Saturday, 27 November 2010

Waxwings in Aberdeen (And a Tiny Bit Of Patch Birding!)

Since I have returned from Fair Isle (a report of the trip is soon to be written and will be on a separate page marked 'Fair Isle 2010' underneath the title picture of the blog once finished), patch birding has annoyingly been at a bare minimum for me. This is all in reason though, as I was up to my knees with my revision for my recently finished exams in an attempt to avoid what hopefully won't be impending failure! In the past few weeks I have pretty much had to dedicate all my free time to meticulous study. However I am now free from exams, and I will be able to catch up with my blog and do some birding! Birding hasn't been totally non-existent by any means in the last month or so though, despite the fact I have only been birding outside of Aberdeen City once since I got back. I have had to resort to 'urban birding', and, I must say, it has been very satisfying! Of course, my 'urban birding' has manifested itself in my pursuit of seeing the ever-present (although decreasing now) Waxwings. Waxwings are definitely my favourite passerine species that visits the UK in winter. They are one of nature's more beautiful creations, and when in the UK their over-elaborate and unique plumage makes them seem rather out of place in comparison to a lot of our passerine residents. They are adorned with a soft, silky pink plumage, a prominent crest that is reminiscent of a punk hairstyle, a black throat, a small black mask round the eye, yellow and white in the wings, red wing tips and a yellow-tipped tail - they almost look like something out of a painting. During some winters, Waxwings will be a rare sight in Britain. However, some years (called 'invasion years'), they appear in very large, unprecedented numbers, with many thousands seen all over the country's cities and towns. This sudden phenomenon is known as an irruption, with Waxwings being the prime example of an irruptive species. With Waxwings, 'irruptions' are most likely spurred on by a combination of a good breeding season (thus resulting in lots of birds) and a failure in the berry crop in their breeding grounds of Northern Europe.

As you will be aware, Waxwings have had a very successful invasion year in the UK. The invasion became apparent in the last couple of weeks of October, with sizeable numbers being seen in Northern Scotland, which then gradually pushed their way eastwards down towards Aberdeen. Aberdeen is arguably the first major stop off point and the best place for Waxwings during an invasion year in the UK (certainly in the initial parts of an invasion) and when they stop off here they can ubiquitous, with many hundreds, sometimes even thousands in and around the city alone. You can see them absolutely anywhere - I have had them in my garden and at school on several occasions before. They were first reported in the city on the 25-26th, with separate flocks of 30 or more dotted all over the city. By the 27th-28th numbers were increasing dramatically, and it was clear that the invasion had fully kicked off, with the largest total of 500+ on the 28th on the suburbs at Kincorth and 200+ at Allenvale Cemetery in the centre of the city. At this point I knew it was only a matter of time before I was going to connect with the invasion, and the next day (29th) I did. 8:35am, and I'm on the way to school (down Belgrave Terrace), not thinking about birds in any way whatsoever, when all of a sudden I hear several birds trilling above me, and I look up to see a flock of 20 Waxwings. Result! These exquisite little passerines flew at pace to the east of where I was standing, wheeling very briefly round in the golden sunlight in a mesmerizing fashion before descending into a garden and out of sight. This was a fantastic experience, but I didn't have much to ponder over it as the start of the school day was beckoning. After school that afternoon kept an eye out for more, and sure enough, I heard the diagnostic trills once again. They weren't coming from far away, but as far as I could tell they were coming from behind a house. Looking back along the street I was walking through, I noticed a little back alley, and decided to take it. As I did so, the trilling got louder, until eventually a flock of 12 flew just feet above my head and landed on a tall tree in a nearby garden. Unfortunately, it had turned out to be quite a cloudy and windy day, so as they sat on the tall tree their most magnificent features weren't properly picked out and they kept on being blown by the strong wind, but they were still very close and views were fantastic. I stood there watching them for 15 minutes (I regretted not having the camera!), and then headed towards home. Walking down my street, I was lucky enough to chance upon another 2 as they bombed eastwards across my street. In total that day, without properly trying, I had managed a total of 34 Waxwings.

It was about to get much, much better. As it was the weekend (30th-31st), I decided I was going to go in hot pursuit of Waxwings. That night, I read of the larger numbers that had been seen around the city. The car was unavailable so any larger flocks I wanted to see had to be in walking distance, and to my luck, c.150 had been seen on Primerosehill Drive that day, only about 25 minutes to half an hour’s walk away from the house. The next morning (30th) I was out there, in the Primerosehill Drive area in pursuit of this flock. I was lucky, and got my first taste of big numbers of Waxwings. On walking round the area once, I was lucky enough to chance upon a flock of about 35 on a street called Greenmore Gardens - some on a tree in a garden, and others perched on top of various house satellite dishes. Unfortunately they were very brief, and as I was rummaging into my bag and getting my camera ready, they flew off. Damn! I did several circuits of the area after this, and after a while it was starting to seem as if that was my lot. However, I was in luck. On my intended last circuit of the neighbourhood, I heard them on Primerosehill Drive, and looked up to see the largest flock I had seen yet fly over my head. The flock split into two groups and went in different directions, both staying in flight for long enough for us to count them - I followed one group, in which I counted a total of 44, and my Dad counted 66 in the second group. This meant that, when together as a single group, there was a total of 110 Waxwings! For me, this was the largest total I had seen in a very long time, and I was delighted. However, I was unable to get any decent photos whatsoever. I was also aware that around 150 Waxwings had been seen a couple of days before at Kittybrewster, an area about 15 minutes walk from Primerosehill. We decided to have a stroll down there in a more casual pursuit for more Waxwings. We got very lucky, as when we were walking past the Retail Park at Kittybrewster the trill sounded again and a very large number - larger than the flock at Primerosehill - flew fairly low over our heads, sticking close to each other and not spreading out much at all. In excitement, my Dad and I immediately and tactically took to counting them. This flock stayed in the air and in view for about a minute, splitting slightly from one another then joining up together again, although they were quite distant, but constant binocular views whilst they were in flight allowed us to count them effectively. The total that we came to was 130 Waxwings, no jokes! This meant that the cumulative total of Waxwings for the day was 240 Waxwings, more than I had ever seen in a day before! A feeling of intense joy and astonishment surged through me, and I went home delighted and eager to share my numbers - and ultimately very, very privileged to live in a place that is so good for Waxwings! The only unsuccessful parts of the outing was on the photographic front - due to the mobility of both flocks no half decent photos were taken, and no prolonged views of the birds were had either. This was hardly anything to feel fed up about though, I had plenty more opportunities for photos and prolonged views!

I was gifted with such an opportunity that Halloween, in what I would describe as the most memorable day + experience with Waxwings ever in terms of numbers and views I have ever had. It all started when I was walking up to the corner shop to get some food, taking my bins just in case I was to see a flock on the way up. About half way up my street, I hear their trilling call, and approximately 15 flew low over my head. They, however, disappeared out of view behind one of the houses quite quickly. Once I had got the food, I headed back towards the house. As I approached my street again I started to hear their trills, this time seeming louder and more frequent. I turned the corner, and one of the trees was filled with Waxwings. I quickly got my bins on them and started to count them, gaining good views in the process. They stayed confidingly still, and I managed to count a total of 75 birds - the 15 I had seen earlier presumably being part of this same flock. I watched them for a couple of minutes, severely regretting not having my camera, and then they flew off. Once back at the house I had a look out of the window and spotted the birds again on the street opposite mine - View Terrace.

In the afternoon at around 3pm, my Dad and I decided to take the dog for a walk in an area (the Hilton area, fairly near where I saw 110 at Primerosehill yesterday) that we knew was good for Waxwings. It was about 20 minutes from the house, and it immediately became apparent that Waxwings were present, with small flocks flying about regularly. We expected there to be a larger flock somewhere close by, and we were trying to find where the smaller flocks were landing, so we headed northwards a bit, and to my astonishment we eventually did find a large flock of well over the amount seen at Kittybrewster, all huddled together on one line of trees in the back of someone's garden (don't worry, I didn't disturb the residents of the house!). The size of this flock seemed almost unreal, and I had rarely felt so astounded in my life - there were hardly any parts of the trees that didn't have a Waxwing occupying them, it was truly packed with them, and their constant trilling reverberated throughout the quiet street (Hilton Street). These birds also seemed quite confiding, and about 10 minutes after we had found them a flock of c.50 more joined them on the tree. At several points I was lucky enough for groups of 30 or more to leave the tree and land on the rowans on the side of the road where I was standing, and I was gifted with close views as I managed to get within 8-10ft of them. The camera was on me the whole time this time, and I managed to get loads of shots of the birds, both on the trees in the garden and also when they came onto the rowans at the side of the road near me. The problem was that light levels were getting low and poor, so almost all pictures just showed the birds as silhouettes - however post-upload editing solved this problem a little for those photos worthy of uploading. The photos aren't fantastic quality by any means due to the really poor light conditions, but they are still a good record (see below). We watched them for about 25 minutes or half an hour, in which time we were able to come up with a figure of 280 Waxwings. The photos below don't manage to fit in the whole clump of trees, and thus not all the birds on the trees at the time, as I was photographing different clumps of tree and different groups of Waxwings at different points. This was an experience that was more than just very memorable, but something that will stay with me for a long time - I have never seen such large numbers of Waxwings before in my life, and to see whole trees teeming (or infested if you like!) with these impeccable, ornately plumaged little birds was like a dream, and the views that I got of them added to this sensation! As a result of the 280 here and the 75 on my street that morning I had seen a total of 355 Waxwings that day (31st October). For me, this is an exceptional total, a total that I won't be able to rival for years to come and my best total ever. This was a truly unforgettable day. Below are pictures of the 280 Waxwings on Hilton Street, each including different groups of the overall flock (both on tall line of trees in the garden and on the rowans on the road).

I continued to see Waxwings all over the city every day that week (, keeping totals of individual flocks that I saw each day, although some of the flocks I saw would have definitely included the same birds. The largest flocks seen that week in Aberdeen by anyone was a fantastic 1000 at Bridge of Don, 800 at Kincorth and 700 on Cornhill Road, with several other totals of 100 and over elsewhere in the city. My totals of course couldn't quite match these! On Monday 1st November, when walking back to school from where I do P.E, I encountered a large flock of Waxwings near Aberdeen University, with a flock of around 40 on Linksfield Road which then flew off and joined a much larger flock of 75 on the very nearby Orchard Street. I had time to count these birds, and this allowed for me to reach a cumulative total of c.115 Waxwings. Almost all the other times I saw Waxwings that week were very local. Although I never actually saw this many birds together in my area, there was probably a flock of about 120 or 130 birds mobile between my street and my school (Aberdeen Grammar School), the latter being five a minute’s walk from my house. Of the two areas I mentioned they particularly favoured the school - everyday that week flocks of 70 or more would fly over the school, sometimes landing on a tall tree that they favoured at the back of the school. The biggest flock that I had there that wasn't seen briefly in flight at the school was 110 on the tree that they favoured on the morning of Wednesday 3rd, with 90 on the same tree on the afternoon of the 2nd. On several other days that week smaller numbers of 80 and below were seen whizzing over my street and school, and a flock of 45 were seen on Hilton Street on Saturday 6th. This is the beauty of Aberdeen during Waxwing invasion years - you can be going about your everyday life without properly birding, and they are here en masse, outnumbering Starlings. They will appear on a tree outside when you are sitting in class at school, fly by when you're walking into town... whatever you are doing during these times, you will almost always see some! I feel very privileged to live in a place where this is the situation!

On the Sunday of that week (7th), I finally managed to get out for some patch birding! However, I aimed to spend the start of the day briefly checking some of the better places for Waxwings in the city. The Primerosehill, Hilton Street, Aberdeen University and Kittybrewster areas were all checked, but it was clear numbers were much lower than the week before as there were none present at any of these locations. I was quite disappointed, until, as we were heading through the Bridge of Don on the suburbs of the city, I spotted a large flock of Waxwings on some trees. Luckily, we entered a housing estate and parked here, and went to the road where I had seen them (Ellon Road near the Army Barracks). The birds were keeping very still, and were placed across a long line of trees. My Dad and I stood there quietly and counted them as they- at first a goodish total of about 85 Waxwings was counted, but about 10 minutes later they were joined by another 40, which all landed a few trees apart from the other 85, allowing for systematic and thus easy counting. These two groups put together totalled 125 Waxwings on Ellon Road, my 3rd largest total of the invasion. After counting I spent time trying to photograph them, but they were mostly too high up to get decent photos of. The two groups, after about 25 minutes, split and flew off in total different directions from one another. My Dad and I then headed off towards my local patch of the Ythan Estuary, stopping off at the Esso petrol station close by to where we had seen the Waxwings, and there was one of the two groups again! This was the group of 85, and this time they were in smaller trees and some were VERY close. This was the prime opportunity to get some much better Waxwing photos. I did my best, but unfortunately the flock flew off after about a couple of minutes. However, I did manage some shots that I am proud of in that short space of time. Below are pictures of Waxwings that were part of that 125, including birds on Ellon Road near the Army Barracks and the near pictures being of the birds nearby Esso.
My check of the Ythan, as to be expected, wasn't that productive. On the Estuary itself the highlights were: 35 Dunlin, 20 Golden Plover and a single Peregrine. Taking photos provided a lot of the entertainment here, with this beautiful little Kestrel 'windhovering' just feet away from the car as we stopped off at the layby at Inches Road....

And this Oystercatcher nonchalantly feeding on the mud nearby, who seemed to have a bit of a muddy bill....

There was only a couple of hours to spare before the sun started to set, and with a brisk south-easterly wind and reports of Little Auks all over Scotland, it seemed appropriate to have a seawatch off the nearby Collieston. Unfortunately there were no Little Auks, but plenty of Guillemots were going past. The highlight, however, came in the form of 2 Great Northern Divers very close offshore, as well as 3 Long-tailed Ducks north and a late pale phase Arctic Skua also going north. This was your lot in what was frankly quite a quiet day's patch birding, but it was very nice to be out nonetheless and I was very glad with the photos I got.

I haven't been out birding since then. Furthermore, numbers of Waxwings in the city are dwindling as many birds have moved southwards, and in the last week or so I haven't been seeing them everyday. The largest flocks I have had in the last couple of weeks was a flock of 60 over my street this Thursday just gone and 40 over Union Street right in the city centre on Sunday 21st. For the last couple of days, I have seen none. I reckon a maximum of a few hundred remain in the city. I am still hoping that at some point a reasonable number will land in the garden as they have done on previous years - I don't see why not with the freezing conditions and snow that we are experiencing right now! As for when I next get out patch birding, I am not sure, as my Dad isn't around - I will make sure I get out though whilst he isn't around though!

Thanks for reading, tune in next time for more,



  1. wow, thats a lot of Waxwings! I've updated your link on my blog

  2. Hi David,

    Yeah it is, frankly the most I have ever seen in a year before - it's absolutely fantastic to have them here in large numbers. Thank you for updating my link on your blog, it's much appreciated. Looking forward to reading more about your birding exploits!



  3. Awesome post mate! I have to say I am a bit jealous! I would love to see some Waxwings where I live :D but sadly I dont think there is much chance of that happening in Spain.... ;) Keep up the good work! :)

  4. Hi Joseph,

    Seems like you've had some fantastic experiences with waxwings so far, must be nice being in Aberdeen and seeing them so often! Look forward to your Fair Isle report if you scroll back through my blog you'll find some small snippets of my time on Fair Isle in Aug/September. One thing I would point out is that your latest post on here is over 3,400 words long! Thats longer than some of the essays I've been handing in for Uni. It obviously shows that your very enthusiastic for birding but for the majority of potential readers I think this might be a little over whelming! I think if you can manage to condense a post like the above into 500 words then it would be fantastic and I'm sure followers etc would follow. Will add a link to this blog onto mine now and look forward to future posts.

    Tim Jones

  5. Hi both of you,

    Thank you for your kind words, I really appreciate it! TJ, Waxwings would be a mega in Spain, don't even know if they've ever been recorded there - it would be awesome if you were to come across them there though!

    And Tim, thank you for pointing this out, I welcome any constructive criticism as I want this to be as enjoyable for the reader as possible. I agree that that last post was very long indeed, but most posts on this blog won't be as long as this one at all. Posts that are that long are only usually of such a length because I am behind with the blog and lots of different things have happened since I last posted - that was the first time I'd posted properly in about a month and a half, so that was a particularly long post. I do have a great enthuasism for writing at the same time, of course, but don't worry, future posts (maybe with the exception of trip reports) will not be this long! Thank you for adding the link to your blog and following my blog, I have done the same with you.

    Thank you,