Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Waxwings in Shetland in early November 2012

Waxwings are scarce passage migrants in Shetland, with the majority usually recorded in late autumn (October and November). It is a classic 'irruptive' species, and when berry crops fail in northern Europe they move long distances in search of food. In these circumstances, Shetland is invariably one of the first places in Britain to record Waxwings, due to its close proximity to Scandinavia where many of these birds are leaving from. Their appearance in Shetland is often fairly brief, due no doubt in part to the relative lack of 'berry trees' in the islands - once in Shetland, Waxwings usually feed on rosehips, and can be attracted to gardens by the provision of fruit (particularly apples).
Waxwings at Baltasound, 3rd November 2012 - Rob Brookes
Towards the end of October 2012, it became clear that there were lots of Waxwings in Shetland, with numerous reports of small groups throughout the islands. On November 1st, a flock of 55, one of the largest ever in Shetland, was at Baltasound school on Unst, and 40 appeared at Toab in South Mainland the same afternoon. An appeal was made via the Nature in Shetland facebook page www.facebook.com/natureinshetland for as many people to get in touch over the period Friday 2nd to Sunday 4th November with their sightings of Waxwings, to try and get as good a picture as possible of the invasion. As Waxwings are distinctive, sociable and often very tame birds that usually frequent gardens, the response to the request was excellent; almost 70 people contributed, and reports were received from all parts of Shetland.

Waxwings are well-known for moving about in search of food, so estimating the exact numbers of birds involved is difficult; inevitably there will be some duplication in records, especially in the larger towns such as Lerwick, Scalloway and Brae. Conversely, many birds will have been missed, as it appears that the influx was very widespread: several birders have commented that there seemed to be a handful of Waxwings in virtually every rose bush they looked in!

Waxwings in Lerwick, 3rd November 2012 - Larry Dalziel

It seems likely that there were as many as 975 Waxwings recorded in Shetland during the three-day period. The most favoured area was Lerwick, where a maximum of 113 in scattered flocks was recorded on 3rd November. Central Mainland, with its large number of mature gardens, also fared well, with upwards of 200 birds found. The largest total, however, came from South Mainland, with almost 250 birds noted. It is thought that this part of Shetland did well for Waxwings in part because birds were filtering south through Shetland and congregating in favourite areas (such as Cunningsburgh, Gulberwick and the Toab/Virkie area), before continuing south and thus out of Shetland. Numbers in the well-watched Toab area fluctuated daily, whilst a total of 44 (in small groups) were seen heading south over Sumburgh Head on Saturday 3rd. The theory that there was a constant turnover of birds is ably demonstrated by sightings on Fair Isle, where the maximum day count was 60 on Saturday 3rd, but during the period 2nd to 4th, over 80 individual Waxwings were trapped and ringed (information kindly provided by Fair Isle Warden David Parnaby).

Key to graph (click on image to see enlarged version): SM = South Mainland; CM = Central Mainland; Lk = Lerwick; NM = North Mainland; FI = Fair Isle; WM = West Mainland; U = Unst; Y = Yell; Wh = Whalsay; BT = Burra & Trondra; Br = Bressay

The biggest flocks seen in Shetland during the period 2nd to 4th November 2012 were: 60-80 at Eshaness on Friday 2nd; 40 at Gott, 30 at Sellafirth (Yell), 30 at Aith and 30 at East Voe of Scalloway, all on Saturday 3rd; and 40 at Kergord on Sunday 4th. Many more groups of between 10 and 25 were recorded - for a full list of all known records during the period, see www.nature-shetland.co.uk/naturelatest/latestnews

Waxwing at Scalloway, 3rd November 2012 - Rob Fray
The largest influx recorded in Shetland was in 2004. In that year, there were more than 950 recorded on 20th October; these included the largest single flock ever recorded in Shetland, of 80 at West Yell, as well as counts of 92 in Lerwick, 90 on Fair Isle and 55 at Veensgarth, and an estimate of 400 moving south over Dunrossness in flocks of up to 40 throughout the day. Although remarkably similar to the 2012 figure, the two counts are not really comparable. In 2004, it is clear that there were larger flocks around and the figure for that year was a single-day count, not spread over three days. Additionally, the 2004 count did not have the same access to social networking that made the 2012 survey such a success. Overall, it would seem that the 2012 Waxwing influx is second only to the 2004 influx, but by passing the message quickly around the internet, even more people have enjoyed the pleasure of watching these magnificent birds in their gardens.
Our grateful thanks to everybody who reported Waxwings during the period.
Rob Fray