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Part 34 - The Redwing and the Fieldfare

Redwing Turdus iliacus and Fieldfare Turdus pilaris

Both these species are members of the thrush family. Redwings are close to song thrushes in size, whereas fieldfares are almost as big as mistle thrushes. Both are predominantly winter visitors to Britain arriving, typically, from the end of September onwards to November (though sometimes later still) and staying until April or occasionally early May. However, from the 1960s onwards, there have been confirmed accounts of both redwings and fieldfares breeding in the UK, albeit in very small numbers. There are even scattered records of pairs of fieldfares fledging young in a variety of English counties, including pairs in Kent in 1991 and again in 2000.

Both species are widespread throughout central and northern Europe and Russia (as far as western Siberia), though ringing recoveries suggest that most of the birds that winter here originate from Finland, with smaller numbers coming from Sweden and Norway. It’s estimated that around 750,000 redwings and about the same number of fieldfares are involved in these great movements, with the majority staying south and west of an imaginary line from the Mersey to the Thames. Both species migrate at night and the calls of masses of redwings flying overhead are a clear sign of the onset of winter. They often associate together in mixed flocks which may also include birds from other members of the thrush family.

In Kingston, I saw very few redwings last winter but a small group of fieldfares was present from some time in November in the field to the left of the path going towards Kingston Hill and I’m sure both species were to be found elsewhere in the vicinity also. Although fieldfares are rather colourful (and handsome) birds, when feeding on the ground they can blend in with the background remarkably well, giving their presence away only in flight with their noisy chattering and very obvious grey back and neck and black tail. Redwings are not quite as conspicuous as their name suggests since the russet colour is on the flank and underwing and doesn’t show well in poor winter light. They do, however, have very clear white stripes above the eye and beneath the cheek and this separates them very easily from song thrushes.

Like other thrushes, both species are fond of fruit, including haws and apples as well as the berries of some exotic shrubs. They can both be expected to visit gardens, although normally only in the sort of hard winters which have become a great rarity in southern England. I have seen both species in our own garden but (having just checked my less than comprehensive notes) only in one month of the 170 or so that we’ve spent here – January 1997. Ever hopeful, though, I always try and save some windfall apples throughout the winter, just in case!

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