In the birding world the arrival of winter migrants is often celebrated from shorelines, marsh banks and lakeside. Waders and Waterfowl are a highlight of the season as they descend on our waters in vast dramatic clouds of noise and chatter. There are however a number of regular songbird winter visitors that rummage through our countryside, parks and gardens in search of an easy meal. Far from being second best these little explorers can provide a surprising riot of colour in an otherwise grey and drab landscape.
Few are finer than the Brambling (above). These seed eating Finches arrive from Scandinavia and West Siberia as early as September having bred and fed the brood an exclusive insect diet all summer long. In Summer the male sports ink-black head plumage but by the time they reach our shores this has faded back to mottled browns. Nevertheless a striking sunset-orange breast and tortoiseshell detailing around wing, nape and back that could rival any Turtle Dove is still on show and could warm a heart on even the coldest of days. Numbers vary quite wildly though. In some winters they can flock in thousands on field and woodland margins (with a preference for beech woodland) whilst in other years they trickle through in dribs and drabs and join mixed flocks of Chaffinch and Goldfinch. In cold winters they might even take a turn on your garden bird table if you get lucky.
The Redwing is another striking visitor. This Scandi Thrush invades in large numbers every winter, regular as clockwork to feast on gluts of Hawthorn and Rowan. Smaller in size than our native Thrushes and Blackbirds they are skittish and shy and the first you are likely to see of them is as they burst from hedgerows whilst out walking. They will visit gardens rarely and only when temperatures really drop or if the fruiting trees have had a poor year. Thrushes are not noted for their bold and brash colour although their freckled breasts and mottled browns are a beauty of their own. The Redwing has two distinct differences. The bandit-like cream stripe above the eye is identifiable on the dullest of days and instantly recognisable through a good pair of bins while the holly berry orange-red flank that gives this bird its name is a welcome nourishment of hip-flask warmth, especially against a snowy backdrop.
Arriving with the Redwing from Scandinavia is their larger Cousin, the Fieldfare. Often flocking by the dozen and sometimes by the hundreds the Fieldfare is an essential ingredient in any winter scene, not least for their distinctive chuckling calls above head. Similar in size to our native Mistle Thrush they are far larger than the Redwings but will happily flock with them as they share a taste for Hawthorn and Rowan. Fieldfares are a peculiar but entertaining bird to sit and watch. Very sociable they can be seen standing goose-step upright, moving forward in purposeful, bolshie struts but their understated, classy colouring in something else. A stunning, dark duck-egg blue-grey head and nape folds gently into chestnut-brown back and wings before reverting back to blue rump and upper tail. Underneath a blond throat flecked with symmetrical black spots turns to white-wash breast and belly. The spots begin to stretch to delicate rows of finite black backward facing arrowheads. What the Fieldfare lacks in vibrant colour it makes up for in sheer grandeur.
There is one Winter visitor that trumps them all. Plush pink crest and reddish-brown breast. Black throat and bandit mask fringed with red. Snow white and charcoal black wings are cropped with lemon yellows and blood reds. Even the undertail coverts are washed with red and the tail tip an artists yellow ochre so sublime Leonardo da Vinci could seldom create. It is of course the Waxwing. There are fewer birds on which birders wait so keenly in Autumn. No matter how often birders see them, when the first Waxwing of the Autumn arrives from the remote pine forests of Russia and Northern Scandinavia it is a big deal. Tweets and texts scramble through the airwaves reading simply; “They are here”. It’s not hard to see why. This plump bird, slightly smaller than a Starling could easily be mistaken for a sight from the Tropics or the Amazon rainforest.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, Waxwings are an ‘irruptive’ Winter migrant. This means in some years only a few Waxwings are recorded in the UK while in others there is an ‘irruption’ of thousands. It all depends on the abundance of food. If it has been a prolific year for berries in northern and eastern Europe then fewer birds will extend as far as the UK on their journeys. Irruptions rarely fall in consecutive years. When Waxwings do irrupt beyond our shores though it is a sight to truly behold. These glutinous birds will arrive on the east coast and work their way further inland as they strip trees bare of fruit in a westward wave across the County. The mix of glorious plumage, constant trilling chatter and a willingness to simply hang around feeding on berries in towns, parks and car-parks (In Leicester’s case a large roundabout is a particular favourite haunt) makes catching them in the act, in the moment, an unforgettable experience.
So when it’s looking a bit dark, cold and dingy outside, go out anyway and you might be surprised by the colours you can find against grey skies. As for the Waxwings, I’m yet to clap eyes on them in Leicestershire this year but I am reliably informed that “They are here!”.