Fieldfares- these beautiful, winter visitors are about the size of Mistle Thrushes and smaller than the other winter visiting Thrush, the Redwing (see my drawing for comparison) though they often appear in mixed flocks together. While Fieldfares prefer to eat grubs and worms in open, hedged farmland they come into gardens and parks as these did the other day, when the ground is frozen or covered in snow, and then will feed on windfall apples, or other fruit like Hawthorn berries. When conditions are particularly severe in their breeding grounds of Asia, Scandinavia and
Fieldfare (larger) compared to Redwing
Northern Europe, as many as a million Fieldfare may come to feed on our fruit and invertebrates. Conditions: Milder, quiet weather now. Temperature: Max 8 Min 5 C.
Redwing- While waiting for the Waxwings to turn up in Sheffield recently it was a pleasure to watch a small flock of Redwings feeding, at intervals, from the same trees. Redwing, our smallest true Thrush, migrates here in winter from Iceland, Russia and Scandinavia for the same reason as Waxwings- to feed from our winter berries, fruits and worms. Sadly on the Red list nowadays, they can still be seen in gardens, parks, supermarket carparks and streets in Sheffield, and in hedgerows and pastures further afield. Their distinctive ‘Tsee Tsee’ calls can also be heard in evenings as they
Redwing- showing the eponymous red underwing
flock and communicate with each other. Conditions: Still, grey with some rain. Temperature: Max 4 Min -2C.
House Sparrows, the RSPB has announced, were the most frequent bird in last January’s 420,489 garden bird surveys, but these once ubiquitous, gregarious birds which have a varied diet, have nevertheless not recovered from their 71% decline between 1977 and 2008. We hardly see them in our Pitsmoor (North Sheffield) garden,
though a recent piece of research by the BTO found that suburban and urban gardens and allotment areas really help House Sparrows survive in numbers, while farmland is still a place of population loss. I was glad to be able to watch and listen to these noisy birds, fluffed up against the cold, recently. If you have a job telling House Sparrows from others, winter plumage isn’t the easiest time but the males have a grey cap and black bib, which becomes more pronounced in spring. I always thought of them as having a grey ‘roof’ which helped! Conditions: A beautiful frosty and bright day. Temperature: Max 6 Min 2c.
I was delighted recently to be able to photograph Starlings in their winter plumage (bills no longer yellow, pale spots on body, feathers less iridescent) but this is a sad reflection on just how much their populations have plummeted, with 40 million birds lost from the European population since 1980. Even over winter, when our populations are boosted from central Europe, this once common bird has suffered what Michael McCarthy, in his great book “The Moth Snowstorm” terms a ‘great thinning’ suffered by so many of our species. The noisy, social Starling is, shockingly, now on the red (endangered) list and since 2012 the RSPB has been carrying out research to ascertain why. It may be due to loss of invertebrates which it feeds on (especially Crane Fly larvae, known as Leatherjackets), or nesting sites- they don’t yet know. Conditions: Grey, mild and wet weather continues. Temperature: Max 11 Min 9C.
Starling, winter plumage
Starling, winter plumage
Listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme last Sunday, ‘Ash to Ash’ (available on catch-up) reminded me how devastating Ash die-back is going to be to the British countryside and ecology. Ash is the third most common tree in Britain, and valuable to at least 1,000 species, many of them specific to Ash trees. Its’ sparser foliage and early leaf-loss also enables light to penetrate woodland, enhancing wild flower species. The tough, shock absorbent wood has been here since the ice-age, with myriad uses, from Roman chariots to tool handles, hockey sticks to furniture construction. Ash can live for 400 years, or longer when coppiced, and yet it is dying over many parts of the country already and the only hope known to date is that some individual trees may
be resistant. Open Country suggested we should be planting similarly ecologically-rich trees now, as the disease has so far proved unstoppable. The arrival and speed of Ash die-back is also a reminder that many species are likely to be threatened by the increasing globalisation of plant diseases. Conditions: Grey, drizzly days. Temperature: Max 14 Min 8C.
Pink Footed Geese do not breed in the UK but we host almost all their population over winter and the numbers are increasing, probably due to better protection of roosting sites. These medium-sized, dark bodied Geese with Pink bills, legs and feet (as their name rather illustrates), fly in from Iceland, Spitsbergen and Greenland, a migration of over 2,000 miles for some, and if you hear the wonderful sound of geese overhead, as we did recently, you may be able to see a stunning skein of them flying in v-formation, the lead constantly changing to rest those taking on the headwinds. They are the geese you will hear and see flying over Sheffield and many other parts of the UK, from now on, to feed at estuaries and farmland, on grain, cereals, potatoes and grass. Many years ago I had the wonderful experience of staying at the lake-edge, with friends who worked at
Pink Footed Geese
Pink Footed Geese
and hearing and seeing huge flocks at dawn and dusk, coming in to roost and feed on potatoes collected from local Lancashire farms. Unforgettable. Conditions: Grey and cool with some drizzle. Temperature: Max 7 Min 2C.
Hawthorn- there is a bumper crop of Haws, Hawthorn Berries, this year as the photo’s show. These berries have been used as herbal remedies since at least the ancient Greeks, and probably far longer. They are high in anti-oxidants and are still used by some to treat stomach-aches, stress and sleep-problems. Hawthorn has long mythic associations, and our Celtic ancestors believed the trees to be protected and inhabited by Faery Folk, representing
places where time passes differently to our own. Isolated trees were not cut down, for fear of invoking the wrath of the Faery Queen. The site of Westminster Abbey was once called Thorne Island after the stand of sacred Hawthorn trees there. The berries can be made into jellies, and I have just seen a recipe, on Countryfile’s website, for Hawthorn Gin. We might give it a go. Makes a change from Sloe Gin. Conditions: Grey and drizzly. Temperature: Max 10 Min 9C.