Daventry and District Invaded

Many people may have noticed some unusual visitors to their garden during the recent cold snap.  They look like thrushes, but there is something a bit different about them.  Those of us not fortunate enough to have these birds in their garden may however have noticed flocks of light coloured birds flying over head, or hopping about in the fields.  Or, if disturbed on a walk round the country park, flying up out of the hedgerows making a loud chacking alarm call.

Did you see a large thrush (about the same size as a mistle thrush), but with a grey head, and chestnut back, perhaps it flew off and looked very pale underneath, or a flock of pale looking birds flew over you?  These are fieldfares, visitors from Scandinavia, three quarters of a million of which arrive around the end of October (braving the north sea and the waiting, hungry gulls), slowly spreading south and west, making the return journey in March and April.  Their arrival has been seen as a sign of winter for centuries, dating back to Chaucer’s day when they were trapped and eaten for food, apparently they are as tasty as quail (which I have also never eaten).

Unlike most thrushes, these are very gregarious, they arrive in flocks, leave in flocks, wander around the countryside in flocks and even nest in groups back in Norway.  When was the last time you saw a flock of song thrushes (or more than a couple together for that matter)?

Normally fieldfares would feast on invertebrates and are usually seen in groups ‘head up, chest out, all facing the same direction and spread evenly across a snow-dusted field’.  However, once the ground freezes they move into the hedgerows to eat berries, particularly hawthorn, and will also take advantage of windfall apples and cotoneaster berries in larger gardens.

The other member of the thrush family that visits in winter is the very pretty redwing.  These arrive about a month before the fieldfares and are usually heard before they are seen, thousands arriving at the east coast overnight, making ‘seeping’ noises (not sure what that sounds like!) as they travel further west in their flocks.  Hundreds of thousands of them arrive each winter, but these are less robust than the fieldfares and other thrushes and a particularly harsh winter could result in the majority perishing.  They also leave to venture back to Scandinavia around April.

These little thrushes are very similar to the song thrush, but they have a cream stripe above their eye which makes them unmistakeable, even at a distance.  The red patch under their wing is just visible when perched, but contrasts with their creamy underparts and becomes much more visible in flight.

These are much shier than the fieldfares, and, although they feed on the same invertebrates and berries they are more likely to be found in hedgerows than in the open fields.  As soon as they are disturbed they will fly off into higher trees, making their alarm calls (hence my incredibly poor picture being the best I have  managed to date).  I think that they tend to come into gardens more often than fieldfares (although neither have appeared in mine), being particularly fond of cotoneaster berries.

These little thrushes are also apparently quite tasty, years ago they were particularly prized in France where they arrived in time to fatten themselves up on the ripe grapes.

So keep your eyes open for these winter visitors, there are lots around Daventry, and they are likely to be here into March, depending on the weather.

Winter bird watching.


As you are no doubt aware Winter can be  a great time for birdwatching.  Not only do you get the Winter visitors such as Redwings and Fieldfares, but the numbers of our ‘native birds’ are swollen by imports from the rest of Europe – coming for our supposedly milder climate – I guess they have had a bit of a surprise this year, but it is still probably warmer than back home.  In addition, they have fewer places to hide, unless they can find some evergreens.

Unfortunately I have found a couple of downsides to birdwatching in Winter – the weather is colder and, it is dark when I go to work and when I come home so ornithological opportunities are somewhat limited.  However, I have noticed a large influx of redwings and fieldfares onto the industrial estate in the last week – they have found the sea buckthorn berries that I walk past each morning – yesterday I saw about 20 fieldfares on my way into work, not a good view in the morning gloom, but, good enough.

An added bonus for me, if not the birds this week is that a grey wagtail was tempted into the warmth of the warehouse (joining the wren and robin already there) affording rather nice views, I think it has been coaxed outside now though.

Male Bullfinch
Male Bullfinch

Of course, come the weekend and the opportunities for staring into the snow covered garden increase – this morning was particularly good – well, once I had replenished the feeders.  As well as the usual suspects (i.e. blue tit, robin, chaffinch etc) I also spotted a total of 6 bullfinches – a record for my garden – three of each flavour and all there at the same time.  We had seen three last weekend, one pair and a lone male which was tolerated by the other two.  We had therefore assumed that it was one of the three chicks that had been about in the garden last summer, but to see 6 at the same time was sadly quite exciting after all, this is a bird that has just made it off the BTOs red list of conservation concern.  These handsome little birds that spend their time in pairs and make a sound like a squeeky bicycle pump tie with long-tailed tits as my favourite birds.  (They are edging into the lead at the moment as they are regulars in the garden so they earn extra points on the lovely birds register.)

None of these would be about if there were no food for them, so please make sure you feed the birds in winter, particularly when it is cold and the ground is covered and frozen – the ones in my garden are particularly fond of sunflower hearts.

The rest of the Winter guests have arrived for the party.

Just a quick update today on my birdwatching quest. For some weeks I have been on the lookout for the more obvious Winter visitors, fieldfares and redwings, which seem to have been regularly seen in the county for the last few weeks.

Following a week of frost and grey skies the weekend was surprisingly bright (and even quite warm in the sunshine). A walk into town along the old railway track yielded lots of birds (in contrast with a fortnight ago) but no overtly European visitors. (By this I mean that many of the finches, robins etc may be visiting from the continent, but I would never know.) The main surprise was a female blackcap. These are warblers that usually migrate south for the Winter, but in recent years more and more seem to be found in the UK in the Winter (although these may also be continental visitors).

A trip to the Country Park saw about 14 Goosander, as well as the usual gulls and ducks, but not many small birds. The highlight of the afternoon was watching a sparrowhawk being mobbed by a crow and chased off into nearby shrubs.

Sunday, another sunny day, not an opportunity to be missed. We went for a walk to the north of Daventry to an area where we had seen flocks of redwings and fieldfares last year when doing a bird survey. There were lots of small birds squeaking in the shrubs, but not the longed for redwings. We wandered towards the canal (mainly because we hadn’t been there for a while), still nothing. Finally, on the way back towards Daventry we think we saw a lone fieldfare flying overhead, a small triumph even if we had to go halfway to Braunston to find one.

Redwings? The final piece of the winter puzzle fell into place on my way back to work this lunchtime when I spotted one redwing sitting in the sea buckthorn, looking as though it wished it were somewhere else. (I also got really close to two goldcrests that were darting about some trees, almost oblivious to me, making small squeaks that almost sounded like tiny tinkling bells – something to brighten the dreariest of Mondays.)

Bare Winter Tree Against a Blue Sky