My main reasons for stopping off in the rolling landscape of Powys were to tag along with Paul on some night-time ringing sessions to catch and ring Woodcocks, Snipe, Golden Plovers and a host of other species which utilise the pastureland, and can be trapped via use of a torch and hand net under the cover of darkness.
However, reports of a Waxwing flock roaming around Llandrindod Wells over the last few days meant our plans took on an additional course for this morning! The Waxwings visiting this area of Wales are amongst a superb 'invasion' of these Scandinavian nomads currently populating the UK. The particular flock in Llandrindod Wells was first noticed on the 30th December, consisting of a lonesome individual; numbers grew exponentially in the ensuing days, with the flock currently standing at 26 individuals. In anticipation that they would remain in the area, we visited the garden of the Dennisons (who had informed Paul that Waxwings had been visiting their garden over previous days) the previous night and plastered the hedge with berries in the hope that they would return.
Waxwing! The bird's full name, Bohemian Waxwing, refers to their nomadic lifestyle: the word Bohemia describes those that live a lifestyle like that of gypsies.
Our efforts were well rewarded: early morning Paul received a call from Bob Dennison with the brilliant news that the flock had returned and were gorging themselves on the berries. We headed over, and sure enough saw the unmistakable outlines of these plump and undeniably stunning birds dotted amongst the branches of a nearby birch. Now our main objective, besides seeing such fantastic beasts, was to catch some and fit the birds with colour rings. Whilst some birders/photographers may be vehemently against the catching of scarcities and rarities such as Waxwings, we still have so much to learn about these species: what happens to most of these vagrants? Do they simple perish after almighty navigational mishaps? Do drift migrants manage to re-align themselves and regain their conventional routes? Ringing can certainly answer some of these questions, and with a relative frequent scarcity such as the Waxwing, can produce some really interesting results. In addition, the added info that colour ringing provides can be invaluable...
The mid Wales Ringing Group have ringed a good number of Waxwings in previous invasion winters, but it's amazing to see the difference that colour rings has had on the actual use of their efforts: BTO metal rings were fitted to 4 Waxwings in January 2009, 51 in winter 2010, and 16 in November 2012, but no recoveries resulted whatsoever from any of these; however, 87 fitted with colour rings in the same 'Waxwing Winter' of 2012 resulted in a remarkable re-sighting rate: of the colour-ringed birds, 16 birds were re-sighted in the following months from as far as Denmark and Switzerland! In addition, one of the trapped birds had been ringed just weeks before on Fair Isle. So as you can imagine, we were very keen to try and catch a few...
Meanwhile in Crossgates, we set up a 40 foot net besides the berry-laden hedge, and waited for the Waxwing's appetites to get the better of them. It took less than twenty minutes for the flock to fly down, and as we encouraged the flock towards the net, we struck gold when four birds flew in. It was pretty awesome to get a close look at these marvellous birds, checking out the different ageing and sexing techniques and showing the birds to the Dennisons.
What awesome birds!
There are a few cool features you can look at on Waxwings to age and sex them, which was great fun to look at on the birds we caught. Before figuring out what gender the bird is, you need to find out its age. With Waxwings, this is fairly straight forward - looking at the tips of the primaries, juveniles lack the white/yellow edge on the inner side, which in adults forms neat chevron-live 'Vs'.
A juvenile bird with fairly dull-coloured white and yellow edging to the primaries, lacking the additional tips that make the V-shaped tips on adults
To then figure out whether the bird is male or female, there are a number of different features to look at, as cited in the new French ID guide to birds in the hand by Laurent Demongin
The Red Tips
the incredible waxy red tips to the secondaries which give the species its name can give a good indication of the sex: you can look at both the length and number of the tips, with males having longer and a greater number of red tips than females, although this also varies with age.
> In adults, males tend to have >6 tips, whereas females have less than <7
> In juveniles, males have between 4-7, and females less than 5
Three of our birds were females, and had just three red tips (although you need to use other features to confirm the age)
The yellow tail band
The tips of all tail feathers appear to be dipped in a rich yellow paint, and this band is much thicker and deeper in colour in males compared to females. By measuring the extent of the yellow on the outer tail feather, you get a good indication of it's sex
The throat patch
The black throat on males tends to terminate in a neat and distinct line at the lower throat, whereas female throat patches have a much more diffuse and less contrasting edge.
the primary colour of adults generally tend to be glossier and a darker black than that of juveniles, with adult males also being far glossier in appearance than adult females too
We fitted all the birds with colour rings as part of an on-going project, and so I really look forward to seeing whether they are re-sighted anywhere in the coming months! Send any reports of colour-ringed birds to the BTO
Many thanks to the Denisson family for allowing us to carry out the ringing in their garden, and to Paul and Silvia for the opportunity to see these amazing birds up close!