20th July 2018
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Rare influx of waxwings catches us by surprise

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THE BBC Autumnwatch pro­g­­ram­me featured the waxwings which have been arriving along the east coast of Britain this week. Several also reached Shetland, with 15 in Lerwick, eight in Brae, two in Mossbank, six at Tingwall and six in the South Mainland on the 30th October. There was a flock of 17 at Sandgarth, Voe, on 1st November. Flocks of this size are not common in Shetland.

Waxwings are exotic, colourful visitors, pinkish-brown with swept-back crests. On the tips of the primary feathers are bright yellow and white V-shaped chevrons, while the red-tipped ends of the secondary feathers give the species its common name as they look like tiny, bright blobs of sealing wax. The tail also has a yellow tip and the undertail feathers are a rich cinnamon colour.

Easily identified, waxwings are almost always found where there are berries, particularly favouring the fruits of native rowan and related ornamental species. They also eat hawthorn, whitebeam and cotoneaster berries. As Bill Oddie explained, they are frequently seen in cities and, especially in supermarket car parks because these areas are often planted with berried ornamental shrubs.

Breeding in northern Scan­dinavia, through north Russia to western Siberia, waxwings are highly nomadic outwith the breeding season and irruptive, depending on the berry crop in the breeding areas. In winters when the crop is abundant, few waxwings reach Scotland. However failure of the berry crops can lead to large invasions reaching Europe.

Winter waxwings have been noted in Scotland for at least two centuries, with records of flocks in 18th century accounts. They usually arrive from October to December, with the largest numbers seen in cities along the east coast. Food availability influences how long the waxwings remain in an area. The largest Scottish invasion occurred in 2004 when flocks of over 1,000 waxwings were recorded in Aberdeenshire.

“Autumnwatch” also highlighted the appearance of goldcrests and these tiny migrants were also recorded with 25 at Sumburgh Head on the 29th. There was also a sprinkling of chiffchaffs, blackcaps and robins. A large flock of 300 snow buntings was recorded at Scatness on the 31st.

Four species of tit have now been recorded this autumn – long-tailed, coal, great and blue tits. The great tit and two blue tits were in Wendy Howroyd’s garden at Fladdabister. A great tit over-wintered in Lerwick last year and blue tits have also been known to over-winter so it will be interesting to see if these visitors stay around. A coal tit was still at Sandgarth this week.

The white-billed diver has been recorded again off Kirkabister in Nesting and the drake king eider has returned to Mousa Sound. The male ring-necked duck is still at the Loch of Tingwall.

Whooper swans have been arriving throughout the islands, and reports suggest that there are plenty of juveniles in the flocks. Scottish whoopers, including those stopping off in Shetland, are from the Icelandic population. The ratio of adults to juveniles is an indicator of breeding success in Iceland. Swans start to arrive in numbers in October, with the wintering population peaking in November. The Shetland Bird Club co-ordinate a census of all the swans in Shetland – whoopers and mutes – on one day in early November; observers count all the swans on accessible lochs in their area. The results are then compiled to provide a snap-shot of the Shetland wintering swan population. This year the count takes place on the Sunday. Last year overall counts were low and the percentage of juveniles in the population was very low. However, on one small loch in Bressay last weekend there were 20 swans, 19 whoopers and a mute swan, and one of the adult pairs had five cygnets, so hopefully this will augur well for this year’s count.

Joyce Garden