14 February 2015

The return of the Waxwing!

Ringer Peter Alker from Orrell, Greater Manchester, recently got in touch with the 'Demog Blog' team with some rather interesting news:

"It is many a birder’s dream to have a Waxwing visit their garden and that dream came true for me in February 2013, when one started feeding on apples I had put out for thrushes and wintering Blackcaps. One was soon joined by another, and the number steadily grew, peaking in mid-April with 220 birds chomping their way through 25 kilos of apples each day! Some birds stayed well into spring and the last three were seen on 8th May, by which time I had caught 265 birds, nine of which had been ringed elsewhere in the UK or abroad.

A Waxwing tree - Peter Alker

Waxwing - Peter Alker

Since then, people have often asked me if any have come back to the garden or if I think they will. I would always tell them that none had returned and that I thought it would be unlikely, even if there was another big irruption; such is the Waxwing’s reputation as an irruptive migrant in search of food. The number of Waxwings recorded in the UK this winter has been particularly low, so I was astonished, to say the least, when one turned up in my garden last Saturday (7th February), almost two years on from the appearance of the first in 2013. It was an adult female but, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see if it was already ringed. It didn’t visit the garden the following day so I was relieved when it returned the next Monday and incredibly I could see it was wearing a metal ring. Grabbing a camera, I was able to read the ring number from photographs and it was a bird I’d ringed in the garden as a first-winter female on 23rd February 2013.

The key shots from the hundreds of photos taken.

On the face of it, the appearance of this bird was a bit of a contradiction as it seemed unlikely that it had returned to my garden by chance but on the other hand irruptive species are not known for showing any site fidelity in winter. I wasn’t sure if there had been any similar occurrences so I contacted Raymond Duncan, of Grampian Ringing Group, who has been colour-ringing Waxwings in and around Aberdeen since 1988. He confirmed that they only have seven records of birds returning to the UK in subsequent winters, from over 3,100 birds ringed there, and only three of these were to the original ringing site. One of these birds was ringed in Kintore, near Aberdeen in February 2009 and photographed back in the same village in February 2010; also a winter when there were very few Waxwings in the country.

Waxwing - Peter Alker

So what, if anything, could these records tell us? They may be the exceptions, but it seems to me that Waxwings have the capability to return to sites used in previous winters in certain circumstances, and it is the circumstances that are rare and not the ability itself. Most Waxwings will not need to move to the UK in search of food more than once in their lifetime, as large irruptions are relatively infrequent and Waxwings are not particularly long-lived. Their main food source of berries can vary in abundance in the UK, affecting the birds’ distribution and movements in search of food. They are a very gregarious species in winter and the behaviour of an individual will be influenced by other birds in the flock. These factors together reduce the likelihood of any Waxwing being found returning to the same site in the UK in subsequent winters.

The interesting point about these two birds is that both had returned to previously-used sites in non-irruption years. This might suggest that they were returning in search of other Waxwings and not just in the search for food. Lastly, a further factor in the case of my bird is the provision of apples. It was ringed on 23rd February 2013 and was retrapped later that winter (on 28th March), so had stayed over a month and probably much longer. The provision of apples for Waxwings is a relatively recent phenomena and experience of a long-term reliable food source may have played a part in the return of this particular bird."