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Waxwing lyrical in the UK skies

Last modified: 02 November 2010

Fluffed-up waxwing in tree

Nature lovers are waiting with bated breath to see whether recent sightings of waxwings turn into an influx this winter.  

The striking birds flood to the UK from Scandinavia every few winters and in between you would be lucky to see one at all. 

Their colours mean they wouldn’t look out of place in a tropical rainforest, with a prominent crest and small black mask around their eyes with yellow and white in the wings and a yellow-tipped tail. (Their name ‘waxwing’ comes from the red sealing wax colour of found in the outer tips of their wings.) 

But in the coming weeks, you could see them much closer to home in places like supermarket car parks, shopping centres, local parks and RSPB nature reserves. 

Waxwings are bold birds which don’t mind feeding close to humans and the RSPB is hoping that seeing the unusual birds will move people to help other migrant birds that may visit their gardens this winter and have a tough time in the cold weather. 

And as waxwings feed on berries, the wildlife charity is also urging gardeners to avoid cutting any hedges with the last berries of autumn still on them until they have all been eaten.

While a handful of reported waxwing sightings have already come from around the UK, including Shetland, Orkney, Cambridgeshire, Edinburgh and Lincolnshire, there has been only one unconfirmed sighting on the North Coast in Northern Ireland. 

They don’t breed in the UK, but are erratic winter visitors. When they come over in larger numbers, it is called an irruption, or ‘waxwing winter’ among nature lovers. They come to the UK when the population on its breeding grounds gets too big for the food available or their preferred food of berries dwindles.

Experts believe that there has been a poor berry crop in the Scandinavian countries they originate from so far this year.

2008 was a fairly good waxwing winter, but the last major influx was in the winter of 04/05.

Stephanie Sim, RSPB Northern Ireland, says: “Waxwings are really unusual, beautiful birds, and we are getting lots of calls from people asking what the strange bird with the funny crest on its head is.

“They are all over the place across the water at the moment, which suggests a bumper year for waxwings. This will be a treat for everyone as they are easy to see, sometimes in large flocks in excess of 300 birds. Waxwings take a little longer to get here as they must cross the Irish Sea, but when they do arrive, it will be impossible to miss. Their tinkling calls and their gregarious nature will make them very easy to spot.

“We have heard that there has been one sighting on the North Coast, but we wait to see if they will be in the numbers of the 2008 irruption.

“We hope that in seeing these amazing birds, people will be moved to help other migrant birds that will need their help in their gardens.

Redwings and fieldfares have also travelled thousands of miles, and some blackbirds are also migrant visitors that have come to the UK for our help.

“The reason these birds come to the UK is because they can’t find enough food at home, and as the weather worsens, it will become tricky to find it here too. We can make all the difference by putting out extra food and holding back on cutting hedges with a few last berries still on them.”

Stephanie continued: “Waxwings only visit the UK very erratically and every winter we wait expectantly to see if this will be the year. 

“At the moment we are wondering if it will be a flood or a trickle, but the reported sightings certainly suggest that we could be in for a treat this winter and we hope it will inspire everyone to do their bit for all wildlife as it starts to get really cold.”

For more information about feeding birds in your garden visit

How you can help

Feed the Birds Day reminds us about all the things we can do to help birds and other garden wildlife through the winter.

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