Monday 18 December 2017

Cinnamon birds gorge on berries

Eastern invader: Waxwing on the hunt for food
Eastern invader: Waxwing on the hunt for food

Joe Kennedy

The severe weather in continental Europe has sent some adventurous invaders to British and Irish coastlines.

They are temporary refugees only and, on a long journey from Lapland and Russia and latterly Scandinavia - serious food needs have propelled them.

These visitors have no interest in permanent residence; once they have sampled sufficient berry bounty they will be on their way home.

This is our loss as they are quite beautiful birds.

Flocks of waxwings (bombycilla garrulous) have been reported arriving along southern and eastern coastlines here by birder and author Eric Dempsey's eagle eyes.

At least three years back I spoke at her garden gate to a resident in Monkstown, Co Dublin, who was astonished when a group of these exquisite cocoa-brown creatures dropped from the skies to begin wolfing her cotoneaster and pyracantha berries.

Once these birds have spotted a food source they will indulge in non-stop gorging.

In Scotland, one observed waxwing ate 500 cotoneaster berries, three times its own weight, in six hours.

One bird monitored in Wales broke records by swallowing between 600 and 1,000 berries in a similar period.

What occurs within that starling-sized frame results in the bulk being expelled every four minutes!

A reminder of starling behaviour. Not every householder would be happy with that in spite of the novelty of these attractive birds.

Waxwings can appear here in groups of varied numbers in four and five-year cycles, deemed 'invasion years', usually triggered by poor rowan berry crops in Scandinavia.

The birds breed in the coniferous woodlands of Lapland and Russia and thousands head south and west seeking food in times of need, many reaching these islands.

These lovely birds are a warm cinnamon grey colour with striking reinforcements such as a hoodie crest, yellow-edged tail and an upward-curving Zorro-like black mask.

Most distinctive, however, are the red, waxy blobs at the tips of secondary flight feathers which give the bird its name.

In the past week you may not have had the rare experience of the Monkstown gardener with a colourful air-drop but keep a lookout in supermarket car parks where berry-bearing shrubbery can be an attraction. The birds are considered tame, no doubt when busy stuffing themselves, but are usually nervous and may take off and soar away like the starlings which they resemble in flight.

■ A sparrowhawk (not clearly identified) may have been the dark 'monster' which silenced a large population of sparrows in a cattle shed in West Cork.

As a farmer walked to his dawn milking tasks the usual noisy chatter of the birds was missing.

A flashlight revealed a large raptor in the rafters with small groups of silent sparrows huddled together.

Much birdie chatter returned when the disturbed 'eagle' exited through a window.

Had it been waiting for an early morning strike? An unusual sighting indeed.

Sunday Independent

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