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Berry Happy To Be Here

Last modified: 11 November 2010

Waxwing eating berries

"Keep an eye on the berry trees in your neighbourhood, they could be harbouring flocks of a very special visitor," that's the message from RSPB Scotland who are asking to the public to keep an eye out for waxwings. Large numbers of these migrant birds from the north have arrived in recent weeks across Scotland, with the North-east playing host to some of the biggest flocks.


Waxwings are eye-catching birds, about the size of a plump starling, but pinky-brown in colour with striking markings and a punk-rocker crest. Small numbers travel to the UK every year from their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Northern Russia, with Aberdeen usually one of the best places to look for them. Every few years much larger flocks of the birds appear in what is termed an ‘irruption’, which is thought to be caused by a quest for food, possible in relation to a shortage of berries in their wintering feeding grounds. 


This can result in the impressive spectacle of large flocks of these colourful visitors descending on any suitable feeding areas. "The waxwings are not fussy birds and they will eat a wide range of berries and soft fruit," said David Parnaby, who works at the RSPB Loch of Strathbeg nature reserve, near Crimond. "This means that they are just as likely to turn up in a supermarket car park or busy street as on a peaceful nature reserve - so watch out for any berry trees near you. They have beautiful plumage, a delightful, tinkling, trilling call and they can be really approachable, so they're an all round great species to brighten up a dull winter's day".


Irruptions involve large numbers of waxwings appearing in the UK, sometimes in several waves over the autumn and early winter. If the Scottish berry crop is good these will stay and often break up into smaller flocks.  If the berries run out here, the birds will move on again to England, Ireland or more southern areas in continental Europe. Irruptions used to occur around once every ten years but have become more frequent in recent years and often involve larger numbers. One possible explanation for this might be that climate change has resulted in less consistent weather patterns which could result in more unpredictable berry crops, but it could also be that waxwings are having more productive breeding seasons and are having to ‘irrupt’ from Scandinavia more often in search of food as they put extra pressure on northern berry crops.


Some of the largest flocks seen so far in the region include 1,000 at the Bridge of Don, 800 at Kincorth, 190 in Ellon and 150 at Stonehaven, with flocks of several dozen noted at many locations across the region. "The flocks often strip the berries from an area and then disperse, so anyone who hasn't seen a waxwing yet should find some trees or bushes that still have plenty of berries on them and keep checking them, as they could well be heading your way soon. If you have planted bird-friendly plants like hawthorn, elder or cotoneaster, you may even be able to see them in your garden and what better reward for wildlife gardening than a close-up view of some of these spectacular visitors?".

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