Tuesday, January 25, 2022
HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: Waxwing lyrical

Notes from the Sticks: Waxwing lyrical

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A COUPLE of winters ago I was driving through a nearby small town when I saw two or three men with binoculars looking up at a tree. Being nosy, I stopped and asked what they were looking at (to be fair to myself, it was pretty obvious they were birdwatchers). It turned out to be a flock of waxwings in a rowan tree.

Bohemian waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) arrive from Scandinavia in the winter, but they are not strictly migratory – they come only in certain years when their population outstrips their food supply of berries and fruits. In this case they move south until they find something to eat.  The term for their arrival here is an irruption.

They are most beautiful birds, about the size of a starling but plumper. They are pinkish with a distinctive crest and a black Lone Ranger-style mask, and they get their common name from a few feathers on the wings which have red tips like sealing wax.

The great thing about waxwings is that if there is one, there will be many: they always go about in groups. Oddly enough, they are often to be seen in supermarket and shopping centre car parks, as this selection of newspaper cuttings shows:

https://www.examinerlive.co.uk/news/west-yorkshire-news/scandinavian-waxwing-birds-flocking-tesco-12507297

https://www.dailyecho.co.uk/news/17329313.twitchers-treated-rare-bird-sighting-asda-totton/

http://www.bradleystokejournal.co.uk/2012/12/10/bird-watchers-flock-witness-waxwings-willow-brook-car-park/

https://www.nottinghampost.com/news/local-news/holy-grail-species-bird-spotted-2454787

This is because designers of supermarket car parks tend to specify rowan, cotoneaster and other shrubs and trees with plentiful berries (presumably such species are low maintenance and don’t grow too large).

They are surprisingly bold, as you can see in this delightful video, Henry and the Waxwings, from Fair Isle. The bird is wild. 

This blog by Henry’s father is an account of the day the waxwings visited.

Apparently they stayed for a week but fed from the hand on only the one day. What an astonishing treat!

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A couple of commenters on last week’s blog mentioned their feeling that owls used their car headlights to find prey (contrary to popular belief, their eyesight is not that amazing at night; they hunt using their exceptional hearing). Anyway I thought I would look into it and I found this thread on a website called BirdForum. 

There are several accounts of barn owls apparently doing this with cycles and cars. The forum users suggest that cycle lights would be a better aid to hunting as bicycles are quiet, but that car headlights might suggest to the owl that there could be roadkill. The danger with cars is that the slipstream might cause the owls to crash, and that if they are on the road eating roadkill they might be hit.

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When the weather turned cold I brought a few fancy-leaf geraniums in pots into our conservatory, thinking they would look nice through the winter and get a head start for the spring. They soon started to get holes in the leaves and I realised I had also brought in some caterpillars (which don’t normally touch geraniums). I was unwilling to turn them out so I let them ravage my plants. However I didn’t think this through. They have disappeared so I presume they are now chrysalises. But they won’t wait until spring to hatch, as they would outdoors, because it is warm indoors. So I am expecting a cloud of butterflies or moths (I didn’t manage to identify them) to emerge in a few weeks. What will I do then? Meanwhile the geraniums are putting out fresh leaves but they are a tatty mess, so I will have to prune them.

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Incidentally this one is called A Happy Thought, introduced in 1877, and it has pretty bright red flowers. Not as many as the typical supermarket pelargonium but the handsome leaves more than compensate. I’ll take a picture in the summer.

While I was thinking about caterpillars I found this amazing video on YouTube of the world’s largest, the Hickory Horned Devil which becomes the Regal Moth.

Now these magnificent American creatures really would make a mess of your plants.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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