Thursday, 18 December 2014

And sweet to remember…

“We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
– Oliver Herford: I Heard a Bird Sing

I first came across redwings (Turdus iliacus – and therefore a member of the thrush family), when I lived in Gloucestershire: where, not only were we on the edge of the countryside (I couldn’t abide anywhere else, of course), but we had an extremely large holly tree in the front garden – which, every winter (usually after we had taken some cuttings for a wreath for the front door, thankfully!), would get stripped of all its berries in a matter of days. It wasn’t difficult to identify the culprits: flashes of cream-and-brown mottling, then a lovely wine-red, as they flapped their wings for balance; accompanied by the occasional “tseep”, when the guilty parties had momentarily ceased packing their beaks, or were moving on (quite frequently at night). They were even more obvious as they gathered, each evening, in the bare apple tree in the back garden – oftentimes mixing with other similar-sized birds, if the night was going to be frosty – before huddling together in a neighbour’s large pine.

Where I grew up, in a large Victorian house in Lancashire, our front garden was a veritable forest of different sorts of holly: but I cannot remember them being ransacked quite so thoroughly, or picked at by anything other than mistle thrushes and blackbirds. According to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), this is probably because “their [UK winter] distribution is far from even. Key counties in the southwest, the Welsh borders and the Midlands support high numbers of birds and are probably very important to the conservation of the species.”

Sadly, despite their large winter gatherings (of up to a million) in the UK, these beautiful birds are on the RSPB’s Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) Red List because we have a very small, and decreasing, breeding population (of around a dozen), restricted to the north of Scotland. However, our local rural environment – as with our neighbouring county – is certainly to their taste for the winter fruit and shelter it provides: as each year, around Christmas, I have witnessed large flocks of them, in their Yuletide-appropriate plumage (much more subtle than a robin’s), plundering the local hedgerows; as well as feasting under our many apple trees on fallen fruit – gradually moving from the A422 down Tysoe Road, through Lower Tysoe, then through the rest of the village – before eventually devouring any berries on Upper Tysoe’s bushes; and, finally, relying, as winter worsens, on any earthworms they can find in the fields.

They seem to have touched down here early, though, this year (they generally arrive in the UK from Russia and Scandinavia in October: working their way across the country) – maybe prompted by the increased size (and appetite) of their cohort, caused by “more food than usual at their breeding grounds”; or, perhaps, in parallel, the premonition of a harsh winter?

Three years ago (at 15:00, on 17 January 2012), I wrote this in the family Birder’s pocket logbook

A flock of redwings has arrived: flitting between the rookery, the oak tree, and the holly tree – stripping it rapidly of all its berries! (I so love redwings: there is something particularly appealing about their transience and gregariousness; not to mention the fact that they also seem to attract other similar companions….)

…so they are currently a month ahead of their previous schedule (when the winter wasn’t as cold or as snowy as in previous years); and, this time – explaining some of the augmentation in numbers – they are accompanied by fieldfares (also now at risk in the UK) – going by the colloquial “clacks” that accompany the group. This has made their presence all the more obvious – and somewhat more clamorous. I will be sad to see them move on.

I had hoped that, somehow, the Redwings Horse Sanctuary Oxhill Visitor Centre – headquartered at Hapton in Norfolk – would have a connection with these winter visitors; but it seems that its name comes from another bird entirely!

Redwings was originally named by our founder, Wendy Valentine and actually has no equine connection at all, being derived from the type of chickens that had been kept on the site where Redwings was established!

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