Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 35 - down but not out.

I now seem to wake up at dawn each morning regardless of how little sleep I have had or my intention to do so. This morning was no different and I got up to see how many, if any, Waxwings would arrive without the aid of an alarm. There had been 62 on Sunday and 46 yesterday but this morning the flock was down to 30. This is still an impressive number and now represents (provisionally at least) the latest record for Waxwings in spring for the county. The previous latest record the county recorder has been able to find being at Bredbury on April 29th 1975.

Having the latest record by a day if confirmed is no big deal in the scheme of things but as time has gone on I have developed a sneaking ambition to see a Waxwing or Waxwings in the garden in May, a fourth calendar month. Today has been glorious and the birds have spent very little time in the garden. Recently they have feeding more on tree flowers, on the berries of ivy and by catching insects away from the garden and they have also been avoiding the attention of the local Sparrowhawk by doing so. Tonight the conditions are perfect for migration with high pressure and crystal clear skies so it remains to be seen if any will be here in the morning.

One thing I haven't found in any literature or on the Internet is any reference to Waxwings being nocturnal migrants like thrushes. Waxwings do migrate during the day but then so do thrushes but thrushes are predominantly nocturnal migrants. Waxwings are probably the same and migrate at night in the main but if anyone can point me to a reference that confirms that one way or the other I would appreciate it.

The odds are probably stacked against any birds being here in the morning given the weather and their recent weight gains but there is always hoping. One thing for sure is that I will wake up automatically again and will be watching from first light to find out. Whatever happens there will be a few more Waxwing lyrical posts to come. I will have to confirm the date of last bird(s) seen, there are a few interesting stats around all the apples consumed and effort involved, there are the details of the origins of the birds controlled to date and there are a few other observations to be thrown in. With a bit of luck there may even be some interesting recoveries to report from all the birds ringed and there are loads of previously unpublished pictures.

I will leave you with a little video titled best of the crests but hopefully there will be a few more to come


Saturday, 27 April 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 34 - counting down

The number of Waxwings continues to decline each day. The birds have been piling on weight and the weather has been generally favourable for migration so there is nothing to hold them back once they are ready to go. The graph below shows the numbers I have recorded each day since the first bird turned up and shows the trend in numbers. During March there were still plenty of berries around and numbers didn't really take off until the end of March when the berry supplies had been exhausted and the birds also started to fatten up.

copyright P J Alker

The weight increases some of the birds have shown recently is quite impressive - NW31951, a first winter female, weighed 62.8g on 20/04/13 but weighed 74.3g when retrapped this morning, an increase of 11.5g in 7 days or 18.3%.
NW31942, an adult female, weighed 63.3g on 19/04/13 but weighed 78.5g when retrapped this evening, an increase of 12.2 g in 8 days or 19.3%.

Apples may not be a natural food supply in spring but the data is still valuable and a good measure of their ability to put on weight. The birds are actually less dependant on the apples now and are also feeding on the emerging flowers of various trees. I have seen them feeding on Poplar flowers recently and the emerging flowers of Ash today.

There must be significant nutritional and or energy value in the emerging flowers given the effort the birds put in to get at them. I have  also seen quite a few Wood pigeons feeding on Ash flowers in the past few days.
I only caught 1 new and 4 retrap Waxwings today but one of the retraps was my favourite bird if you can ever have a favourite Waxwing. It was the colour-ringed bird from Aberdeen that was first seen in the garden on 18th February. This bird is a first winter female and has been recorded in the garden 32 times since then and has been caught 4 times. She hasn't shown the rapid weight increases of some birds but is making steady progress. She only weighed 49.3g on 30th March but was 63.0g when retrapped today.

NW65022 retrapped today.
She was first seen on 18th February amd her details can be found by clicking here.
This afternoon I dragged myself away from the Waxwings and surveyed one of my river sites as I normally would at this time of year. A Dipper was carrying food but the nest was inaccessible and a net across the river only produced a Kingfisher although they aren't known to nest on that particular stretch. There will be plenty for me to do once the Waxwings have finally gone but I may have a lie-in or two first.

Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) 27/04/13

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 33 - full to bursting

Waxwing numbers have continued to decline as more birds have reached the desired weight for migration. This seems to be around 75g judging by the weights of the birds retrapped recently and means that around one third of their body weight will be made up of fat deposits. This will allow them to migrate a long distance without the need to stop and feed or with limited stop overs to top up and if bad weather halts their migration.

There were only 111 birds this morning give or take one or two. Only is probably the wrong word as 111 Waxwings in the garden was unimaginable just a few weeks ago but numbers have almost halved over the last week. This fits in well with the decline in sightings being reported across the uk. Some birds will already be well on their way back to the main breeding grounds in Russia and a few early birds may have even arrived at the closest breeding grounds in Finland and western Russia.

The Waxwings as they gathered at sunrise this morning (23/04/13)
Most of the remaining birds actually look really fat now so they may not be here for much longer and most are likely to depart over the next week with just a chance of a few lingering into early May. They also appear to be less agile and a bit more sluggish when taking off as a result of the extra weight they are carrying. This probably makes them a little more vulnerable when the Sparrowhawk attacks and predation by Sparrowhawks has increased over the past few days.

Fatwings (Bombycilla blubberus), These birds were still feeding at 19:40 this evening.

Fatwings (Bombycilla blubberus), The same two birds as above..
This bird is clearly very fat. It is the same bird as the one on the left in both photos bove.
I would like to be able to catch it for ringing and to see what it weighs.
I suspect it would be over 75g and could even be over 80g so is likely to leave any time now.
One birdwatcher witnessed a Waxwing being taken by a Sparrowhawk the other day but overall Sparrowhawk predation has generally been less than than it might have been. However the attacks do cause the birds to go elsewhere for long periods and if predation increases it could hasten their departure. Some Sparrowhawks in Aberdeen seem to specialise on Waxwings and you can find out more by clicking here.

You can see how some birds look much plumper than others.
The bird on the lower left is likely to be the light weight in this bunch.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 32 - Blackcap bonanza

It may seem strange including Blackcap in the title but this post is still about the Waxwings. I had arranged to do another ringing session this morning and was joined by Duncan Bell who had driven up from Hampshire overnight such is the lure of Waxwings. Duncan drove up a few weeks ago and featured in my post Waxwing lyrical part 10 - the big grin. We arranged to meet at around 05:30 and John G also joined us before going to work.

The first few birds arrived just as we had finished putting up the nets at around 06:00. We retired to the house and waited for the rest of the birds to arrive. Duncan was in the chair by the window and counted in the squadrons of Waxwings as they arrived. Numbers built up quite quickly with at least 120 present by 06:20. This is a significant reduction in numbers on a few days ago and shows that the birds are finally starting to leave in good numbers. This was fairly predictable given the weights some of the birds had reached and the good weather.

Birds soon dropped down and started feeding on the apples in the garden with Duncan describing it as the greatest show on earth; it is something quite special watching them all glide down into the garden. On the first round of the nets we caught 11 Waxwings and 2 Blackcaps. Now a couple of Blackcaps isn't that unusual in the second half of April but we subsequently noticed that there were quite a few around feeding on the apples. There must have been an arrival of these warblers overnight and they were taking full advantage of the Waxwing's apples to refuel. It was difficult to gauge their numbers as some birds seemed to feed for a while and then move on but there were at least 9 Blackcaps and there could have been a few more. That sort of concentration wouldn't be very unusual on the coast in autumn but is exceptional inland in spring and in such a small area.

I get the odd Blackcap in winter so I have seen Blackcaps feeding with the Waxwings before but to see several in amongst the Waxwings seemed really strange. Unfortunately they weren't easy to photograph as they didn't go quite as far as sharing an apple.

Who has been eating my apples.
Spot the female Blackcap
We caught quite a few retrap Waxwings that showed good weight gains and most were carrying moderate levels of a fat. There were few very heavy birds that weighed over 70g and these are likely to be the next to leave. One of the birds caught was a control (ringed elsewhere) and its ring number was very close to the ring numbers of two other birds we have controlled; the ring numbers of these three birds almost being consecutive (NW236 _ _ series). It will be interesting to find out where these birds were ringed. We took the nets down before mid morning having caught 28 Waxwings including retraps and the control, 4 Blackcaps and a Wren.

Much of the rest of the morning and afternoon was spent taking a few photographs and inputting the ringing data onto the computer. Blackcaps continued to feed on the apples with the Waxwings so I put a net up again in the early evening and caught 2 more along with 2 Long-tailed Tits and a Great Tit.

Female Blackcap.
Male Blackcap
adult male Waxwing

adult female Waxwing

This bird is fat but not as fat as it looks in this shot.
It had just fluffed up and was shaking its feathers.
Ringing totals for 20/04/13 with retraps in brackets.
Waxwing 12 (15 + 1 control)
Blackcap 6
Great Tit 1
Long-tailed Tit 2
Wren 1
Total 22 (15 + 1 control)

Friday, 19 April 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 31 - ready for the off

On Wednesday (17th) there were still at least 200 Waxwings but I didn't manage to get more accurate count before I had to head off to work via Sainsbury's. A weather warning was in force for strong winds and even gales from Wednesday evening through to Thursday morning so I wasn't looking forward to putting out the apples that night. When I got home that evening the Waxwings had eaten almost all of the apples so I quickly put out a few more kilos and a good number continued feeding until almost 8 o'clock.

It was very windy and some of the gusts were really strong but I decided to try and put the apples out as normal. As I climbed the ladder at the first tree it was swaying quite a bit so I did have to wrap my arms around the tree once or twice to hold on. I stuck with it and carried on putting out the apples and although I am no tree hugger I certainly had to be a few times that night. I was more bothered that the wind might shake the apples off the branches and undo all my work.

Next morning it was still really windy with near gale force gusts but, thankfully, most if not all of the apples were still up in the trees. The birds arrived a bit later than usual but 178 were present by 07:00 although I struggled with that count in the wind. That was the best count I managed before heading off on the college run and then on to work, again via Sainbury's.

Around 133 of the 178 Waxwings present early morning 18.04.13.
32 Waxwings in the evening sunshine 18.04.13 looking fat and ready to go.
It was still quite windy when I got home from work it but was forecast to drop overnight. I had booked today (Friday) off as I hoped to do some ringing to see how much weight the birds were gaining. The high pressure that is forecast for tomorrow could also provide the ideal conditions for the birds to leave so I thought it may be the last opportunity to catch a good sample of the flock.

This morning I was up at 05:30, I say up but I didn't actually go to bed as I fell asleep on the couch again. It was a little bit breezier than I would have liked but it was nice and overcast. I only put up one 18ft net in the most sheltered position because of the breeze but I still didn't think I would catch much. To my surprise and delight I caught 12 new and 12 retrap Waxwings over the next couple of hours. Some of the retraps were particularly interesting as they showed the weight the birds have gained over the past couple of weeks. A bird ringed on 05/04/13 when it weighed 58.3g was retrapped today and weighed 72.3g, an increase of 14g in 14 days. That may not seem much but it is an increase of around 24% and equivalent to an 8 stone person putting on the best part of 2 stone in only 2 weeks, now that takes some eating to do that whatever you eat and especially apples!

Looks fat and is fat, this bird weighed 72.1g but has someway to go to match the heaviest caught today.
It also has some way to go to get back to it's breeding grounds and hopefully all the apples have helped
 improve it's and the others chances.
One bird caught this morning was the heaviest caught to date and weighed a whopping 82.2g. I could tell it was really fat as soon as I took it out of the net but it was a new bird so I don't know how quickly it achieved that weight. From what I have read it must be about as fat as they get as it is heavier than the weight ranges shown in all the publications I have read to date. There were only 120 to 150 birds feeding this morning so the tide appears to have turned and the birds have started to move on. The weight increases and ideal migration conditions tomorrow's high pressure will present are also likely to see a good number head off back towards their breeding grounds.

One thing for sure I will be up bleary eyed and early to find out.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 30 - highs and lows.

I have got a bit behind with posting on the blog as the birds are feeding so late now it can be gone 10pm before I have finished putting out the next day's apples. My day is largely defined by Waxwings with work squeezed in between. A typical working day is as follows - up at dawn to count the birds as they arrive and to check for colour-ringed birds when they start feeding; get ready for work; take my youngest son to college; go to Sainsbury's to buy two cases of basic range apples (around 24kg and usually their entire daily stock); go to work; come home and put out a few more apples as they have usually eaten them all by the time I get home; have my tea (I am a northerner and have dinner at midday); cut up and pierce around 22kg of apples; put out 22kg of apples, sort through any apple pieces on the lawn and remove anything heavily soiled or starting to rot; fall asleep with laptop on knee.

Sunday started of with a new high count of 185 as mentioned in my previous post and they clearly had an appetite to match. I had to go to work so I couldn't keep an eye on things but I rang home in the afternoon to see if they had eaten all the apples. I was told there were very few left so I had to persuade my son to put out some more to keep them going until I got home.

When I got home at around 5:00pm there were no Waxwings around so I set about putting more apples out. First job is cutting them into halves and piercing them with a screw driver to make it easier to impale them on branch ends. This task alone takes quite a bit of time and the photo below shows around 18kg of prepared apples.

This is a big box and these are big apples. Small apples are more work.
I started putting apples in my neighbours tree at the back of the house but the Waxwings returned before I had finished. They actually started landing in the top of the tree while I was still up the ladder so I beat a hasty retreat. The birds descended onto the apples almost immediately for a last mad feed before going to roost. Another part of the flock started to feed on the extra apples my son had put out in the front garden.

There are a lot of Waxwings in this one tree other than the birds in silhouette on the right.
Their grey plumage really camouflages them against of the bark of the tree.
Here is a closer look. These sun was behind these birds so I couldn't get a good photo.
The front garden was just as busy and it is clear the birds can now eat more apples that I can realistically supply. I have decided to limit the apples to 24kg each day with 21 kg being put out each night and another 3 kg when I get home from work.

Feeding frenzy in the front garden 14/04/13
The birds were feeding so intently you could here their bills snapping at times as they snipped off pieces of apple. I took a bit of video but the quality is quite poor so it is best if you don't view it full screen. The birds flush at the end of the clip and you can see just how fast they go and this has more relevance later in this post.

On Monday I was up early as usual but some birds started feeding before the main flock arrived so I couldn't get the usual count as they gathered. Other birds arrived and joined the birds that were already feeding and the numbers quickly increased. After they had been feeding for a while they all flew up into the trees across the road and I had counted to 200 when they all suddenly flushed. I estimate I would have reached around 210 or 220 had I been able to finish counting them. Another new record high count.

I followed my usual routine and eventually went to work. At around 1pm I got a call from home telling me that 5 Waxwings had been found dead below my neighbours windows and another had been picked up injured. Waxwings are notorious for flying into windows as they fly up and flush at great speed; you can read more about this by clicking here.

We had been fortunate up to this point as there had only been two casualties over the past 8 weeks so why the sudden change. When I thought about it I realised the the answer was as simple as the change in wind direction and the angle of the sun. The birds usually fly into the wind when they flush and the wind has been easterly up until the last couple of days. The houses face east so the birds always flew away from the houses when they flushed out of the garden. The change to a south westerly means the birds now fly towards my neighbours house when taking off into the wind. The angle of the sun has also changed as the season has progressed and this will have affected the reflection that can be seen in the windows on sunny days. The birds think they are heading for the trees but are heading into a perfect reflection of them.

This mortality is a bit of a tragedy and the low point for me on what has otherwise been a great experience. I will have a chat with my neighbour to see what we can do about reducing the reflection in his windows while the birds are still here, failing that I will stop putting apples in the tree in my garden that is nearest to them. I have made a start tonight and put the majority of the apples in the trees across the road and well away from any windows.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 29 - the apple man

A few people have come up to me recently and said 'oh you're the apple man' when they have seen me putting out extra apples during the day. This is because the task of putting them out often goes unseen in the evening and into darkness. I have also been told that someone actually called the police one evening because a man was seen carrying a ladder and a bag in the dark and that the Police turned up to check out the report. It just goes to show how slow Police response times are that they didn't feel my collar, especially as it takes so long put out all the apples, or perhaps someone explained what I was doing.

Yesterday morning I was up early as usual and waiting for the Waxwings to arrive. The first few birds arrived at 06:15 but at least 162 had gathered by 06:40. There has been around this number for just over a week now and no sign of them moving on anytime soon. Having said that ringing has shown there is quite a bit turnover within the flock. I had a couple of nets up again yesterday morning and caught 13 new birds and only 6 retraps. This brought the total ringed to 225 and in addition 8 controls (birds ringed elsewhere) have been caught. There is still a large proportion of unringed birds in the flock so there is clearly movement in and out of the flock. Interestingly though some birds have been around for a long time now and one of the colour ringed birds has been visiting the garden since 17th February and has been seen most days up to and including yesterday.

Most of the 162 birds as they gathered early morning 13.04.13
I took a few photos in yesterday's early morning sunshine and on closer examination I could see quite a few birds had pollen around their bills and on their heads. They have presumably been feeding on or in tree flowers to get dusted by pollen in this way. The birds are probably feeding on nectar in Goat Willow flowers which are quite abundant at this time of year and often fed on by birds such as Blue Tits and Redpolls. Many species of tree are starting to flower now so they will have this alternative food supply if I have to curtail or limit the number of apples that I feed due to the cost.

Note all the pollen on the crown of the left hand bird

You can clearly see all the pollen around the bill and face on this Waxwing.
This morning I had a bit of a lie-in and only got up at 8:00am. All the feeding trees were full of Waxwings and I estimated there were at least 150. They flushed up into the top of the trees at one point and were in a position to get a reasonable count. A few birds were moving about and changing perches because it was quite windy but there were at least 185 which is a new record count. It looks like I will continue to be known as the apple man for a while yet.

Once again a big thank you to those who have donated apples or money towards the cost of feeding all these birds.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 28 - thank you for the support

I have received support from a quite few people since my last post. This was also helped by a report on the Greater Manchester birding website saying that I may have to reduce or cease feeding due to the cost. A few people have kindly sent or given me cash donations towards the apples and others have brought a few bags of apples. This will allow me to carry on feeding the birds into next week without breaking the bank. A big thank you to you all.

This help has come from birders, photographers, ringers and people from neighbourhood and includes one or two people that haven't even had chance to come and see the birds. Waxwings seem to have an effect on people unlike any other bird, people just love watching them and having them around. For many people these have been the first Waxwings they have ever seen and many have said it is the bird they have always wanted to see. For others it has been the biggest flock of Waxwings they have seen or the best views they have ever had. When I am up the ladder putting out the apples I often get a thumbs up, a smile or a wave from people walking or driving by.

Anyway what does 22kg of apples look like when deployed in the trees. Just over half go in the trees in the front garden but the feeding also overflows into the trees in the edge of the park across the road and into the tree behind my neighbours house so I couldn't capture it all in one photo.

This is just over half of what it takes to feed 150+ Waxwings for one day. The apples on the lawn are pieces that have fallen to the ground under the feeding trees. These are collected and sorted each day with soiled pieces being washed before being placed in the middle of the lawn. Any pieces that are too rotten are removed.
Here is part of the view above with a few Waxwings.
This is the main feeding tree with quite a few Waxwings in it this morning.
Two or three apple halves are pushed on some branch ends to try and make
 sure there is enough to last the day.
The pictures above don't really give you a good view of the Waxwings so I will break my own rules and show you a picture from a few days ago. I like this shot because it gives some context.

Drive by Waxwings.
The lengthening days means the Waxwings are feeding until around 7:15 now so I can't start putting the apples out until the last birds have gone. That usually means it is gone 9:00pm before I am finished. If they are still here into next month I am in for some late nights up the ladder.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 27 - on credit

Over the past couple of days I have confirmed that the Waxwings are now eating 20kg of apples each day. There were at least 150 birds again this morning and although I didn't get chance to do a proper count there is no obvious sign of any birds moving on and new birds may still be joining the flock.

A few posts ago I had thought I would be able to see this through until the birds fattened up and moved on but now I am not so sure. A recent post by Grampian Ringing Group (link here) shows they could still be around in this sort of number until the end of the month and double figure numbers could linger into early May.

At full stretch, a bit like my finances.

Still at full stretch. This is one of the colour-ringed birds from Aberdeen.
To put it simply I may not be able to stump up the £20 a day it costs for another 2 or 3 weeks given what I have spent to date. People run up credit card bills for all sorts of reasons but buying apples for Waxwings is not one that would immediately spring to mind but that is what I am already doing. I have decided that I will have to take it one day at a time from now on.

This is what 150 Waxwings can consume in a day and was put out tonight.
When I got home tonight, via Sainsbury's, I was told that someone had dropped off a couple of small bags of apples and a photographer had left £10. It is small acts off support such as these that will make all the difference from here in. I don't mind doing all the work but £20 a day is a serious Waxwing habit and I can't really afford it.

A medium sized apple weighs around 140g and it takes about 140 medium sized apples to make up 20kg. Tonight I will have put out around 280 apple halves and each Waxwing will eat just under 2 halves each. That means they are eating more than double their body weight each day as they typically weigh around 55 to 60g.

It is going to be hard if I decide I have to stop feeding these stunning creatures before they are ready to go.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Waxwing lyrical part 26 - eating more than ever

Well they are still here and and numbers are staying around the 150 mark. They are working their way through at least 15kg of apples each day now and probably quite a bit more than that on some days. They have eaten around a third of a tonne of apples since the first bird turned up all those weeks ago and at the present rate it won't take long for the half a tonne figure to be reached. It is probably better if I don't think about it too much or try and work out the true figure as it could be more.

A few of the people who have come to see them recently have asked me how much they are eating and costing when they see all the birds and apples in the trees. When I have explained a few have been kind enough to donate a few pounds towards the cost and others have dropped off the odd bag or two of apples. These donations are usually accompanied by comments that they have been to see them several times and that watching the birds has brought them a great deal of pleasure. A big thank you to all who have made any contribution.
They have a slightly hooked tip to the upper and lower mandibles which they use to nip off small pieces of apple
but they will take larger chunks whenever they can.
When you watch them eating they don't seem to make much progress as they usually only manage to bite off small pieces at a time but this is quite deceptive. Multiply this up by their feeding rate and the number of birds and they can soon shift some apples. The birds are eating more voraciously now as they are trying to put on weight for their long migration back to their breeding grounds. One bird caught for ringing the other day was carrying significant fat deposits and weighed 76.2g. This bird was 50% heavier than some of the lighter birds caught at the same time. Another bird retrapped this morning weighed 74.5g and has put on 16g in the 8 days since it was first caught and ringed. The majority of birds still aren't carry that much fat so it could mean they will be here for a couple of weeks yet assuming I can afford it.

This Waxwing breaks off and tries to swallow the piece of apple core arrowed in the picture.
Her efforts at swallowing it can be seen in the following sequence of shots.

After several attempts at swallowing it she eventually gave up and dropped it.
One photographer that I spoke to yesterday asked me if I was putting water out for them. I said that I was but I had only seen one bird come down to drink and none had bathed. Later that afternoon a few decided to make a mockery of that comment by bathing with gusto. This was quite late in the afternoon and the bird bath was in the shade of the house and also obscured by a few twigs from a birch tree. The bath has now been moved to a better position should they use it again.

Bath time squabbles.

Bath time squabbles.