Monday, 6 February 2006

A scatter of winter thrushes

It was wonderfully bright and crisp the other morning, as I explored the fields around Harling. Mobile tit flocks were much in evidence within the small patches of woodland, while great spotted woodpeckers could be heard drumming in the distance.  Near to the Dower House at West Harling I came across a mixed flock of birds that was feeding on an area of overwinter stubble. The flock was not overly large but was spread out over a reasonable area and, as I scanned across it with my binoculars, I was able to pick out a number of different species. Brightly coloured yellowhammers stood out against the stubble, foraging alongside less obvious greenfinches and the occasional chaffinch. Starlings shuffled about with a busy action, searching for food, among similarly sized redwings and larger fieldfares.

The fieldfare is one of my favourite birds, with a gait and pose similar to a mistle thrush but marked more distinctively. The bold, grey head and rump contrast with a rich chestnut brown back, dark wings and a black tail. These wary birds often stand with the neck and head held high, the wings drooped at their side and the tail held horizontally. They have a rapid, almost bounding gait and, when disturbed, they will take to the top of the nearest tree. The redwing is much smaller and more subtly marked than its larger relative. Slightly smaller than a song thrush, the redwing is darker in colour and has a distinctive white stripe above the eye (known as the supercilium). The chest has dark streaks, rather than spots, and the underwing is smudged rufous-orange.

Both species are winter visitors, arriving in autumn from breeding grounds that stretch across Fennoscandia and east into Russia. Arable fields containing permanent pasture and stubble are favoured and the birds feed on earthworms, snails and other invertebrates taken from the surface of the soil. In early winter, fruits and berries feature prominently in their diet but stocks are usually exhausted before the year’s end. Redwings, in particular, struggle during cold weather and will make nomadic movements to escape the worst of the cold. In some years, individuals will venture into gardens in search of food. Although more robust, Fieldfares may also visit gardens to feed on windfall apples.

This flock was one of few that I have seen this winter and there seem to be fewer around this year. It will only be a number of weeks until these wonderful birds begin to depart, though some may linger through into May and occasional birds have summered here in previous years. While their departure heralds the arrival of spring, it will be a shame to see them go.

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