The most Christmassy thing I saw this year was a few weeks ago in a 1980s housing estate in Bracknell. I kid you not! I have, in fact, voluntarily travelled to such a place twice this winter. My lure? Waxwings — a startlingly beautiful, enigmatic visitor from Scandinavia.
This is a bird of the north, breeding in remote expanses of coniferous forests in Russia and Scandinavia. This autumn 60 or 70 of them, little wax studded wings shivering a little from the gathering cold, perhaps, decided it was high time to head off, as they often do; thinking of somewhere like — Bracknell, yes, Bracknell, why not? Sounds like a fantastic destination for a winter break! Well, to us it may seem ludicrous (sorry Bracknellites), but to birds there is an irresistible draw planted all over the town’s suburbs (i.e. all of it) in the form of ornamental trees. And ornamental trees, in the autumn and winter, put out ornamental berries, which to a waxwing make a pretty appealing snack.
Thus I found myself, drawn as irresistibly by the news of waxwings as the waxwings were to rowan berries, shivering in turn in a snow and ice bound housing estate. With my telescope, and binoculars, feeling like an idiot. It took about half an hour until one of our party spotted some birds flocking starling like into a tree a few streets away. Quickly and conspicuously setting up my telescope almost on a resident’s driveway — on waxwing trips, you need to be shameless about this sort of thing — I could make out the outline I was hoping for, the birds’ obvious ‘punk hairdo’ crests clear at a distance.
A dash round the corner, a little more searching, and with a chorus of trilling calls that some compare to lots of little bells ringing, the birds precipitated down again into a birch tree, ranged out in the branches for our inspection. Framing the end of the cul-de-sac where we stood were a few berry laden trees, and sure enough little parties of waxwings were soon coming down to feed. Hanging off the branches, and reaching upside down for the fruits until the blood must have been running to their heads, they would delicately select one, tip their heads back and swallow it whole before moving on for another.
The beauty of the scene, I’m not sure I can get over in words. The colours on the bird are just exquisite — sharp contrast between black mask and chin and sandy head and body, almost a brick like colour on the crest and under the yellow banded tail, wings barred with yellow and studded with nodules of red. The pattern of black on their heads gives a wonderful, almost fierce expression. The trees they clung all over looked pretty stunning too, spindly branches giving way to vibrant red twigs, each bearing a cluster of delicate white berries. Snow in the background lent the whole scene such a festive note I could have made millions, I felt, selling the image for cards if I’d been able to get a good shot. With apologies to our friend the robin, it’s definitely time for a new top Christmas bird.
I was also delighted to see them suddenly swoop onto a rooftop, and start eating the snow. Most birds don’t bother with frozen water because the energy they would lose melting it in their stomachs outweighs the benefits of getting a good drink, but I guess waxwings have experience at surviving in parts of the world that can be frozen solid for months. For me the privilege of seeing such behaviour emphasised the feeling of being transported to their world, instead of them visiting us.
An hour or two passed before the spell was broken when a neighbourhood sparrowhawk cruised in to see what was on the lunch menu, and every other bird on the street fled before her. But the memory of a magic morning when Bracknell’s suburbs were transformed before my eyes into a wild frozen wilderness will stay long in the mind.
Since then waxwings have been seen almost everywhere in Britain this winter — even, I am reliably told, outside a friend’s bedroom window in Reading town centre. So my tip to cheer up a gloomy January is to keep just a tiny part of your ears open for a peal of quiet birdlike bells, and you too might find yourself in the midst of a feathered post Christmas miracle.