Friday, 27 December 2019

Waxwings 2019

Before you read this, and in case you don’t get further, please go and look at your local waxwings for colour rings, and photograph them in particular. I know- a real hardship, but we really do want to get as many resightings as possible, so even if it’s just a brief look, we would really appreciate it! Each bird has a metal over yellow plastic colour ring on the right leg and more importantly, three individual colour rings on the left leg identifying the individual. It’s worth noting that individual birds can splinter off from a group from day to day, so, (for example) just because thirty were sighted both today and the day before in your local area doesn’t mean that these are the same birds!

If you resight a waxwing with a colour ring – please send the location, date, ring colour combination (and photograph if you have it and are happy to share it with us!) to: and/or 

There are many ways to mark the coming of winter. The final leaves dropping from the trees, the first frost that doesn’t lift all day, or the September rush on Christmas chocolates in the shops. But here at Grampian Ringing Group it really isn’t winter until the first group of waxwings arrive in Aberdeen.

The soft chirruping of these birds marks the start of a new season of deep Scottish winter, when you have six hours of daylight to scramble and try to find the birds – let alone ring them. In our own Raymond Duncan’s words, waxwings are ‘spooky’ and by that we don’t mean that they’re terrifying. Rather that they will scattily move from tree to tree across the city, sometimes without warning, disappearing into the cool air - much to the sighs of despair of those of us out in negative temperatures trying to set nets.

In order to successfully ring waxwings, you first need plenty of birds. That might sound obvious, but the number of waxwings in the city makes a real difference between how likely we will be to catch and how many cold mornings are going to be spent waiting by empty nets. A hundred, two hundred birds are pretty slim pickings across the whole of Aberdeen, especially in years with high berry crops. This seems to be because the birds split into smaller groups to feed across the city; as and when they feel like rather than staying together as a single entity. The bigger the flock, the better chance you have of both the birds coming back to strip a tree, and of catching. Higher berry crops mean that not only do they split off more readily, but that there are that many more places to check as well. Many a morning has been spent driving across the city searching for birds that were sighted less than an hour ago, but have since disappeared into thin air.

This year has been a particularly good berry crop across all of the rowan trees in the city, and we’ve had a reasonable number of waxwings arrive. At its maximum point, we’ve had around four to six hundred in the city (sadly never in one flock) – certainly a number we’ve been able to work with. For those of you reading who aren’t familiar with the project, GRG has been colour ringing waxwings for over thirty years, and have had thousands of resightings over that period to map their transit as an eruptive migrant.

The first weekend of November is usually the best indicator of how many birds we’re going to get in a season, with a good number being sighted in that first week indicating a good start, or a lack of birds a possible no-show or poor year. This year there were as few as fifty birds being seen in the first ten days of November, followed by a decent influx of birds in the fourth week of November and early December, which was when our best days so far this season have been.

Not including the several days of attempted catches without success, we had our first catch on 23 November, once the numbers of birds had sufficiently increased to a level that made it possible. At the time of writing we have precisely one hundred waxwings colour ringed and out into the world, and have had eight resightings as far south as Northumberland.

The delicate art of ringing waxwings
Waxwings tend to eat off of rowan trees with the small, red/orange rowan berries first, before moving on to the ornamental yellow/white and lastly the pink berries. They’ll also have a picking at other large red berried rowan, hawthorn and whitebeam trees. This seems to be the general order of preference if you are a waxwing. This year has been no exception, with the birds following this order nicely, apart from there being so many berries that they haven’t been able to finish one group before either seemingly without reason swapping to the next variety or the berries of one group have started rotting on the tree. The ornamental rowans tend to rot later than the more natural types, so it makes sense that they at least would use that in determining preference. Our most success this year has been on yellow berries, with one low lying tree in particular next to a busy intersection in an industrial estate allowing us to catch over thirty birds over several days – despite the traffic putting the birds off at less than opportune moments!

When we are out catching and ringing waxwings we often get people coming and asking us what we're doing, which can be a great opportunity to both show local people what we are doing and get them interested in the birds and project. Many local photographers who had come out to snap the birds are really engaged with what we are doing, and seem delighted to see the birds up close as well as lern more about what we are doing. We have a network of waxwing spotters across Aberdeen whome we know from years of studying waxwings and are now kind enough to let us know when birds start to use their sites; it feels great to engage the local community in this way.

Aging and sexing waxwings – just add binoculars

Waxwings are one of the most straight forward passerine species to age at this time of year, with first year and adult birds being very straightforward to tell apart. As seen below, it all comes down to the ‘hook’ on the primaries. Juvenile birds lack this, and only have the downwards bar on the leading edge. This can easily be seen in the field, and it can be really satisfying and useful to see whether a flock is mainly adults or juveniles. There is a very high proportion of adults this winter.

Sexing can be a little more difficult, but is still possible in the field. Waxwings get their name from the ‘waxy tips’ on their secondaries, small red extrusions from the rachis (central spine) of a feather out of the end of the feather. Males tend to have a higher number of these (up to all eight secondaries) and will tend to be both wider and longer than those on females. There are also particularly obvious females lacking any waxy tips, known sometimes as ‘waxless’ wings or just ‘wings’, to much amusement whilst ringing. Some particularly flashy males will also have waxy tips in the tail, and is a mark that is really impressive in the hand! There is an overlap in both the length of and number of waxy tips in a birds wing to determine whether it’s male or female, and the length of yellow in the tail should also be used to determine this with males having broader bands. The bib can also be looked at if there is still doubt after these two criteria, with males having a more distinct line separating the body plumage, with females’ bibs diffusing more subtly. And just to round off their ridiculously beautiful plumage, check out the under tail coverts!

As part of the study we measure: the number of waxy tips, length of longest waxy tip, and length of yellow band on both the first and fifth tail feathers on all birds ringed. Interestingly we have caught mainly adults so far this year, and two juveniles have had particularly short wing length (~10mm shorter than they should be) and no, we haven’t just had trainees measure them. It’s impossible to know but because of this we wonder if the waxies had a poor breeding season this year, and therefore there are less young on migration, or if it’s just random chance. Nonetheless, it’s been interesting to note.

How you can help!
Now that we’ve unleashed a flock of one hundred colour ringed birds into the country, we need your help to resight them. We've started to get resightings across the northern UK already, showing our birds are already splintering off south. What we need is for a continuous look at the waxwings in your local area to look for rings. With the advent of modern photography, we get some fantastic records of our birds back and if birds hang around in your area we would appreciate you checking them again for rings as they might have been joined by new birds from the north and it helps us build a picture of their movements this invasion.

As it is, we think that with such a high number of berries many birds might stay with us up north all winter, and we’ll be out checking, but as there have been a good number going south already, it will be interesting to see if that rings true!

Thanks for reading, and happy waxwing hunting!

If you resight a waxwing with a colour ring – please send the location, ring colour combination (and photograph with rings visible if you have it and are happy to share) to: and/or 

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Redpoll madness!

Lesser redpoll

In 2016 we achieved the highest ever redpoll total for Grampian Ringing Group, with 2280 lesser redpolls and 45 common redpolls ringed. Most of these birds was caught at two birch woodland sites at Drumoak and Banchory, almost entirely during October and November.

Foreign travels stopped us ringing redpolls the past couple of years, but this autumn we were back in the country and keen to have another go. We started catching in mid-September and through October, averaging 70 redpolls a session. It was the end of October and beginning of November that saw our peak numbers in 2016, so we took a couple of weeks off work and hoped that time of year would deliver again.

Common and lesser redpoll

The first catches at Drumoak and Banchory were quieter than expected, with 83 and 66 redpolls caught. Perhaps there wasn’t the big numbers around this autumn like in 2016? However, some intel from Al Young in Moray suggested the redpolls were feeding on spruce this year instead of birch. On 29th October we tried a new site with plenty of spruce at Pitfichie Forest, which resulted in a record catch of 343 redpolls. Interestingly this was exactly the same date we’d had our previous highest catch in 2016 (324 redpolls).

We then tried another new spruce site at Durris which saw the record catch keep being surpassed! Over 4 days we ringed 1580 redpolls at the site, with the peak being 510 birds ringed on 05th November. There was clearly enormous numbers of redpolls in the area as amazingly we didn’t have a single same site retrap during these sessions.

Lesser and common redpoll

And then just like that it was all over! 9th November saw only 42 redpolls ringed, and the following weekend only a measly 7 were caught. Multiple sites have been checked but it appears that the large flocks of redpolls have cleared out of the region. Interestingly English ringers have noted a lack of any significant redpoll numbers down south this autumn, so perhaps they will have a deluge of redpolls hitting them soon. 

We ringed 2850 lesser redpolls over the autumn, and with Al and Skitts getting some good catches too, the group total for the year sits on over 3800. Common redpoll numbers were down on 2016, with only 16 caught compared to 45. This may be do with the prevalent easterly winds we had in 2016 which we’ve lacked this autumn.

The map below shows movements from birds ringed in 2016 (including one to the south of France, right at the edge of the lesser redpoll's range). We look forward to seeing where the birds ringed this year end up. 

As well as to understand their movements, the main reason we're ringing so many redpolls is a study we're conducting on their poll colours. As anyone who's ringed a fair few redpolls will know, they don't all have red polls! In fact perhaps only half of them are red, with a range of shades of yellow, gold, orange, brown, pink and purple. We have detected around 40 distinct colours of poll, and hope to publish our findings soon. 

Euan and Carmen Ferguson

Monday, 13 May 2019

Bennachie Ringing Demonstration 13 April 2019

On Saturday 13 April we were invited to host a ringing demonstration at the Bennachie Visitor Centre.

It was a very chilly day but the sun was shining and we had a great turn out with the event fully booked with lots of young people plus a few passers-by getting involved too.
Photo by Alison Sutherland

 The centre’s well stocked feeding station, complete with blind and automated feeders, made the perfect place to set some mist nets. Although the nets were visible in the strong sun we had a constant stream of birds to show the visitors and ended up with a nice variety of species with highlights including a treecreeper, a goldcrest and a pair of great spotted woodpeckers.

A 5F goldcrest. Photo by Alison Sutherland

The team at the traditional post ringing demo pit stop (a bus on the A96!)
Caitlin Tarvet

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Blue tits done - good job it wasn't coal tits

Many thanks to David Norman and the BTO for spicing up our University training site ringing this winter with a new Blue Tit moult/survival project. For various reasons we didn’t manage as many visits as hoped for during the 2 months outlined for recording Blue Tit moult limits, November and February, but hopefully we got enough to make a useful contribution to this UK wide project.

Blue tit with old greater coverts. Photo by Sarah Fenn
Looking at the numbers of Blue, Coal and Great Tits ringed and retrapped during the sessions we were just glad Blue Tit was the target species and not Coal Tit (see graph). There were plenty of each in November but come February last session we caught no Coal Tits! We wondered if the large numbers in November were associated with a decent beech mast crop in the nearby beech trees in Seaton Park. By February perhaps the beech seed had run out and the large numbers had been forced to disperse in search of food.

Well done to our young athletes David Hunter, Chelsea Ward and Logan Johnson for achieving a good ratio of successful sprints to the mist-nets from distance (four out of six) to capture some of our larger visitors to the feeding station (see photos). We’re baiting a whoosh net site now for the doos.

Buzzard. Photo by David Hunter

Stock dove and woodpigeon. Photo by Sarah Fenn

A nice variety of species have been caught during the sessions.

Bullfinch. Photo by Logan Johnson

Great Spotted Woodpecker. Photo by David Hunter
Thanks to Mark Paterson for continued access and support for our ringing in the University Botanic Gardens.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Waxwing and waning (…and resighting!)

With several reports of waxwings up and down the east coast from mid-October excitement mounted for hopes of a another of Aberdeen’s bumper waxwing winters. Numerous mobile flocks began to be reported and numbers built up to 300+ birds across the city by late November. Traditional berry tree hotspots were under surveillance as smaller flocks began grouping up. The city’s mistle thurshes were starting to panic as waxwings descended on their prized rowan trees. But the rush didn’t last, numbers soon stalled and as birds continued moving southwards totals began to dwindle and soon fizzled out. We did, however, succeed in colour ringing a few birds while the numbers peaked with the current total standing at 23 (22 juveniles and 1 adult). 

Even with this small sample we quickly received a resighting from Tony Davis in Kirkcaldy (Fife) a week after ringing in Aberdeen. Although the full combination couldn’t be read, the right leg showed a yellow colour-ring below the metal ring which identified it as one of ours from this year

Waxwing in the hand
Just as I was writing this blog and already feeling quite pleased with our capture/resighting ratio the next flurry of resightings came as a welcome surprise… Among a flock of around 150 waxwings that spent several days in Edinburgh was waxwing YGR, a young male ringed in Aberdeen 17 days earlier.

Photo by Richard Wells – Waxwing YGR in Balgreen, Edinburgh on 13/12/18
We then had a pair spotted in Yorkshire, a young male (YYW) and female (YWW), on 24 December by Mike Robinson, Richard Hughes, and Hannah Greetham. Waxwing YWW then went on to be seen with a flock of 5 birds in Norfolk 5 days later.
Photo by Mike Dawson – YWW in Long Straton, Norfolk 29/12/18
This was topped off by another Norfolk sighting, this time of YBR in Norwich – a young female ringed a week earlier in Aberdeen.
Photo by Brian Anderson - young female (YBR) Norwich 31/12/18
So with only 23 birds ringed we managed 6 resightings of 5 birds – a 26% resighting rate! Proving that these little scandi jewels are always quality, even in small quantities. A massive thank you to all our wonderful waxwing reporters! As always, any colour ring resightings are hugely appreciated and we’re very grateful to anyone who takes the time to look - so please do check any waxwings you see(and your photographs!) and report them to and/or 

Wishing you all the best in the New Year from all of GRG,

Caitlin Tarvet