A breath of country air
Renowned nature writer Polly Pullar takes a lighthearted look at rural life.
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.