Wings of change

Cheshire Life: Novem­ber 2018 205

Cheshire Life - - Wildlife -

We all know that one swal­low does not a sum­mer make. But no swal­lows def­i­nitely makes it au­tumn. From a young age we’re told about birds mov­ing south for the win­ter. The swal­lows have taken their leave, along with our other sum­mer mi­grants, such as swifts, chif­fchaffs and ospreys. Some­thing that I al­ways felt was rarely said to a much younger me, was that while these species were head­ing south from the UK – there were other birds head­ing to us. These are our win­ter­ing mi­grant species and they con­tain some of the most beau­ti­ful birds that sym­bol­ise the chang­ing of the sea­sons as much as their sum­mer coun­ter­parts do.

Some head west from places like Ger­many, oth­ers head south­west from Scan­di­navia, and some make the south­ward trip from Ice­land. The rea­son we get these species mov­ing to the UK is that we have much milder win­ters than other parts of Europe. Propped up by the warmth of the Gulf Stream, our win­ter tem­per­a­tures usu­ally hover above freez­ing; bar­ring any Beast for the East type events. Whereas the afore­men­tioned coun­tries have av­er­ages be­low freez­ing, with colder spells see­ing the mer­cury drop even fur­ther. Our warmer climes mean the birds need to burn fewer calo­ries to main­tain their body tem­per­a­ture in the UK. They also have an eas­ier job find­ing enough food to sur­vive.

This is es­pe­cially true in coastal ar­eas and the south coast, but even here in Cheshire, our av­er­age tem­per­a­ture in the depths of win­ter are be­tween 1C and 5C, a lot warmer than the -10C parts of Ice­land get.

But what­ever the un­der­ly­ing cause of the mi­gra­tion, it is the won­der and beauty of the species that al­ways holds my in­ter­est. The main group I think of as win­ter mi­grants are the thrushes. While it is true a lot of our com­mon species see their pop­u­la­tions swell when their con­ti­nen­tal cousins head over, we do get some new species mov­ing in too.

Red­wings are the real in­di­ca­tor to me that au­tumn is on the way. They mi­grate at night, giv­ing their very dis­tinc­tive “zzt­seep” call as they fly over­head. Lis­ten­ing out for them adds a lovely na­ture-based twist to an evening walk when they start to ar­rive late Septem­ber. If you want to see red­wing, then keep an eye out on berry-laden hedgerows or on rowans in car parks. They of­ten form large flocks, some­times with other thrushes, but the red patch on their armpit (from where they get their name), the strik­ing stripe above the eye, and their con­stant call are the best ways to pick them out of the crowd.

The other new thrush on the block is the field­fare. It is one of the larger mem­bers of the thrush fam­ily and, in my opin­ion, the most dap­per. The sub­tle­ness of its fea­tures, the fact it is less showy or colour­ful than oth­ers and, yet, its dis­tinc­tive-marks make it an ab­so­lute won­der to be­hold. The gor­geous shade of grey on the head, the black mark­ings around the ear and the way the buff tone and scale-like spots of the ch­est give way to the white of the belly – all make the field­fare the smartest look­ing thrush. But say­ing all of that, it is quite a shy bird, mak­ing an up close en­counter quite rare. It is likely to be its size com­pared to other thrushes that gives it

away; only mis­tle thrushes are larger and they rarely form flocks like field­fares do. Like red­wing, field­fare have a dis­tinc­tive call. The main one is a repet­i­tive “chuk-chuk, chuk-chuk-chukchuk” which has a slight laugh­ing tone to it and is of­ten given in flight.

These two species tend to be the most widely vis­i­ble win­ter­ing species we get in Cheshire, but de­pend­ing on where you live, there might be more to be seen. The UK is in­ter­na­tion­ally im­por­tant for its es­tu­ar­ies and coastal hide­aways for birds. The Wir­ral is renowned as a haven for coastal species, es­pe­cially wad­ing birds and wa­ter­fowl. In the win­ter we see species that breed up on the tun­dra of north­ern Europe or the up­lands of the UK com­ing back to the Dee and Mersey es­tu­ar­ies.

These places can ac­count for large per­cent­ages of the en­tire Euro­pean pop­u­la­tions of some species, mak­ing them great places to go and see a real wildlife spec­ta­cle. A visit to our Red Rocks na­ture re­serve is an ab­so­lute must over win­ter to see the birds flock­ing to­gether as the tide comes in. Just re­mem­ber to wrap up warm, as the wind can be more than a bit fresh at times!

So you can en­joy the splen­dour of these win­ter vis­i­tors up close, I rec­om­mend at­tract­ing them to your gar­den. I’ve not found many bet­ter ways to spend an au­tum­nal morn­ing than with a cup of tea, look­ing out of my kitchen win­dow, watch­ing the birds gather on the food I’ve pro­vided for them. It’s a great way to warm your body and soul.

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