It doesn’t appear that this winter will be a Waxwing winter. If it is going to be one of those years when Tesco car parks are flooded with Rowan-eating visitors from Scandinavia then large numbers have usually been seen on the east coast and Fair Isle by now. But you can keep track of sightings by following @WaxwingsUK.
Last winter (2014/15) wasn’t a Waxwing winter, and nor was 2013/14.
So that’s three years in a row, it seems, when Waxwings have been thin on the ground, and few in Tesco car parks.
The winter of 2012/13 was quite a good year, but 2011/12 was pretty quiet.
But 2010/11 was an excellent year. I even saw a flock of 14 at Cheltenham racecourse on 1 January 2011, after seeing over a 100 in Northampton the day before.
That’s what Waxwings are like. Some winters they are rare, but every now and again they are numerous. The trigger for a large influx appears to be food conditions in Scandinavia where they breed: no food in Norway means a trip to Tesco (other supermarket car parks with Rowans are available – but Tesco is a good bet).
Waxwings are a ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ type of bird. They are also a ‘here this winter and then not around for several winters’ type of bird. Sitting here, in east Northants, I can’t tell you when the Waxwings will come back – but they will, sometime, in a while. And it will be good when they do, because they are gorgeous birds – welcome visitors, probably made all the more welcome by their unpredictability.
Waxwings are rather extreme, but they illustrate one of the things that I believe attracts so many of us to nature – it’s unbiddable nature. We are not in charge. When I go out for a walk I cannot control what I see. I can look hard and hope that I see lots of nice things, but that’s as far as it goes. I cannot, however rich or powerful I am, command a Waxwing to appear. I can just go out and look for them.
And that makes it fun. We are often surprised by nature – we see the unexpected or the wonderful. Waxwings have unbiddableness built into their ecology, but it’s there in all species. On any day you could be surprised by the commonest species if you see more of them, or fewer than usual, or see them very close, or see them do something they’ve never shown you before, or perhaps make a sound that you’ve never heard before. Unbiddableness.
But when they were still numerous, say 150 years ago, Passenger Pigeons came and went like super-Waxwings. because, like Waxwings, they depended on tree seeds for their food, and these are unpredictable, Passenger Pigeons roamed the deciduous forests of the USA searching for the forests where their food was abundant – and those places moved around each year on a large scale depending on weather.
I was reminded of this a couple of times recently after giving talks about Passenger Pigeons. And this quote, which heads up Chapter 5 in A Message from Martha came to mind:
Ohio State Senate, select committee, 1857: The Passenger Pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.
that was written less than 50 years before the passenger Pigeon was extinct in the wild – they got that a bit wrong didn’t they?
If the Waxwings stopped coming, it would take us a while to realise – certainly here in east Northants where they rarely penetrate anyway. I’d be thinking that it was while since I last saw them, but would assume that they were somewhere else.
The Waxwings will be back. The Passenger Pigeon won’t be back.