Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Thrushes gather and turn to apples

It is only within the last few days that the birds have turned to the piles of apples, half-hidden by snow, that have sat in the garden practically untouched for weeks. The combination of snow, still several inches deep here in my parent’s garden on the Sussex border, and the berry larder now stripped bare, has driven the thrushes to seek out other opportunities, drawing in Fieldfares and Redwings from the frozen farmland fields and empty hedgerows. There must be a couple of dozen birds in and amongst the low bushes and the long dead architecture of summer’s growth. Blackbirds dominate numerically but it is the larger, more robust, Fieldfares that will have the ultimate say in the pecking order. The small, dark Redwings, with their prominent white eye-stripe and soft call are the birds that catch my eye though. I have fond memories of handling dozens of these Nordic visitors whilst ringing at a Norfolk orchard near Ashill and they are a very rare visitor to my Norfolk garden.

The Redwings are true nomads; pushing south in autumn from their northern breeding grounds they can be heard at night, their soft calls a much-stated omen of the approaching winter. The numbers wintering here are variable, reflecting the changing patterns of food availability and the vagaries of the weather. An individual wintering here in one year could just as easily be found wintering in northern Italy the following year. Because of their size and their preference for soil-dwelling invertebrates, Redwings can struggle when the winter weather is at its worst. Hard frosts and snow cover prevent access to favoured foods and, once the berry crop has also been depleted, they can struggle to find food. It is then that their mobility comes into play, the birds moving further south and west in search of food and more favourable conditions. Those that remain here will increase their use of orchards and gardens, with rural gardens more heavily used than suburban ones.

In with the Redwings there is a single Song Thrush, a species which has been seen less often over recent weeks if the reports that I have received are truly part of a wider pattern. Of similar size to the Redwings, the Song Thrush might also have been struggling with the unfavourable weather conditions. Again, individuals could have been forced south by the weather but some may have remained and succumbed to the bitter cold. We will have to wait for spring to find out.

The apples have become the focus of attention because there is little else left accessible. As birds jostle for this sweet resource, it is reassuring to know that this part of the apple crop has found a good home

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