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Our Northern (Winter) Thrushes - Redwing and Fieldfare
It’s Autumn: the time of year when the ‘chakking’ calls of Fieldfare in the hedgerows in the frosty early morning, preceded by the ‘seep seep’ night-time calls of migrating Redwing announce the arrival of our Winter Thrushes. They arrive anytime from late September but it’s not until the frosts of October and November that we begin to see them en-mass in the fields and hedgerows.
Fieldfare and Redwing tend to remain at their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and continental Europe until food sources, such as Rowan berries run out: birds then head for the UK to make the most our milder winters; moving South and West across the country as colder weather sets in.
The initial findings of the Winter Thrush Survey (BTO) indicate that all Thrush species tend to feed on Hawthorn berries in hedgerows and woods, until those supplies run low, followed by foraging on the ground, mainly for fallen fruit or for soil invertebrates. This tends to be a seasonal change as we move from Autumn to harsher Winter weather. And this is when we are most likely to see them come into suburban parks gardens and allotments, where the attraction of abundant fruit trees and berries makes for rich pickings.
They are sociable birds, and can be found in very large flocks, occasionally mixed in with other thrushes or starlings. Towards dusk, they congregate to roost together and, if a tall hedge or tree is selected, they all face the same direction when they sleep.
In ‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’, Clare writes:
Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread
The fieldfare chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and closen rove
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again
Clare deftly arrests us with that image of ‘the whistling thorn’ and its close, orchestral collaboration with the Fieldfare, for whose movements ‘rove’ is the perfect description.
We mostly know them as Passage birds arriving in the Autumn and leaving in Spring around April time but occasionally staying until May or even early June: a few pairs remaining to breed in northern Britain: Fieldfare have been known to breed fairly recently in the Peak District and Staffordshire moorlands, while Redwing are restricted for the most part to the highlands of north and west - around 40-80 pairs.
W H Hudson in his book British Birds (1895) writes thus:
‘At all seasons the Redwing is gregarious, and in its summer haunts many birds are found nesting in close proximity. Their spring song likened to a Nightingale. Richard Jefferies, who found the Redwing breeding in England and heard its summer song, describes its strain as ' sweet and loud’ - far louder than the old, familiar notes of the thrush. The note rang out clear and high, and somehow sounded strangely unfamiliar among English meadows.’ .....
....... ‘But one spring—it was rapidly verging on summer—I was struck day after day by hearing a loud, sweet, but unfamiliar note in a certain field. Fancying that most bird notes were known to me, this new song naturally arrested my attention. In a little while I succeeded in tracing it to an oak tree. I got under the oak tree, and there on a bough was a redwing singing with all his might. It should be remarked that neither redwing nor fieldfare sings during the winter; they of course have their “ call “ and cry of alarm, but by no stretch of courtesy could it be called a song. But this redwing was singing—sweet and very loud, far louder that the old familiar notes of the thrush. The note rang out clear and high, and somehow sounded strangely unfamiliar among English meadows and English oaks.
Then, looking farther and watching about the hedges there, I soon found that the bird was not alone—there were three or four pairs of redwings in close neighbourhood, all evidently bent upon remaining to breed ...... Afterwards I found a nest and had the pleasure of seeing the young birds come to maturity and fly.
Nothing could be more thoroughly opposed to the usual habits of the bird. There may be other instances recorded, but what one sees oneself leaves so much deeper an impression. The summer that followed was a very fine one. It is instances like this that make one hesitate to dogmatize too much as to the why and wherefore of bird-ways. Yet it is just the speculation as to that why and wherefore which increases the pleasure of observing them.’
Richard Jefferies Wildlife in a Southern County (1879).
The first official record of breeding Redwing was 1925 in Sutherland Scotland.
The first recorded nesting in the UK for Fieldfare was 1967 in Orkney.