Small numbers of Bramblings have been appearing in local gardens over recent days. This striking finch, a close relative of the Chaffinch, is a winter visitor, arriving in varying numbers from breeding grounds that extend across the northern forests of Scandinavia, Finland and Russia. Substantial breeding populations occur in these northern forests and, from September, they begin to move south in search of Beech mast – a favoured food. Huge flocks will form in areas where there is a substantial supply of this tree seed and roosts in excess of 200,000 birds are not unusual. As with many other trees, the quantity of seed produced can vary dramatically between years and it is this variability that determines the numbers reaching our shores. In years when the mast crop is poor elsewhere then good numbers arrive here; when the crop is good elsewhere then the birds remain on the Continent.
If you look in your bird book you will almost certainly be presented with a striking picture of a male Brambling in his breeding finery; the peachy pink to orange breast and shoulders and the glossy back head. However, the winter plumage is less showy, with the black hidden by paler feather tips that gradually wear off as winter passes. These winter males, however, do remain sufficiently different for you to notice them among the visiting Chaffinches alongside which they feed. As with most birds, the females have a more subdued appearance and can easily be overlooked if you simply scan across a group of feeding Chaffinches. In flight, their white rump stands out, unlike the green rump seen in Chaffinch.
Although Bramblings will visit hanging feeders for sunflower hearts and mixed seed, they seem to prefer to feed on the ground. As such, you can attract them in by feeding a mix of peanut granules and premium bird seed on a suitable piece of ground within your garden. You might also find them feeding on the ground beneath Beech trees, particularly where such trees are planted next to a road. Passing vehicles crush the Beech mast, helping the birds to get at the contents. Sadly, this habit of exploiting an easy meal sometimes lands the birds in trouble, by exposing them to the risks of collision with motor vehicles. One large roost in Merseyside was devastated by traffic, the birds having become incapacitated by salt that had been applied to the icy road surface from which they were taking Beech mast.
Results from the BTO’s weekly Garden BirdWatch survey show that the numbers of Bramblings visiting gardens do not peak until March, so having them visit now suggests that you will continue to see them for a good few weeks yet.