Twitchers flock to Willow Brook car park

Birdwatchers taking photographs of waxwings in the car park of the Willow Brook Centre, Bradley Stoke, Bristol.

Anyone driving past the car wash in the car park of Bradley Stoke’s Willow Brook shopping centre in recent weeks and seeing tens of photographers lined up on the edge of the road might be forgiven for thinking a film star had popped in to have their Rolls-Royce valeted. The reality, however, is that the guys (and gals) with the long lenses had them trained on a number of small berry-laden trees that have been attracting a rare visitor (of the feathered variety) to the area.

The birdwatching world in the south-west had been awash with reports of sighting of waxwings, starling-sized birds having a prominent punk-like crest and brightly coloured wings, with waxy-looking red tips on the flight feathers.

Waxwing on a tree in the car park of the Willow Brook Centre in Bradley Stoke, Bristol.

Waxwings are native to Scandinavia and Russia but, in winters when local supplies run low, they migrate to milder climates in search of food.

Their favourite winter food is fruit, in particular the berries of rowan and hawthorn trees, which explains their presence in the Willow Brook Centre car park, where there are many rowan trees planted between the rows of parking spaces.

Waxwings are most often seen in the north of the UK and on the east coast, but in years when berries are particularly scarce, they move further inland in search of sustenance.

The last major ‘irruption’ (influx) of waxwings was in the winter of 2012/13, when several sightings were recorded in Bradley Stoke.

One of the photographers we spoke to at Willow Brook, Mark Jones, told us he had travelled from Berkshire in search of the elusive birds, of which there are thought to be just a few thousand scattered across the country. He said:

“The flock that has been seen in Bradley Stoke is made up of around 15 birds – not a big number at all, and because they only come over once every four or five years, it’s really great to have the opportunity to see them.”

“They’re so striking – they’re one of those birds where you think: ‘Wow, that’s really pretty’”.

“They do seem to turn up in the same places whenever there’s an irruption. It seems they’re able to smell out which are the ripest berries, so you must just have the ripest most well-done berries around here!”

Another snapper, Paul Cousins from Weston-super-Mare, who has been photographing birds for about 20 years, said:

“I’ve been trying to get these birds for quite a few years now, and every time I kept missing them.”

Asked what sort of pictures he was aiming to get, Paul said:

“With a berry in the mouth, no twigs in the way. Everything sharp from the beak right down to the tip of the tail.”

When we approached the Willow Brook Centre to ask them what they made of the unusual activity in their car park, manager Andy Wynn told us:

“We were surprised to see the emergence of a group of people with binoculars and cameras in the car park last month, in numbers that grew day by day. They explained to us that we had some rare birds from Russia in and around the car park, which was quite a surprise. We have tried to accommodate the ‘twitchers’ as they’ve set up, including putting a few barriers out for their safety when they were overspilling into the road. It has been interesting to ‘watch the watchers’ over the past few weeks and to see many of their photos of these beautiful birds online, and they are welcome to use the space whilst the waxwings are in residence.”

Waxwing on a tree in the car park of the Willow Brook Centre in Bradley Stoke, Bristol.

Photos: Waxwings on trees in the car park of the Willow Brook Centre. [Credit: Mark Jones (@markjonesbrack) on Flickr]

To view more photos, search for “waxwings Bradley Stoke” on Twitter or Flickr:

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This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of the Bradley Stoke Journal magazine (on pages 12 & 13). The magazine is delivered FREE, EVERY MONTH, to 9,500 homes in Bradley Stoke, Little Stoke and Stoke Lodge. Phone 01454 300 400 to enquire about advertising or leaflet insertion.

UPDATE (9/3/17): On Wednesday 8th March, just days after the above article was published, contractors began uprooting many of the rowan trees in the car park of the Willow Brook Centre. As might be expected, this has caused consternation amongst the birdwatching community. Read some of their comments on our Bradley Stoke Rowangate page. The Willow Brook Centre has promised to release a “full explanation” tomorrow (Thursday 10th March).

UPDATE (10/3/17): The Willow Brook Centre said today: “Tree surgeons were called to Willowbrook Shopping Centre to assess around a dozen trees on site and described them as ‘dehydrated, undernourished and in a poor way’ … We fully appreciate it is a disappointment to cut down the trees, and therefore the habitat of these birds, however, given the condition of the Rowans we were left with no option but to remove them.” [Read the full statement]

UPDATE (27/3/17): A few facts and figures provided by the Willow Brook Centre:- There were originally 28 rowan trees at the centre. Thirteen of these were removed two years ago (2015). Removal of the remainder began on Wednesday 8th March 2017. There are still a few left, by Waves and the petrol station. It has not been possible to replant any of the removed trees, due to the poor condition of their roots.

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