Fieldfares have just begun to arrive in large numbers and will stay here until early spring.
In the depths of winter, when days last barely eight hours, spring seems a very long way away. The bare branches and lack of birdsong only compounds the sense of an unwelcoming landscape, but in fact there is plenty to celebrate.
Far from finding our fields and woods barren and uninviting, Continental birds flood here in their millions in late September. Most visible are the social birds, such as pigeons and starlings which form huge flocks on farmland. The foreign birds swell the numbers of our residents, but although many millions arrive, their impact is muted because they blend in with the residents. More conspicuous are those that spend their summers breeding elsewhere, such as redwings and fieldfares. These are both members of the thrush family and like the rest of the clan are omnivores. In winter, however, the shortage of worms and insects drives them to a largely vegetarian diet. Both congregate in large chattering flocks – often mixed together – on farmland, foraging in grass for the few invertebrates that remain and stripping the hedges of the last berries. Although both thrushes can be found almost everywhere during the winter months, they are most common in South East and Central England, with fieldfares also being particularly drawn to orchards where they feed on windfalls and the invertebrates that live within. Thus they are most common in Kent, Somerset and the Three Counties (Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire).
Both are more colourful than the resident blackbird and song- and mistle thrushes. The redwing is the drabber of the two, but it lives up to its name by flashing a rusty underwing as it flies, while the fieldfare sports a slate blue head and tail. Later in the winter, as supplies of wild food run low, the birds move into suburban gardens to feed on the last windfalls and rosehips – and in really cold weather even visiting bird tables. In March and April their numbers will begin to dwindle. First to go are the wily older birds, which peel off to return to Scandinavia to secure the best nesting sites, but by late April even the youngsters will have disappeared to higher latitudes. A very small number remain, however, breeding principally in Scotland and the North East although one pair bred successfully in Kent in 1991.
This concept of Britain as an ideal winter holiday destination, followed by a summer flirting with frost can seem strange, but the draw is a northern June and July with over 20 hours of daylight. It may still be chilly, but the sun’s energy creates an explosion of plant life which in turn fosters countless insects and their larvae – perfect protein for growing chicks. Even better, their parents have longer to search out tasty morsels. Fieldfares certainly turn this to their advantage, producing maybe two clutches of five or six eggs each year. This may add up to less than our resident blackbird’s three or four clutches of four eggs, but it is balanced by lower mortality thanks to better food.
This equation clearly makes sense for fieldfares, but it is always sad to wake one spring morning to find the countryside suddenly bereft of the chattering flocks with their bouncy flight. But perhaps it is just as well. Unlike our drab, retiring thrushes, nesting fieldfares are particularly aggressive, dive-bombing even human intruders with parcels of well-aimed excrement that make seagulls seem positively benign.