Species of the Month – Redwings, Waxwings and Fieldfares
For many people the arrival of Redwings, Waxwings and Fieldfares flying in on cold, starlit nights marks the approach of winter, and their departure a few months later just as surely means that spring has arrived. Now is the perfect time to be out and about and to have the opportunity of coming across flocks of these beautiful migrants.
Small, social thrushes – easily identified by their well-marked, masked-face head pattern and reddish underwing patches – Redwings often arrive in Britain in late September or early October with a joyful musical babble, their whistling-seeping call having given them the name ‘swine pipe’. Like most songbirds they migrate at night, calling to keep in contact as they roam across the countryside, gathering in orchards or, more commonly, in berry-laden hawthorn hedges which become seemingly alive with flocks numbering into the several hundreds.
Although their favourite food is berries, Redwings are fond of invertebrates and are frequently found in short-grassed fields hunting for worms – they will come into parks and gardens but only when the weather is very harsh and hearing them in towns and cities is a joyful burst of northern wildness in an urban setting. Redwings are great wanderers and may move on south and west as opportunity arises, moving according to food supply and weather conditions and they have no fidelity to sites at all – one year they could be here, the next hundreds of miles away.
Plumpish birds from the conifer forests of Russia and Scandinavia, Waxwings are simply stunning with their soft cinnamon-latte coloured plumage, punkish-crested crowns and distinctive blobs of sealing-wax red on the wingtips. They have become a bit of an urban specialist and can also be found in great numbers in the unlikely birding spot of supermarket car parks, particularly when they are planted with ornamental fruit trees and shrubs such as cotoneaster. They eat a wide range of berries (being partial to pyracanthus, viburnum and honeysuckle) but will often feast on apples and mistletoe. Waxwings are unpredictable nomads with invasions or irruptive migrations of enforced wanderings affording us the opportunity to view these spectacular birds – large numbers of Waxwings in western Europe follow a summer with high breeding success but a poor autumn berry crop in northern Europe.
It is hard to think of these glorious birds – Gilbert White’s ‘German silk-tail’ – as animals of ill omen but their sudden appearance seems to have had sinister associations, as in Ireland these birds were seen as torchbearers for the banshee warning that death was nigh; in German they are todtenvogel – ‘death bird’, and in Dutch pestvogel – ‘plague bird’; the Waxwing invasion of the winter of 1913/14 was later seen as a portent for the disaster that followed.
Fieldfares are striking birds with a slate-grey head and nape, a dark chestnut back, mostly white underwings and a nearly-black tail – in Spain they are appropriately named the Zorzal real – ‘Royal thrush’. Arriving from Scandinavia and north east Europe to feed on worms and insects, together with berries from hawthorn, rosehips and rowan, they are cheerfully noisy, sociable birds with a characteristic chattering-chuckle that led to the name ‘Jack Bird’, and Channel fishermen told of hearing the ‘herring spear’ calling across the sky on still winter nights.
Fieldfares are nomadic and strongly associated with winter landscapes, gathering in open flocks spread across frosted fields, often accompanied by Redwings, providing a doubly attractive spectacle. Their name comes from the Anglo Saxon Fealu-For meaning ‘fallow farer’ or ‘traveller over the fields’, in Irish they are the Sacan or ‘frost bird’ and for Chaucer in his ‘Parlement of Fowls’ they were ‘Above all the birds of winter, the frosty feldefares’. John Clare in the ‘Shepherds Calendar’ captures perfectly the nature of these cold-weather thrushes – they are birds ‘That come and go on winters chilling wing, And seem to show no sympathy with Spring’.