Tiny dancers

They en­thrall with their nightly per­for­mance in the branches of ur­ban trees – chat­ter­ing pied wag­tails, har­bin­gers of win­ter and the fes­tive sea­son

EADT Suffolk - - INSIDE - WORDS: Matt Gaw Matt Gaw is ed­i­tor of Suf­folk Wildlife Trust mag­a­zine suf­folk­wildlifetrust.org

Pied wag­tails per­form un­der ur­ban street­lights

The Christ­mas lights are yet to be switched on in Bury St Ed­munds, but most of them are al­ready up, strung across walk­ways, looped in shop win­dows and dan­gling from trees. In a sin­gle Nor­we­gian maple that stands be­tween the Corn Ex­change and the Nut­shell, a pub which is al­ready full-to-over­flow­ing, a series of cir­cu­lar glass bands twist and turn in the breeze. Even with­out elec­tric­ity they sparkle and glit­ter as they move, re­flect­ing the yel­low lights from win­dows and street­lamps.

But this tree is about to be dec­o­rated again. Half an hour af­ter the win­ter-weak sun fi­nally sinks, the first bird ar­rives, shoot­ing into up­per branches that still cling to most of their leaves. An­other, then an­other. All perch­ing on the same slim twig, nudg­ing each other along, call­ing greet­ings and con­tact calls of ‘chizzick’ and ‘swi-woo’.

I watch them, bob­bing and swish­ing their tails up and down in a ner­vous, saucy flut­ter­ing. A hand­ful of love­li­ness. The pied wag­tail re­ally is a bird that lives up to its name. Its cheeks and belly moon-white, the rest of its body is coloured in coal blacks and twi­light greys. They fid­get and twitch. Lit­tle movers. Tiny dancers.

I can see from around the base of the tree that the birds have not yet ar­rived in full force. By late No­vem­ber or early De­cem­ber up to 500 wag­tails will be roost­ing here. Their pres­ence ob­vi­ous, not only from the cheery, chat­tery car­ol­ing and con­stant move­ment, but from their gen­er­ous leav­ings. The lit­ter bins, brick work and road will all be haloed in guano, a white ring that carves out a space in the cen­tre of town for na­ture. It is a marker that shows there are other ways than shop­ping to track the sea­sons and to sense the tilt of the earth to­wards win­ter.

This tree is by no means unique. In the car park at Tesco just a mile away, there is an­other wag­tail roost that has the power to stop shoppers in their tracks. Field­fare, red­wing and thrushes also seem to grav­i­tate to these ur­ban spa­ces. They are drawn to the bright­ness of the berries, ben­e­fit­ting from safety in num­bers and the re­tained heat that ra­di­ates from pave­ments and washes from shops, and light. Per­haps, the wag­tails choose this maple for its dec­o­ra­tions, each bulb a three-bar feather-warm­ing fire.

I can see now that there are about 15 wag­tails in the tree. Maybe later more will come. Two years ago, I was at this very spot dur­ing the town’s an­nual Christ­mas Fayre. Then the twi­light roost was at its peak. The tree was a ball of feather, a liv­ing, fid­get­ing bauble, the clam­our greater than the noise of foot­steps or the band play­ing down by Abbey Gar­dens.

A whole crowd of peo­ple stood to watch, gaz­ing up into the branches and won­der­ing what they were. Spar­rows? Long-tailed tit? And why they were here. The an­swer was in front of them all along. It had risen with the steam of mulled wine and chest­nuts, it had been sung from band stands and shop speak­ers.

It’s be­cause it’s be­gin­ning to feel a lot like Christ­mas

A pied wag­tail, a bird that lives upto its name

Pied wag­tails at roost

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