A Waxwing Day

I’ve often found twitching to be  frustrating in a particularly painful way. Even birding itself, while often enjoyable, can sometimes seem pretty frivolous. But to visit a location which – you have heard – was recently the temporary resting place for an avian waif is just asking for disappointment. So it was a mixture of expectations that I set out for Machynlleth last Thursday.

“Up to fourty birds” they had said, “feeding on berries outside the library”, then later “further up Maengwyn Street”. To have so many birds present, so early in the winter, so far west in Wales, it must be a “Waxwing Year”.  From the van I saw a woman with binoculars outside the library, but no birds. I parked up and began the search. The woman outside the library had just seen one, and a minute later it re-appeared briefly before flying off again. Half an hour of fruitless searching nearby followed. Hmmmm……time to try “further up Maengwyn Street”. From the van I spotted another little group of ornamental rowans and “yesssss!” – there were waxwings!  

Waxwing, Machynlleth

Waxwing, Machynlleth

I could see that the birds (about 25 of them) were using the tops of nearby tall trees as a refuge, with small groups making occasional sorties down to feed. I  parked near the rowans and had just set the van up as a hide when another local photographer parked next door and got out, long lens at the ready. The birds seemed to keep their distance. “Janet”, I called out of the window, “if you get back in they will come down to feed!” ….and then again a few minutes later, but slightly louder. The birds DID seem nervous. But eventually they got used to our presence, and I began to get some potentially decent results from inside – and then outside – the van.  On reflection, over coffee and a late lunch,  the morning had turned out really well.

More activity during the afternoon when the number of waxwings had increased, eventually reaching about sixty. But the sun was falling and it became more and more difficult to photograph them without deep shadows falling across their bodies. Sometimes it seemed as if they could feed on a bunch of brightly lit berries while themselves remaining in total shade. And boy, could they move quickly! Eventually I concentrated on trying to photograph the birds  silhouetted against a bright evening sky.

At dusk they all congregated in the top-most twigs of a tall poplar, before flying off as a group towards the town centre, looking like a small flock of starlings.  It seemed thay had gone to roost somewhere. They were soon back, though, fluttering and calling over the rowans in a tight flock, just a few feet away,  before dropping down to grab the few remaining berries. After that magical moment they were gone, to the north this time, and I called it a day too.

It was apparent that local people had noticed the birds as well. They didn’t need birders with their long lenses and  telescopes to point out these special visitors to the town. It seemed like it may have been the first big local event after the disappearance of April Jones two months earlier, and the consequent police and media invasion. And a much more pleasant one at that.

There was plenty of processing to be done, and plenty of deletions!. I’m a relatively newcomer to the world of bird photography, and today’s high speed motor drives are definitely a boon. The silhouettes were disappointing.  But I whittled the images down to about fifty and some favourites began to stand out, like the one above. It’s cropped slightly, and it could take a lot more cropping. But I’ve left the bird within its surroundings; at heart I’m still a landscape photographer, I think.  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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About Jeremy Moore

One of Wales' leading photographers; based near Aberystwyth, and specialising in Welsh landscape and wildlife. He has published the Wild Wales / Cymru Wyllt range of postcards since 1987. His most recent book was "Wales at Waters Edge" (with Jon Gower) published in May 2012. The National Library of Wales has a large number of his prints in its Collection. His exhibition "Bird/land" was shown at Aberystwyth Arts Centre from June until August 2016. It originally received support from the Arts Council of Wales. He is also working on a new book about Wales with the author Jon Gower, due for publication in spring 2018.
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