Waxwings 2004/2005: A Summary|
This was written by: Stuart Sharp
In the winter of 2004/2005, record numbers of Waxwings arrived and wintered in the UK, and as many of you know, I have been lucky enough to catch a reasonable number of these truly stunning birds in several areas of Sheffield. Since the end of November, I had been making almost daily visits to a number of sites, and with the invaluable help of a couple of ‘scouts’, monitoring the activities of several different flocks across the city. The unprecedented numbers of birds present, together with an exceptionally good berry crop, meant that birds had been feeding in a number of new locations in addition to the more traditional sites; this has made it quite difficult to keep on top of the birds’ movements. However, by putting the hours in and getting a ‘recce’ done at every available opportunity, a number of catching opportunities presented themselves, and catches ranged from a single bird to 19 in a morning.
Another option is to try a form of ‘flick-netting’. Waxwings are far more wary of static mist nets than they are of human beings, and it is often possible for two people to stand underneath the feeding tree with a net held horizontally while the birds descend to eat; the net can then be lifted up to catch the birds as they leave the tree. This is also the best option for those regular occasions when the weather is too poor for normal mist netting, and also makes it possible to catch individuals that are feeding too high up for a static net.
By far the biggest problem when ringing in public, however, is of course, the public! Barely a minute goes by at some sites without a passer by wanting to know what on earth you are up to. The questions range from the amusing (“What do they taste like?”) to the bizarre (“Why are you cutting down the trees?”) to the rather suggestive (“Are you connected to those two ladies up the road who are waving poles around in the air?”). One chap, who obviously knew a little about the birds and had been watching Mistle Thrushes chase the Waxwings away, wondered if I was going to “kill the locals so that the Russians could feed”. Occasionally things get a little confrontational - one rather charming individual told me that he was going to “put me in a bag and take me up on the moors”.
However, for every psychopath there are a dozen people who are genuinely fascinated by what you tell them. It is possible to make someone’s day by showing them a bird in the hand, and many are simply staggered by how far some of these birds move. During daily visits to Heeley it became clear that word had spread throughout town, as several people came to watch the action, having been tipped off by their friends. This is, of course, an excellent way of raising awareness about the ringing scheme, and of ornithology in general. On returning to Heeley more recently, I was happy to see that someone had been round putting bird feeders up where I had been catching!
This kind of ringing is clearly not to everyone’s taste, and it certainly needs to be carefully co-ordinated. However, not only is handling such beautiful birds a privilege, but the PR side of things is often very rewarding – and not just when the locals invite you in for a cup of tea! Furthermore, ringing Waxwings provides invaluable information about the rather unusual movements of this eruptive species, with recovery rates exceptionally high (see the recent articles by Raymond Duncan in The Ringers’ Bulletin and various birdwatching magazines for details).
At the time of writing, my total for the winter stood at 79 birds (with 9 people from the group getting a ringing tick!), including a control from near Aberdeen, where a large-scale colour-ringing project is going on. I had also sighted a further 5 birds from this study, some of which had been recorded on more than one occasion at different locations on their way south. With this in mind, I started colour-ringing the Sheffield birds in association with Raymond Duncan, who coordinates the Aberdeen project. Within 10 days of catching 16 birds near London Road, one individual was re-sighted feeding along Manchester Road in Crosspool – so this work was already beginning to pay off. Observers should therefore scrutinise any Waxwings that they come across for colour-ringed birds – all individuals are colour-ringed on the left leg with two or three (Aberdeen birds) or four (Sheffield birds) colours per bird. Please report any sightings to either me (0114 233 5808) or Raymond (01224 823184). Thank-you!
Several people subsequently asked me what the final totals were for this winter’s Waxwings catching extravaganza/obsession, so I thought I’d provide a wee summary of the results here. With the help of one or two expert catchers (such as my wife Mandy), numerous low-grade amateurs who would rather stay in the car when it’s cold (such as Ray) and the odd all-round jammy sod (such as Brian), I managed to catch a total of 267 Waxwings during the winter, not including 26 which I ringed in Doncaster with DRG rings. This total consists of 251 new birds, 7 retraps and an incredible 9 controls – including three foreigners (1 from Finland and 2 from Norway). Most of the other controls were ringed in Scotland earlier in the winter, where Raymond Duncan colour-ringed several hundred individuals. Over the season, I managed to spot 14 of these birds in our study area – so that’s effectively 14 more controls! I also colour-ringed 70 of our Sheffield birds, and so far individuals have been sighted in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire, and best of all, Kent. All in all, a worthwhile project all round, despite the effort involved.