Special Report-Pictures: Migrating birds bring flurry of life to city skies

Once every few years, Scandinavians and Russians invade our supermarket car parks.

“They’ve been seen at Waitrose, and I think they’ll soon be at Asda off the Parkway,” said Peter Garrity.

Starlings at Cavendish Mill near Stoney Middleton and, inset waxwings photographed by Peter Garrity.

Starlings at Cavendish Mill near Stoney Middleton and, inset waxwings photographed by Peter Garrity.

“I think there are around 500 in Sheffield at the moment,” added Jim Clarke. “They’ve been coming down from Scotland since October. Once they got to Huddersfield, I knew we’d be next.”

Waxwings, (or more properly, Bohemian waxwings), have ‘irrupted’ from their conifer forests in Scandinavia and northern Eurasia due to a shortage of winter food. The orange-brown birds, with yellow and red wing feathers, are the size of starlings, and although a few turn up here most winters, this year flocks of orange Bohemians are eating Sheffield out of its berries.

“They like the berries on rowan trees, and tend to go for the pink and yellow varieties first before moving onto red ones,” said Peter Garrity. “They also go for pyracantha and cotoneaster planted in gardens and car parks, which is why you often see them in town centres.”

The birds eat insects during the summer, and their winter diet can make them drunk after eating too many overripe winter berries, said Jim Clarke. “Although some do die as a result, they have very strong livers, so sometimes they just fall over and then after 20 minutes they’re OK and fly off again.”

Starlings against the sunset at Cavendish Mill

Starlings against the sunset at Cavendish Mill

Peter, a member of Sheffield Bird Study Group, photographed some of the first Bohemian waxwings arriving off the moors at Crosspool on Boxing Day, and he says Sheffielders can watch out for flocks at Heeley, Meadowhall Retail Park, Handsworth and Rutland Road over the next week or two.

“Apart from being absolutely beautiful, you can identify them by the sound they make, like jingling keys. But it’s best to watch them from about 10 metres away rather than standing under their tree.” They tend to be unafraid of people, Peter said, but seem scared of cars. “You don’t get much traffic in Scandinavian forests.”

It’s been an interesting winter for unusual migrants, he added, with a rare dusky thrush in Beeley village and on the nearby moors a great grey shrike (once known as the ‘butcher bird’ for its habit of impaling insects and rodents on thorn bushes).

For sheer numbers, the place to visit is Middleton Moor south of Eyam, the nighttime home for thousands of starlings, many of whom are also European migrants.

The spectacle provides material for both parts of the brain, said Stephen Middleton, who has been visiting the roost near Cavendish Mill since 2013. “It’s an aesthetic pleasure, and it also demands answers to questions like: Why do they do what they do? Where do they come from? How do they navigate?”

Two years ago, there were regular ‘murmurations’ lasting up to 20 minutes as the birds speckled a series of swirling patterns into the evening sky. But so far this winter, the starlings arrive at dusk and leave at dawn in vast numbers with no real murmurations as yet, and no-one’s sure why.

If the first large flock murmurates (a sparrowhawk looking for an easy meal helps), the next arrivals usually follow, Stephen said, but at present that first flock just swoops around for a while before heading into the moor’s reeds for the night.

On Saturday, the hawks and owls arrived late, and each flock of starlings whooshed over against the murky sky before funnelling down to roost. “80,000 or more tonight,” said Stephen. “The sound is like putting your head inside a jet engine as it warms up.” The Middleton roost will continue until there’s been snow on the ground for 24 hours, said Stephen, at which point the year’s starlings will be gone.

So for the next few weeks watch out for swirling starlings, sadistic shrikes and drunken waxwings.

“The Sheffield area is fantastic for birds,” said Peter Garrity, “because there’s such a range of habitats.”

And don’t forget supermarket car parks.

Visit www.sbsg.org/sightings/recent-news for more information.