Country diary: a longed-for invasion

Aigas, Highlands: Bohemian waxwings arrive in undulating, chirruping troops, sometimes in their hundreds

Every year, about now, we hope to be invaded. It is one of those highlights in the Highland calendar that everyone even slightly birdy looks forward to. Their arrival is announced on local radio, commented on in the press, and sightings ping into our phones and laptops morning, noon and night.

Bohemian waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) arrive in undulating, chirruping troops of a dozen or more, but occasionally in their hundreds. These large groups are called irruptions, and occur when population explosions in Russia and Scandinavia mean that food there is too scarce. Unlike the continental crossbills (Loxia curvirostra), hordes of which are invading Scotland’s conifer forests – another irruption – and mixing with our resident birds here at Aigas, waxwings head straight for suburban gardens, industrial estates, town and city centres – anywhere where there are rowan (Sorbus acuparia) or hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) berries to gorge on.

Exquisitely beautiful, the waxwings are also apparently fearless, allowing you to approach within a few feet, so you can see them really well. Take a medium-sized passerine bird such as a starling, dress it in glowing silky-smooth plumage of delicate fawn, then give it a jaunty pinky-brown crest swerving upward from above the black-masked eye. Next, award it a back of dove grey running down to a prominent charcoal tail with a broad band of brilliant daffodil yellow across its tip, and then dip its undertail coverts in bright henna. To finish it off, give it wing primaries of jet black with a couple of splashes of brilliant white, edge them in bright yellow, and, with a final flourish, tip the wing secondaries in pillar-box red. Why do we call these elegant birds bohemian? It could be their showy plumage, their chirpiness or their unpredictability – or perhaps all three.

In a good year (for us), 10,000 of these extrovert avian nomads can fly in to Scotland from their breeding grounds in more northern forests. After the clocks changed, I was in Inverness buying batteries to re-arm our torches for the long winter nights. When I emerged from the shop, there they were, 27 of them, perkily perched in an ornamental rowan beside my car. I was dazzled.


John Lister-Kaye

The GuardianTramp

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