occasionally to grab these but still had the stability of the thick branches to steady themselves on.
We were then treated to a behaviour that we'd never seen before, that of "berry sharing". An adult Waxwing, there were two adults and two first year birds in the group, procured a berry then very tenderly offered it to one of the younger birds. The berry was gratefully received by the juvenile that then seemed to hold the prize aloft as if it had won a trophy! The adult bird carried a look of puzzlement that the other should find it so rewarding. Waxwings do have that penchant of looking comical. I'm not sure why they were sharing berries, we saw the procedure repeated several times, but imagine that it must be a pair bonding ritual or act of affection (my budgies at home also share food with their own mates).
Despite the Hawthorn tree being right beside the road and in fact overhanging a footpath the birds didn't shift either for passing cars or for pedestrians walking by. Indeed even when curious locals, wondering what we were doing and looking at, peered into the tree directly underneath the birds they remained comfortable and unmoved in the branches. Neither were the Waxwings bothered by the likes of me taking photo after photo of them. I took over 600 shots in just 90 minutes, that's about 599 more than my football team manage these days!
There was ample opportunity to grab the most sought after images, those of the Waxwings adjusting and manipulating their berries before eating. I was particularly pleased to find that I'd managed to capture one bird tossing a berry in the air to manoeuvre it into position for swallowing.
Occasionally the Waxwings weren't quite dextrous enough and the spoils were dropped to the floor. This usually resulted in the "butter beaked" bird looking bemusedly at the ground below.
Flight shots were difficult to get, not because the Waxies move too quickly but rather because they hardly moved at all and rarely flew more than a few feet from one part of the Hawthorn to another! Towards the end of the stint though one bird did at least allow some direct flight action to be captured.
As I almost always do when watching Waxwings, the Pogues song "Waxie's Dargle" reverberated over and over through my head and hence my choice of title for this piece. "What'll you have, I'll have a pint!, I'll have a pint with you Sir!, and if one of you doesn't order soon we'll be chucked out of the boozer!" Waxie's Dargle-The Pogues
Off for a coffee then!