If you are out and about at this time of the year you might be forgiven for wondering where all of the birds have gone. Walking the northerly wind-chilled bitterly cold edgeland this morning it was intensely quiet and for the main part seemingly devoid of wildlife. Not to worry though, the birds have not simply upped and vanished instead they are simply sticking together.
From the rail bridge to the canal the edgeland was desolate this morning. There wasn’t a single living creature in sight or sound and apart from the rustle of the last remaining leaves and the creaking of Willow swaying in the wind it was deathly silent. Even the Wrens couldn’t muster the energy to berate me from deep within the hedges and it wasn’t until I reached the river island that I found the first signs of life.
A trio of Redwings fed hungrily on haws over on the far bank. Busily plucking at the glut of ruby-red berries meant they were sufficiently occupied enough to allow me to creep a little closer. These normally skittish birds usually make a beeline for cover as soon as they detect a presence so It was nice to take a few moments to watch them going about their business and get a good look at those gorgeously red-tinged under-wings.
The ploughed field over the river was playing host to the usual suspects in Crows and Black-headed gulls though today they were joined by a pair of Lesser Black-backed gulls. A large, stocky gull that in Spring and Summer would prey happily on the chicks of the Black-headed gulls. The Lessers are eclipsed only by the Greater Black-backed gull, the boss of all the gulls and a threatening presence even through the lens of my binoculars. Beyond the field the Sewage works woods are again almost completely devoid of life save for the odd Wood Pigeon taking cover from the biting winds and the small scrub so commonly the play-area of Tits and Finches is today still and empty.
The Sewage Works meadow provides a brief rest-bite from the glum silence as I’m suddenly surrounded by a large flock of small birds. Picking their way through the grasses, thistles and young Hawthorns in unison they shift from left to right in a smash-and-grab fashion like time will wait for no man or bird. As they pass from stalk to stalk and branch to branch they chatter amongst themselves with a host of neat little contact calls “are you there? I’m here! Where next? Gotta go!”. The gang is composed of Blue Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Chaffinches and Britain’s smallest bird, the Goldcrest. I can’t keep up with their movement but there are so many that as soon as one leaves my lens another replaces it as I manically shift my focus and turn my head to take them all in. Then, just as soon as they arrive they are gone and the silence returns as a blanket cast over the meadow.
It’s these flocks that explain the absence across the rest of the edgeland. In Spring and Summer songbirds are frantically claiming territories, pairing up, mating, building nests, feeding young and the abundant greenery provides shelter and hiding from any lurking predators. As Autumn sets in and the trees and hedges become bare so have priorities changed. The young have fledged, the couples separated and temporary homes abandoned. Now it’s all about survival and these flocks are a coping mechanism.
Safety in numbers is a vital tactic shared by much of the natural world. For birds bare trees, empty hedges and open spaces spell danger and a single bird atop a hedge is an easy target for ambush by Sparrowhawks. Joining a flock provides many more pairs of eyes and so predators are easier to spot and the alarm call can be raised far earlier. Travelling in groups also means that should the alarm call not ring in time and the birds scatter, the predator has to target a specific bird and the odds of being captured are decreased. Flocks will not stay in the same place for long and instead pass through field margins and woodlands in perpetual motion. A stationary flock would just become a target in much the same way as a single, territory bound bird.
One of the most fascinating aspects of these winter flocks are the species which they contain. It would be reasonable to assume that each flock would contain a single species, with Blue Tits flocking together, Long-tailed Tits flocking together and so on. Remarkably this isn’t the case. Blue Tits will happily flock with Long-tailed Tits and again the assumption could be made that as they are both members of the same family at least, this wouldn’t be so odd but even more remarkably the Tits will happily flock with Finches, Goldcrests and a variety of other small birds completely unrelated. It would appear that bird-speak, especially contact calls and alarm calls are recognisable between species.
The weather turns and far from the crisp, clear blue skies of this morning it is now raining heavily, icy rain and sleet no less. I head back home hood-up and as briskly as I can manage. In much the same vein as my journey out here and possibly not helped by the weather, the edgeland is silent, desolate again.
So next time you are out and about and wondering where all the birds have gone, take heart from the fact that they are there, somewhere. Together sharing food, sharing safety and even sharing chitchat. You may have to bide your time but you too at some point will join the flock and the bleak, lifeless Winter won’t seem so bad for a few fleeting minutes at least.