This autumn’s Bohemian Waxwing irruption is shaping up to be one of the most dramatic in living memory. To anyone left cold by that sentence, please allow me to elaborate.
Each winter, small numbers of starling sized Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulous) make their way from their breeding grounds in northern Russia and Finland and find themselves on our Eastern coastline. Occasionally, when the Siberian Winter is particularly harsh, or, as is the case this year, there is a shortage of food in their breeding area, they move in far greater number. An ‘irruption’.
The wet weather that we have experienced this year has affected most of northern Europe and has resulted in a desperate lack of berries this autumn. Anyone making sloe gin or blackberry brandy to numb out the cost of Christmas will have noticed the lack of fruit in our hedgerows, and so have the birds.
The Jay (Garrulus glandarius) is a common but secretive bird, but this last couple of months has seen a major shift in behaviour. They are renowned for caching food, particularly acorns which they bury for retrieval later in the winter when food is scarce. With a poor acorn crop this year, though, Jays are having to move from their woodland habitats and overcome their natural shyness. These typically solitary birds have been forming flocks and moving en masse; I counted over thirty birds together, but flocks in excess of 600 birds have been recorded. They are coming to bird tables, too; their pinks, whites and bars of electric blue adding a touch of the exotic to the garden. Stunning plumage for a bird that doesn’t like to show off.
While people might be seeing more from their kitchen windows, the fear is what the winter will bring. This autumn has been fairly benign up to now, but a few months of short cold days will have a detrimental effect on much of our wildlife. The rain of May and June was a principal cause behind this situation. The trees and hedgerows were full of flower, but the incessant rain meant that the insects simply could not work their magic and fertilize them. By August, brambles were covered with small, sterile, black lumps, in place of fat, juicy blackberries. The elder tried again, filling the hedgerows with flower well into October, when they should have been full of berries. It was a futile effort.
The courgettes in our garden only fruited because I fertilized them myself (not nearly as smutty as it sounds), while the majority of gardeners experienced the worst crop for a generation. Farmers have fared little better, with field after field of corn good for nothing but animal feed or ploughing back into the ground. Bread will become a precious commodity come the spring.
So what hope is there for our natural world? In truth, very little, except the fact that nature always has a knack of bouncing back.
A long cold winter might actually help some of our creatures; the small mammals who will tuck up and hibernate through the worst. The demise of the Hedgehog has been well documented, but if more are able to sleep through until spring, then they should find less competition for what little food is there.
What spring will bring for our insects is harder to gauge. The warm, settled spell in mid-September, saw a late flurry of butterfly wings, but just how many of our overwintering species will emerge in March is of grave concern.
What is clear, is that man’s hand will be of greater importance this winter than for many previous decades. A third of the British population feed the birds in their gardens, and the positive effect of their action cannot be underestimated.
And who knows, in return, they might just see a waxwing from their window.
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