Sunday, 10 March 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 15 - super Saturday

This post is a day late as I fell asleep last night with the laptop on my knee mid-post. The tiredness was in part due to another early start as I have not had a lie-in since the first Waxwing turned up in the garden over 3 weeks ago. The tiredness was also aided by a good few glasses of wine to celebrate another good Waxwing day and Wigan Athletic beating Everton to reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
Anyway I was up before first light yesterday to put some finishing touches to the presentation of some cotoneaster berries and apples as I was hoping to catch and ring a few more Waxwings. I had been following the weather forecast with great interest as I thought there may be a very brief weather window before the forecast cold easterly wind arrived in earnest. The problem was there could be some light rain but as it happened there was only the odd spot and conditions for mist-netting in the garden were near perfect.

I put up an 18ft net and waited to see what happened. At least 45 Waxwings arrived and sat in the trees along the road as usual. After about 10 minutes of preening they made their way along the tree line before dropping down into the garden. Most birds fed on the apples in the top of the tree but quite a few birds were attracted down to the berries and some were soon caught. Birds were extracted shortly after being caught and some feeding birds didn't bother leaving the garden while I was doing this.

I only had the net open for an hour and caught 15 Waxwings; 9 were new birds and only 6 were retraps. This was a much higher proportion of new birds than expected and brought the total number ringed in the garden over the past couple of weeks to 70. In addition there have been the two controls and there are still some unringed birds in the flock so more than 72 Waxwings have visited the garden to date.

One of the birds caught had red waxy tips on some of the tail feathers in addition to the bird's secondaries (inner wing feathers for any non birders). The fact that they can get waxy tips to the tail is not often mentioned so Waxwings can be waxtails too. The most widely accepted hypothesis for the red waxy appendages to the wing feathers is that they are a visual cue to a potential mate as to the birds age. In Waxwings clutch size and the ability to find food increases with the birds age as do the size and number of red waxy tips they display. It, therefore, makes sense for a bird to mate with a bird of similar age to optimise its reproductive success. This is particularly important for a bird that only has one brood and lives on the edge in the northern forests. The presence of red waxy tips to the tail is, presumably, an extension of this age related plumage development.

Red waxy tips to some of the tail feathers on an adult female.

Note the numerous long red waxy tips on this adult male.
Here is a first winter male for comparison with fewer and shorter red waxy tips.

I am not going to get into the finer details of ageing and sexing this species but thought the red waxy tips to the tail was interesting once I had seen it for myself. A friend of mine who is a very experienced ornithologist and museum taxidermist has occasionally seen Waxwings with very long waxy tips to the tail feathers. The specimens he has prepared being the unfortunate victims of road and widow collisions in the main.

Waxwings are not an easy bird to study given their occasional irruptive lifestyle and breeding range in the northern mosquito infested forests of Scandinavia and Russia and that is what makes them so intriguing. I will make the most of my brief window into the Waxwing world and hope to add a little to our knowledge. I hope you find some of my observations and experience of interest too.

View from the window after the brief ringing session.

And a little closer; there are 13 Waxwings in this photo.
This will be one of the abiding memories for me and it doesn't get much better than this.
There were more than 40 birds in the garden when I took this photo.

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