Mild winter attracts influx of visiting birds to Scottish gardens

The number of waxwings wintering in Scotland has soared this year, according to results from the country's largest annual birdwatching survey.

Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus. Bedfordshire, England. January 2011.
Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus. Bedfordshire, England. January 2011.

Sightings of the eye-catching birds rose more than 20-fold during this year’s count, which took place in January.

Experts say unusually mild weather was behind the trend.

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More than 35,000 Scots took part in the study, recording 626,184 birds in gardens and parks north of the Border.

The sightings were part of the RSPB’s annual nationwide Big Garden Birdwatch, which saw over eight million birds logged by 497,000 people across the UK.

House sparrows were the most commonly sighted garden birds in Scotland again, a position they have held since 2012. Starlings climbed up one place to second, pushing chaffinches down to third, while blackbirds and blue tits rounded off the top five.

Waxwings, which are easily recognisable from their brightly coloured plumage and distinctive crested heads, are regular visitors to Scotland over winter.

However, they flock here in much greater numbers every seven to eight years – known as an irruption – when berry crops are poor in their native Scandinavia.

The species was seen in nine times as many Scottish gardens as in previous years.

Visits from other migrant birds, including redwing and fieldfare, also rose as sub-zero temperatures on the continent forced them to seek out more favourable conditions.

More than 6,300 Scottish school children took part in the RSPB’s accompanying Big Schools Birdwatch.

Blackbirds remained the most common playground visitors, followed by carrion crows and starlings.

“The wildlife we see around where we live, such as a blackbird singing from a rooftop or a robin perched in a tree, is often one of the first experiences we have with nature,” said Keith Morton, RSPB Scotland’s species policy officer.

“Having over 35,000 people in Scotland spend an hour taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch is fantastic and an indication of how much people enjoy seeing the wildlife that lives around them.

“Using the results from the 626,184 birds counted allows us to create a snapshot of how our garden birds are doing now and compared to previous years.”

He said ornithologists had predicted an increase in waxwings in 2017 but did not expect such high numbers.

Mr Morton added: “Their distinctive colouring and love for berries make them a great sight to see – something that more people will have been able to do this year.”