A breath of coun­try air

Renowned na­ture writer Polly Pullar takes a light­hearted look at ru­ral life.

The People's Friend - - Nature -

AT the end of sum­mer there is a changeover as avian mi­grants leave for sun­nier south­ern climes, and the gar­den re­turns once more to the do­min­ion of our per­ma­nent res­i­dents, in­clud­ing robin, black­bird, thrush, chaffinch, dun­nock, and mem­bers of the tit fam­ily.

The magic of the dawn cho­rus is but a mem­ory, and only the robin con­tin­ues to sing, a reedy, thin note; an au­tum­nal opus. Win­ter is on its way.

By early Septem­ber there’s al­most a melan­choly feel­ing as tele­graph lines are punc­tu­ated with hun­dreds of swal­lows and house martins.

Against the sky­line, their lit­tle dark sil­hou­ettes re­mind me of min­ims and qua­vers on a mu­si­cal score sheet. Once they have de­parted, it’s not long be­fore other birds be­gin to fill their place.

Soon the skies fill with the clam­our of geese that have ven­tured north to breed, and are now mak­ing their way back. And then, by late Septem­ber, the air fills with the chack, chack calls of thou­sands and thou­sands of field­fares and red­wings.

I sit high on the hill­side above the farm sur­rounded by the golden glow of dy­ing bracken, amid bronze and yel­low­ing birches, oaks and larch trees, and ruby red rowan berries.

A buz­zard mews above. A black­bird and wren scold from an old wall. I watch and wait.

Soon, clouds of birds ap­pear and land in the tan­gled thick­ets of scrub hawthorn, de­scend­ing like a vo­ra­ciously hun­gry army.

With their distinc­tive calls and gor­geous skew­bald plumage, these are the flocks of field­fares – “win­ter thrushes” – of­ten joined by red­wings.

Up to a mil­lion and a half, some­times more, come here on pas­sage each au­tumn as stocks of berries, their favourite food, are de­pleted in the far north.

They are a de­light to see and hear with their cheer­ful chat­ter. On starry nights, the gen­tle, thin­ner, high-pitched calls of red­wings are heard; they some­times keep on the move un­der cover of dark­ness.

It adds an ex­tra­or­di­nary at­mos­phere to star gaz­ing, know­ing that the birds are us­ing the stars to help them nav­i­gate.

The field­fare is a ro­bust bird and can tol­er­ate harsh weather, while the red­wing – which, as its name sug­gests, has a distinc­tive red mark­ing un­der its wing – is smaller.

Both of these mem­bers of the thrush fam­ily de­pend not only on berries such as hawthorn, co­toneaster, rowan, pyra­can­tha and holly, but also on wind­falls, crab ap­ples and rose hips, and can al­ter their diet when out for­ag­ing on pas­ture­land for in­ver­te­brates.

Gre­gar­i­ous and noisy, these are no­mads from the north con­stantly on the move in the hunt for food. Berries are stripped in min­utes, and then on they move to find an­other tree.

When win­ters are par­tic­u­larly harsh fur­ther north, there may be records of even larger num­bers ap­pear­ing in the Bri­tish Isles. On the Orkney is­land of North Ron­ald­say, many are recorded ev­ery year as they reach their first land­fall on their jour­ney south.

One year, thou­sands of field­fares were killed when they were at­tracted by the strong glow from the light­house in dense sea fog, and crashed to their death. Happily this is an un­com­mon oc­cur­rence.

Though these are strictly win­ter res­i­dents, there is a smat­ter­ing of records of some stay­ing to breed here.

On the hill­side the chack­ing con­tin­ues, fill­ing the air with an ex­cited jostling. I see through my binoc­u­lars that berries are be­ing de­voured in a rush.

Then, from over the brow of the hill, an­other bird ap­pears. It sends the flock spi­ralling up­wards. The sky dark­ens with dark shapes.

A hen spar­rowhawk jinks down and ex­pertly plucks one from the flee­ing mêlée. A few feath­ers drift silently down in the wind­less air, and fall silently to earth.

The thrushes have landed on the top of a feath­ery birch on their way to the next berry feast. Whilst they take ad­van­tage of the berries, the lit­tle rap­tor takes ad­van­tage of an abun­dant new food source.

This is na­ture, red in tooth and claw, and it makes no dif­fer­ence to the no­mads from the north. Na­ture is work­ing just as it should.

I re­turn home, the sounds of the trav­el­ling orches­tra still ring­ing happily in my ears, my head full of the sight of the new ar­rivals, one of au­tumn’s many glo­ries. n

Trees are soon stripped bare of berries.

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