Here from Lapland for Christmas, the birds that sound like sleigh bells

Birdwatchers in for a treat as waxwings arrive in numbers not seen for more than 40 years

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They appear in Britain as if by magic just before Christmas, they sound like sleigh bells and they come from Lapland – and this year there are more than we’ve seen in decades.

Waxwings – birds not much bigger than a starling, but instantly recognisable by their prominent reddish-brown crest – are regular winter visitors to Britain and Ireland. Their arrival has traditionally heralded the coming of Christmas and their trilling song has even been said to sound like the bells on Santa Claus’s sleigh.

Usually only a few hundred are seen in the east of the country as the birds migrate from their summer homes in Finland and Scandinavia to feast on the British harvest of berries. This year, however, experts estimate more than 5,000 have arrived, and they are travelling farther west than they have in decades – giving many people their first opportunity to see them.

“The birds have been working their way west very quickly and some large flocks have even been seen in the Republic of Ireland,” said Grahame Madge of the Royal Society for Protection of Birds.

“They are clearing up berries at a massive rate. In some years if the berry crop is good in Scandinavia, we don’t see many, but we’ve had a very odd autumn with the arrival of many birds from Scandinavia. In late September, early October, we had an influx of jays coming in from continental Europe, that was an early indicator the berry crop and the nut crop was failing in Scandinavia, bringing more birds to our shores.”

BirdGuides, a national service that monitors bird sightings, has compiled reports of waxwing flocks from nearly every county in the UK and Ireland to reach an estimate of the number wintering in Britain and Ireland this year.

While the largest concentrations are still to be found in the east and north of the country, small numbers appear to have made their way as far south as Cornwall and as far west as Kerry.

“Waxwings always prove popular and, with their punk crests and twinkling sleigh-bell call, they’re always a joy to watch,” said Fiona Barclay from BirdGuides. “It really has been an exceptional year.”

Traditionally, a waxwing invasion is said to herald a bitterly cold winter. The last major migration, when 11,000 visited in the mid-1960s, was followed by one of the coldest winters on record.

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