Everyone I speak to seems to have their own waxwing story. A friend in Addingham had 33 of these exotic-looking winter visitors perched in a sycamore tree in her garden. A fellow WNS member was given the body of one unfortunate that killed itself colliding with a window. She took it to her ornithology class in Christ Church, Ilkley, where the group was fascinated to have such a close-up view of its plumage, especially the yellow and sealing-wax red spots on the wings, when suddenly a live bird was spied, perched just outside the window. All this is perfectly splendid, except that I seem to be the only person in Ilkley who hasn’t seen one yet. Mortifying!
However, last week at a birthday party in London I sat opposite to a woman who has even more exotic garden birds: ring-necked parakeets regularly visit her bird feeders. These engaging little emerald green parrots have flourished in the Thames Valley, apparently having no difficulty with our climate (after all they originate from the foothills of the Himalayas) and finding plentiful food, not least in bird-lovers gardens. They’re descendants of escaped captives – according to one story their ancestors escaped from the film set of The African Queen at Shepperton Studios. On an earlier visit to Kew Gardens I was entertained by a very noisy small flock of them speeding overhead into a nearby stand of trees, but not everyone is as delighted as my lunch-mate and I. They are loud, brash and hungry birds and, some experts fear that their taking over of all the available nest sites may impact on other hole-nesting birds.
Of course they didn’t choose to live in the Home counties. Their story mirrors that of the ruddy duck, a small stout bird with attractive ruffous plumage, a pale blue beak and stiff erect tail feathers, which escaped from collections of exotic water fowl up and down the country and seemed to fit happily into our native fauna. Alas – it appears that in Spain ruddy ducks are interbreeding with the white-headed duck, a rarer European cousin, threatening its survival as a distinct species. So, although our ruddy ducks are not noted for their frequent trips to the Continent, a cull was ordered and soon – no more ruddy ducks.
Fortunately, no such complications have arisen over another escapee, one regularly to be seen in our valley and a favourite of mine – the mandarin duck. They seem to have flourished upstream of Bolton Abbey over the last two decades, nesting on the southern sides of the valley and spending the winter on the river. I love walking through Strid Wood in winter when the bare trees give clearer views of woodland birds like nuthatch, treecreeper and great spotted woodpecker, but I always keep an eye on the river to catch the bobbing of a dipper or the flirting flight of a grey wagtail and, as I reach the dark water just below the Strid, for parties of mandarin. They seem to like snoozing among tree roots and small rocks on the sunny side of the river, and what a picture they make: the males with their metallic green and chestnut crests, white eyebrows and orange sails on their backs, the females, more subtly coloured – but elegant in shades of grey and brown and buff.