12th November 2012
At this time of the year, the summer migrants of the UK are mostly long gone, having flown south to warmer climes in which to spend the winter months. In turn, birds from further north seek shelter in the UK from harsh the winters and unforgiving conditions in the their breeding grounds. The Waxwing, about which this blog post is written, is one of those species (although it is a lack of food rather than a lack of warmth, which drives them west). Waxwings breed in Scandinavia, but some cross the North Sea to overwinter in the UK each year. Usually sightings are restricted to small numbers of birds along the east coast, however, when food resources are too small to sustain them in their breeding grounds we witness irruptive migration. This happens to be just such a year. The bad weather in Scandinavia has seen the failure of the berry crop upon which the Waxwings usually feed. This has forced many thousands of birds to migrate in search of food, and in the past few weeks they have been making their way west across the UK. This week the birds finally reached North Wales and I was able to photograph them less than a mile from my house.

The birds were reported at a local retail park (where many of the UK sightings come from due in part to the number of people to spot the birds, and the high abundance of berry trees at these locations). I got my first sighting of the Waxwings, after hearing their distinctive high pitch trill in the trees overhead. As it was a busy Saturday morning many people were there to see the birds and I decided not to stay for long, instead opting to get up early the next morning and beat the crowds.

living a 2 minute drive from the site, made a 7:30am start pretty painless, and I quickly located the birds in the top of the trees.

Getting in to position near a patch of rowan trees, I kept still and was rewarded with the birds feeding on the tree nearest me.

The birds would spend several minutes feeding on the berries in large groups, before flying back to the tops of a nearby tall tree.

This feeding behaviour continued for the next hour with the birds feeding, then flying off, before returning to feed again.

Now, for the boring photography bit! The dull weather and early start meant that light levels were low. I had to shoot most of my pictures at iso 3200 and shutter speeds of 1/320th of a second or less. My tripod was locked in the boot of my car and in the end I resorted to deliberately underexposing my images a small amount to improve shutter speed and hoping I would be able to rescue them in Raw conversion. I was fortunate that the birds were very confiding and fed on the low branches. This meant that my background was not that of a white sky, but instead a fantastic patch of autumnal trees which really set the mood.

I have waited many years to get the chance to see these birds, and to have them arrive in a flock of over 100 less than a mile from my house has been fantastic. I was able to spend the best part of an hour alone watching the birds, so the early morning start was definitely worth it. The trees have now been almost completely stripped of berries, so the birds will be moving on in search of food anytime now. Hopefully, I will be able to catch up with them again before they return to Scandinavia in the spring.


Photo comment By Neil Phillips: Great shots!
Photo comment By Jemma Cholawo: These are really stunning photos. Beautiful colours and bokeh. The last one is amazing! I found your site while looking for reference photos of ravens for a painting. Very inspiring indeed. :)

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