New Year Waxwings

When it comes to wildlife hotspots, the small town of Hednesford will, in all probability, not feature on the list of locations most wildlife photographers would mention let alone be top of their wish list of destinations to visit. For those who have never heard of Hednesford, which face it is probably going to be most people, Hednesford is a former coal mining town in the county of Staffordshire in the English Midlands. Hednesford lies between the larger town of Cannock to its south and the Cannock Chase Area Of Natural Beauty to its north. Between 1914-1918, two large army training camps were established in the area where over a quarter of a million British and Commonwealth soldiers were trained before departing for the killing fields of the Western Front.

On a cold, damp, overcast January afternoon, I found myself standing with my camera set up by the side of a busy small road, just off a roundabout, in Hednesford with a group of other wildlife photographers and birdwatchers. In front of us, on the far side of the pavement are several small trees, one of which is covered in white winter berries. Behind the trees is a block of apartments. However, we are not looking at these trees nor the apartments. Instead we are looking at a group of nine Starling sized birds perched in the top most branches of a tall Silver Birch tree several hundred metres away in the local Co-op supermarket car park. Our combined group is attracting the attention of the Hednesford locals. Some cars drive past and the drivers think it amusing to blast their horns, one car goes past repeatedly with an exhaust that is deliberately set to back-fire as the car is driven. Other drivers stop precariously near the roundabout, blocking the traffic to the annoyance of other road users, and ask what we are looking at? A few people walk up and ask if they are still about?

So what has attracted me, the other photographers and bird watchers to Hednesford? The answer comes when the nine Starling sized birds start to leave the Silver Birch tree and fly towards where we are all standing. In several smaller groups, all of these nine birds land in a bare tree immediately to the right of the tree which is covered in the small white berries in front of where we are standing. Now that these birds have come closer, their distinctive “punk hairstyle” gives away that they are not Starlings but Waxwings. Suddenly, without warning, the nine Waxwings leave the bare tree and land in the branches of the tree in front of us and start feeding on the white berries. For a short time, whilst they feed, I try to isolate a single Waxwing amongst the jumble of branches and berries and to lock focus on its eye, it’s not easy but eventually I start photographing one of the Waxwings. Again, without warning, the Waxwings stop feeding and fly back to the Silver Birch tree in the car park. This process is repeated several times over the next few hours until shortly before dusk when the Waxwings leave to roost for the night.

Waxwings are only a winter visitor to the British Isles. They arrive from Siberia and Scandinavia in search of winter berries after the food has been exhausted in the areas where they are resident for most of the year. With their distinctive “punk hairstyle”, bandit mask and distinctive colouring, with red wing tips, Waxwings are a welcome, colourful winter visitor. They are rightly sought out by birdwatchers and photographers. During exceptionally harsh winters in Siberia and Scandinavia, large numbers of Waxwings can visit the British Isles giving rise to what is known as a “Waxwing Winter”.

Whilst towns like Hednesford may appear to be an unlikely destination for winter visitors from Siberia and Scandinavia, many urban areas have an abundance of trees, such as Rowan, that produce large crops of winter berries. It is these winter berries that the Waxwings have travelled all that way for. And why did I visit Hednesford to photograph these particular Waxwings? The simple reason is that Hednesford is just over 10 miles from my home which hopefully goes to prove that, with a little luck and knowledge, you don’t have to go too far to photograph some truly beautiful and exotic birds, even in the British Isles.