Win­ter’s her­alds

Ian Par­sons re­veals how watch­ing a Field­fare im­ple­ment a risky sur­vival strat­egy in his gar­den was one of the joys of this year’s se­vere weather con­di­tions

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

Could Field­fares visit your gar­den this year?

Ilove this time of year. Trees, laden with berries and fruits and with leaves be­gin­ning to turn, adorn the coun­try­side with their au­tum­nal pal­ette of colours. Fungi pop up ev­ery­where and the night air be­gins to chill. It is at this time of year that I hope to see one of my favourite birds, back to win­ter among us again – the Field­fare. It is, of course, one of our win­ter thrushes (the other be­ing the Red­wing), a vis­i­tor from the north and east of the con­ti­nent that comes here to es­cape the harder win­ters of its breed­ing ar­eas and to ex­ploit our abun­dance of fruit and berries. It is a her­ald of shorter days and win­ter weather – and it is also a beau­ti­ful bird! It has a con­spic­u­ous plumage, con­sist­ing of a slate grey head and nape, sep­a­rated from a lighter grey rump by a rich brown back, the rump it­self end­ing in a rel­a­tively long black tail. The throat and up­per breast are a yel­lowy or­ange, pat­terned with bold dark spots and streaks dif­fus­ing down to a pale belly. A white su­per­cil­ium (‘eye­brow’) high­lights the bold face of the bird that is tipped off with a strong-look­ing bill that is or­ange along its length be­fore fin­ish­ing with dark brown at its tip. Size-wise they are in be­tween our res­i­dent Song and Mis­tle Thrushes, but with their long tail, up­right stance and over­all stocky ap­pear­ance, they can look big­ger, es­pe­cially when seen along­side their fel­low trav­el­ling thrush, the Red­wing.

Re­turn vis­i­tors

Field­fares be­gin to ar­rive on our shores in Oc­to­ber. Some of th­ese, though, are pass­ing through, head­ing to south-west Europe to see out the win­ter. But the ma­jor­ity stay. Num­bers fluc­tu­ate year on year, but there are usu­ally well over 650,000 of th­ese colour­ful thrushes with us through­out the win­ter months. They can be found right across the vast ma­jor­ity of Bri­tain, only avoid­ing large ur­ban ar­eas and the very high ground of Scot­land. Come March and the birds be­gin to head back to their breed­ing grounds, dis­ap­pear­ing from the west of Bri­tain first, with the last of the birds from eastern Bri­tain leav­ing dur­ing the first half of April. Most of our win­ter­ing birds re­turn to Scan­di­navia to breed, but some also head back to Rus­sia, a dis­tance of more than 2,000km. From ring­ing stud­ies it can be seen that some birds re­turn the fol­low­ing year to the ar­eas that they had pre­vi­ously win­tered in. The Field­fare that you see this win­ter on your lo­cal patch may be the same Field­fare that was there last year, but, then again, they might not. Ring­ing stud­ies have shown that some Field­fares tend to wan­der more than oth­ers, prob­a­bly as a re­sult of fol­low­ing food sources which can vary year on year. A bird ringed in Bri­tain one win­ter turned up in Tur­key the next, so the birds you see this win­ter may have been some­where com­pletely dif­fer­ent last year! Wher­ever their jour­neys have taken them, I al­ways take great de­light on see­ing or hear­ing my first Field­fares of the win­ter. Their call is a par­tic­u­lar favourite, a real chuck­ling sound, a loud and clear ‘chack, chack, chack’ that in­stantly catches the at­ten­tion. The name Field­fare is an old one and is be­lieved to mean one who trav­els through fields. It is a fit­ting name, as you tend to find th­ese trav­el­ling thrushes in ar­eas of farm­land and open coun­try, par­tic­u­larly in ar­eas with de­cent hedgerows full of berry-laden trees and shrubs. They are also fond of or­chards as ap­ples are a favourite food. Wind­falls can draw large num­bers of them in, with flocks of sev­eral hun­dred pos­si­ble. The only ‘prob­lem’ with Field­fares is that they tend to be a bit shy and will read­ily avoid peo­ple. Try­ing to get re­ally good views of them can be frus­trat­ing at times, as they fly to the next field or high up into a tree. Field­fares are birds of open coun­try gen­er­ally and it’s a species that doesn’t of­ten visit our gar­dens. But, in harsh win­ter weather, when snow blan­kets the ground, this aver­sion to our gar­dens is for­got­ten and Field­fares could be found right out­side your win­dow. Ear­lier this year, when the ‘Beast from the East’ met ‘Storm Emma’, large ar­eas of the coun­try found them­selves well and truly snowed in. This was cer­tainly the case for me in Devon and it was with great de­light that I looked out of the kitchen win­dow to see a Field­fare, greed­ily snaf­fling the berries on the Pyra­can­tha hedge just a few yards from where I was stood. Dur­ing those few days of white won­der, I was con­stantly out in the gar­den, top­ping up the feed­ers and scat­ter­ing meal worms aplenty, do­ing my

In harsh weather, when snow blan­kets the ground, Field­fares could be found right out­side your win­dow

bit to help the birds sur­vive the freez­ing tem­per­a­tures. After see­ing the Field­fare, I raided the fruit bowl and placed a cou­ple of ap­ples in plain view of the win­dow, in the hope that the bird would re­turn. And re­turn it did – and in do­ing so, gave me the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to re­ally get to know the bird and ob­serve its be­hav­iour. At first, the Field­fare pecked fiercely at one of the ap­ples, open­ing it up and feed­ing vo­ra­ciously, oc­ca­sion­ally paus­ing when other Field­fares flew over­head or landed in the nearby Hawthorn. Its re­sponse to th­ese birds was a flick of its tail and a loud ‘chack’, clearly stat­ing that this ap­ple wasn’t for shar­ing. Once it had fin­ished eat­ing, in­stead of mov­ing on as I had ex­pected it to do, it puffed out its feath­ers against the cold and crouched by the ap­ples. It stayed there mo­tion­less for sev­eral hours, only mov­ing to ei­ther feed on the ap­ple for a short while or to flick its tail ag­gres­sively when­ever an­other bird, par­tic­u­larly other Field­fares, Black­birds or Star­lings, came too close.

Sur­vival in ac­tion

It was ba­si­cally guard­ing its food sup­ply. The sur­round­ing coun­try­side was buried un­der inches of snow, it was freez­ing cold and feed­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties were se­verely lim­ited. In my gar­den it had found it­self a cou­ple of ap­ples and even though it had eaten its fill, it wasn’t pre­pared to leave them. I was wit­ness­ing a sur­vival strat­egy in op­er­a­tion. By stay­ing right next to the fruit, it pre­vented other birds from feed­ing on it, mean­ing that when its own hunger re­turned, it could just start feed­ing again with­out ex­pend­ing any vi­tal en­ergy in search­ing for food. As the light started to fade, the Field­fare had one last feed be­fore hop­ping up into the Hawthorn. The next morn­ing it was back there again, guard­ing its larder of ap­ples. The bird was so suc­cess­ful at keep­ing other birds away that when I went to re­plen­ish the feed­ers, I found that all the meal­worms that I had scat­tered across the frozen sur­face of the snow had com­pletely dis­ap­peared, other than an area of them that hadn’t been touched about 40cm in di­am­e­ter around the ap­ples! It stayed there, right by its food for the whole of the next day. Oc­ca­sion­ally it would have a peck at the meal­worms, but this seemed to be merely out of cu­rios­ity rather than hunger. It was so keen to hang on to its food that it wasn’t over both­ered by me go­ing out to top the feed­ers up, merely hop­ping un­der some cover un­til I had gone back in again be­fore re­turn­ing to its vigil by the fruit. It was bril­liant and at times amus­ing to watch, es­pe­cially when the be­mused

Star­lings tried to sneak some meal­worms from where the ap­ples were! But it was also an in­sight into the life of th­ese trav­el­ling thrushes, un­cer­tain of where its next meal would come from and hav­ing to build up its strength be­fore its com­ing mi­gra­tion. This Field­fare had de­cided to risk pre­da­tion by stay­ing alone and on the ground to en­sure a food sup­ply. The strat­egy worked, and as the thaw com­menced, it be­came less at­tached to the ap­ples, be­fore it stopped re­turn­ing al­to­gether, prob­a­bly re­unit­ing with the flock of Field­fares in the sur­round­ing coun­try­side be­fore be­gin­ning its jour­ney back east to its breed­ing grounds. Win­ter is com­ing and with it so are the Field­fares. And I can’t wait! Will you be lucky enough to see one in your gar­den?


Field­fares are large, strik­ing thrushes

In flight the black tail and con­trast be­tween grey­ish rump and head and the brown back are ob­vi­ous

The ochre breast is a good ID clue even if you can’t see the up­per­parts well

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