December Almanac: waxwings and starlings

Waxwings are a rare but possible sight in Blackpool in December while starlings form a reliable but no less spectacular show for onlookers at dusk. Here’s what to look out for in nature this December

Would you like to see stunning birds with charisma and unique plumage features? Would you like to see them sat in festively appropriate berry bushes? Finally would you like to witness this spectacle within walking distance of your own house? If the answer to all these questions is yes then read on and keep your eyes peeled in Blackpool over the next few weeks.

Nationally we are in the midst of a waxwing irruption. Essentially because they’ve had a good breeding season or more likely the berry crop in Scandinavia is poor they’ve had to travel further than usual for food and sizeable flocks are appearing across Britain. The first Blackpool record of the winter was a couple of weeks back, with three briefly by Stanley Park Model Village before heading towards Marton Mere.

Waxwings often return to sites their forebears have visited many years before. Photo: Wiki Commons

When waxwings do cross the North Sea they turn up disproportionately in streets, gardens and even retail parks. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly and most importantly their favoured berry sources are plants such as cononeaster which are planted for ornamental reasons in many urban settings. Secondly they are generally tolerant of fairly close approach, though this can be overstated and liberties should not be taken to get a slightly better photograph.

Waxwings often return to sites their forebears have visited many years before in other irruption years. Presumably this is simply because they can use smell to pick out suitable food sources from some distance away. In Blackpool these include some streets in South Shore and Layton, and there are also regular stopovers in Lytham, Cleveleys and Preston. That said new cotoneaster and other food plants will have appeared elsewhere and, in passing, birds will use other berry plants including rose hips. Illustrating this the only ones I’ve found for myself in the town were in a couple of scrawny trees with a handful of berries behind Talbot Road Sainsbury’s.

They are stunning birds to look at, yet they can disappear in plain sight.

Waxwings are elegant off-pink birds with short, spiky crests and black on the throat and around the eyes. They are particularly known for the feature that gives them their name – a range of striking wing markings including red tips to feather endings that look like they’ve been dipped in ink. They are stunning birds to look at, yet they can disappear in plain sight because when they are flying over, and particularly when seen in silhouette, they resemble starlings.

On the subject of starlings, December is one of the peak months for observing them in the town as they form sizeable roosts on the piers, particularly North Pier, and Marton Mere. Prior to settling down on the metal supports of the piers or among the reed stems fringing the mere they engage in murmurations. Although each bird follows a cue its neighbour to the human eye it is a simultaneous swirl of movement, creating spectacular patterns. Starling murumurations have become something of a tourist attraction where they occur, and Blackpool is no exception even if it’s still a small minority of visitors who partake.

Murmurations from Yannick Dixon on Vimeo.

Starling numbers have declined substantially in recent years, especially the breeding population prior to the influx of birds from the Continent in winter. Between 1995 and 2016 common starling numbers halved, a staggering level of decline for a species not actively persecuted. There are also declines going on across Europe so the numbers of winter birds is sliding, and with climate change those that survive may increasingly ‘short stop’ and not come to us in mid-winter. So the common starling is not so common and on the Red List of threatened birds in Britain, and the murmuration is itself in danger of becoming an endangered species.

Seen in sunlight they are actually stunning looking birds with a glossy green iridescence, bright lemon beaks and, in winter, distinctive arrowhead spotting.

If you aren’t able to get to the sites of the murmurations, and if you can you really should, there are other options for observing Starlings. They have fairly predictable flight paths into the roost sites, and thousands of birds will pass over the same areas every evening before dusk. For example at my house near Blackpool Sixth Form College the sky goes dark every day as birds head over on their way to the North Pier roost. Similarly, if work or family commitments mean you can’t get to the roost in the evening, there’s a lot to be said for going at first light – they don’t do the murmuration but perhaps 50,000 or so birds pass over in wave after wave.

A final point. These monthly guides by their nature focus disproportionately on the scarce and unusual, but there is always pleasure to be had from the common and everyday and starlings are a case in point. Seen close to, and especially in, sunlight they are actually stunning looking birds with a glossy green iridescence, bright lemon beaks and in winter distinctive arrowhead spotting. If you don’t get lucky and find some waxwings take a few minutes to appreciate your local neighbourhood starlings.

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