Those of you who follow the A9Birds' Facebook page will be well aware of my delights in the past few weeks as Waxwings finally started to arrive, and in good numbers. These stunning looking birds, about the size of a Starling, can arrive each winter as bad weather and the need for new food sources drives them from their usual wintering grounds in northern Russia, Finland and Scandinavia. The last two winters yielded very few of them here in northeast Scotland, but 2016 has remedied that by far
Having seen a passing dozen or so birds earlier in October, Mrs A9Birds and I were heading home from the shops when we caught sight of a group of birds atop some birches, on the edge of our nearest town of Forres. A resident flock of Starlings can usually be seen there, and as we drew nearer the silhouettes of Mother Nature's closest offering to a New Romantic singer from the early 1980s was unmistakeable. "Waxwings!" I announced, probably a little too loudly but justifiably excitedly, and we pulled over to view them with the sun to our backs. I counted a good 230 along the treetops, with plenty coming and going meaning that some 270-300 birds had arrived overnight. Conscious of Ben & Jerry's finest product melting in its tub somewhere in the boot, we headed home though a discussion en route yielded an agreement to delay lunch while I went back for a closer look, and with camera.
The light soon faded as cloud and light rain fed in, but over the next few days I would keep an eye on the group as it plundered the berry trees around town. Passers-by were interested, some even knew what they were having seen them (and birders/photographers) invade in other years...the less-informed thought their homes were under surveillance (though I'm not sure if they thought by crooks or the police), but these were educated accordingly.
A fine adult Waxwing, showing off everything in its colour palette
One day proved a real boon. We had a brief spell of mild temperatures and a group of Waxwings had stopped for the morning near home. No berries were in sight, as the group had identified the clear-fell area as ideal for bugs now taking to wing with the unseasonal 'blip'. So it was a real pleasure to watch - as it's not often the case when they make it to the UK - a group of Waxwings become flycatchers, and pretty good they were too but of course that is their summertime staple.
An hour so later, with good sunshine, I wandered into town and connected with the big flock again and had a cracking time. A lot of people remark on how great Waxwings look, with their plumed heads and wing feathers as if dipped in sealing wax (actually caused a pigment from the berries they eat)...very few remark on the sound of their 'ring, ring' call. In large flocks this sound is set against the mighty rush of air as they pass low over you and it brings a smile to the face. One other sound when you're close is a little perturbing, however; tiny splashes of 'rain' approaching you along the floor of fallen leaves heralds the arrival of Waxwing-processed berries. Best keep that smile to a grin, and maybe wear a hooded waterproof!
This autumn, the winds and weather patterns in mainland Europe and beyond have driven a good deal of interesting birds our way - my blog last month mentioned this too. One species arrived in the UK for the first (recorded) time ever this Autumn - the Siberian Accentor, which taxonomically sits in the Prunella family, as does our familiar Dunnock (or 'Hedge Sparrow' in old money).
If you were to describe it to someone, it would be as a 'posh Dunnock' - the familiar wing colouring however would give way to a creamy yellow breast and underparts, whilst the head is a black and gold feast to the eyes. Twelve of these had been found along the eastern seaboard of the UK, but it was number thirteen that led yours truly to conduct a rare 'twitch' to see it.
Now let's get some points across here regards 'twtiching' - basically a 'twitcher' tends to be a person who goes to some length (maybe great) to see a bird species he/she has never seen before. A birdwatcher is not necessarily a 'twitcher', and some argue that most 'twitchers' aren't birdwatchers as they briefly look at a bird, tick it off on a physical or mental list, and then move on...to 'watch' something usually means to spend some time, possibly studying, just enjoying, photographing, sketching or whatever.
For me, I tend not to 'twitch'. Indeed, in my birding years, I still have count of the number of times I have gone outside of my usual birding areas (or 'patches') to specifically see a rare or unusual bird. In my first birding county of Hampshire, it accounted for four (Sea Eagle, Woodchat Shrike, Red-flanker Bluetail and Glossy Ibis) plus number five was a Brown Shrike conveniently located near Heathrow Airport (and therefore a pleasant extension to a work trip in my previous life!). Ironically, another Brown Shrike was to turn up on my regular Hampshire patch a few years later - let that be a lesson to us all!
So, the UK's thirteenth Siberian Accentor on the Black Isle was 'twitch' six for me...found in ringing mist nets used by respected ornithologist Brian Etheridge; he told me a couple of days later when I went to see the bird that if it hadn't been for all the hype over the previous twelve, he would've needed a book to identify it. A brief but stunning view in bright sunlight was a birding joy, and as always with small birds it's amazing of the journey it must've undertaken. Alas no photos of my own to share (I'm a birder first, photographer second, and it was too brief an encounter), but just go online and search if you haven't seen one.
It once again brings to mind my scribblings of last month's blog about getting out there and go looking in places where others tend not to/do not bird, as you never know what's out there. Thirteen found Siberian Accentors could easily translate into many yet undiscovered ones around our shores, and they could be here for the winter before tracking back east.
Needless to say, the garden Dunnocks are getting heavy scrutiny!
It's that time of year...
...when I'm going to shamelessly push my range of birds and other wildlife canvas prints. Why not? It's better than any TV advert trying to convince you on the need for a new sofa, because you can't enjoy Christmas and New Year without it!
So please go to my Facebook page (link below, and see the top of the page) and enter the competition to win a 15x10 inch canvas of your choice from the range, and if you're not successful then maybe persuade someone you know or love to treat you as a gift for the festive season. The competition ends at midnight on 1 December, so don't forget to take part!
Capercaillie male - one of our many images available on canvas print
A9Birds is a birdwatching and wildlife photography company based in Moray, covering the local area including Strathspey, the Moray Firth and Inverness-shire. Please see our website for details of what we can offer you, including fine canvas prints of some of our images which make ideal gifts. Also, why not keep up to date with our sightings and photos on our Facebook page. All photos on this page are copyright Mike Crutch/A9Birds.