Nature Notes

Brin Best

Wharefdale Naturalists’ Society

ALTHOUGH my eyes and ears are usually focussed on bird arrivals from the south in late March, it was a group of exotic-looking avian travellers heading north that attracted my attention this week.

On our way to pick up the car in a bland Leeds car park, I noticed a small group of birds drifting overhead, giving a distinctive bell-like call. “Waxwings” I shouted, giving my wife a little fright, as she ‘awoke’ from mulling over the events of the day in her office.

Luckily, the small flock of waxwings landed in a nearby apple tree, still laden with small fruit from last autumn, many of which were now rotting in situ. They provided perfect feeding opportunities for the waxwings, which dropped onto the apples and pecked eagerly at the soft fruit.

These Leeds waxwings are about to embark on a long migration to their breeding grounds in northern Scandinavia or Russia. They may well have started their journey from a location in the south of England, where they’ve spent the winter gorging themselves on berries such as rowan and cotoneaster.

As the waxwings leave us to the north, so millions of new arrivals are about to spill into Britain from the south, most of which have been wintering south of the Sahara.

Their long, perilous journeys represent incredible feats of navigation and stamina, crossing multiple country borders and facing many dangers along the route.

A friend sent me an extraordinary photograph he took in Senegal, West Africa, a couple of weeks ago. It showed tens of thousands of sand martins feeding over a lake, refuelling on their epic journey to the UK.

Some of these very birds could any day be arriving in Yorkshire at sites such as Otley Gravel Pits, where they will wheel around in search of their insect prey, and excavate their burrows in the soft banks of the nearby river Wharfe.

In the spring and summer we like to think of these long-distance migrants as ‘our’ birds, as they choose to nest among us. But in truth, they also belong to Senegal where they spend time refuelling and to the African nations further south where they spend the winter - and to so many other countries along their migration route.

The waxwings, sand martins and all the other migrants that spend part of their life cycle in the UK remind us that birds have a truly global outlook; they rely on the interconnectedness of countries and habitats, and on the shifting seasons of the planet they call home. They are denizens of planet Earth.