The Winter Thrushes

Now is the time of year when the winter thrush flocks start to arrive from Europe. The two species we notice are Fieldfare and Redwing, which aren’t with us in summer, but we may also get Blackbirds and Song Thrushes from overseas, escaping harder weather to join our own, largely sedentary, breeding populations. 

The Fieldfares and Redwings form mixed flocks, feeding on the berries of rowan, hawthorn and holly. The flocks are noisy. Fieldfares chattering ‘schack-schack-schack’ combined with a grey crown and rump and a black tail make them quite distinctive. Redwings have a rattling call and a very distinctive soft but far-carrying ‘seeip’ that you may hear coming from the night sky in October as they pass over your home. Redwing however is a slight misnomer. The russet colour is confined to the inner part of the underwing and upper flanks; perhaps the most obvious feature is a bold white stripe above the eye and another curving round below the cheek. Otherwise they are much like Song Thrushes. 

Those Blackbirds that come to Britain in winter are mainly from Scandinavia and Germany but seem to pass more or less unnoticed because they do not form large noisy flocks and, although they take berries and fruits in winter, they also feed much on invertebrates on the ground.

Mistle Thrushes, bigger and greyer-backed than Song Thrushes and with spottier underparts, are very evident on the hills all year. In autumn they may form family parties but in winter an individual bird may take possession of a berry-bearing tree and defend it against others though not against marauding flocks of Fieldfares, equal in size and coming mob-handed. 

Most of our Song Thrushes stay close to their breeding sites all year but we do get some from the Low Countries and more pass through eastern England to winter further south. Finally, there is just a chance that in this month and next and again in April, a Ring Ousel will cross your path, looking rather like a Blackbird with a big white crescent on its chest. Not known to have bred on the Quantocks since the 1950s, a few may pass through on migration and some still breed on Exmoor.  (Should you be fortunate enough to see a Ring Ousel we would love you to record your sighting in our Quantock Wildlife Watch.)

The numbers of the migrants that we see in autumn depend in part on their breeding success but also on the weather. Cold Continental winters push birds south and west; snow or severe frost in Eastern England can lead to a further influx of birds here. Climate change may alter that pattern but for the present we can still listen for the Redwing’s call on October nights and the cheerful shouting of Fieldfares swirling by on the hill, defying wind and rain. And even on a blustery January day you may hear a Mistle Thrush, the Storm Cock, commencing his spring song, loud and confident from a hawthorn still bare of leaves.