First of the winter thrushes

This week has felt like true Autumn. Cooler and sometimes misty starts, bright sunshine and clear, star-filled nights. Leaves are suddenly turning everywhere you look. Pavements and gutters are scattered with fallen leaves.

Last October was a wet and miserable affair. I spent a week on Exmoor, battling with pouring rain and gloomy skies in search of Red Deer, which barely ever showed themselves, except to bellow eerily in the woods around our cottage. This year is very different.

On my walk to the paper shop this morning I was keeping an eye on the sky. This is the time of year when the first winter thrushes, Redwings first then Fieldfares, begin to arrive from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Sure enough, as I turned the corner into my road, a small flock of Redwings flew overhead. There have been reports of huge flocks, thousands strong, from places further east and nearer to the sea, but these were my first handful of the season.

Redwings migrate by night, taking advantage of windless and clear conditions to make their sea-crossings. On a good night you can hear them passing above, invisible but given away by their thin ‘tseep tseep’ calls. It is one of the most evocative sounds of this time of year.

Redwings are not frequent visitors to my garden. But if the weather turns cold, they will come in search of windfall apples and Pyracantha berries. At present these are being eaten by the resident Blackbirds, who have abandoned the mealworm feeder in favour of a fruit diet. The mealworms did their job through the summer, while the Blackbirds were raising young – keeping the parents well-fed while they undertook their exhausting parenting duties, and then being ransacked by the fledglings once they were old enough.

Robins too are fans of mealworms, of course. I watched a man feeding a Robin the other day at a local nature reserve. He crouched down, gently calling ‘Here Bob. Here Bob’ and a Robin appeared from the brambles, pausing only briefly before hopping into his outstretched hand. He visits regularly, he said, and this Robin had become tame and trusting over the course of a few weeks. I’ve never managed to get a Robin to be that friendly. Hopping about picking up crumbs while we sit at the garden table is the closest in this garden. Perhaps I am not patient enough.

Fieldfares, bigger and solider than Redwings and other thrushes, are my favourites. Before it blew down in a snowstorm a decade ago, one Fieldfare would usually take up residence in an old apple tree in the front garden. No other birds were allowed near it, as it guarded fiercely the remaining fruits in the coldest weather.

The back garden’s remaining apple tree – something like a hundred years old, we’re not sure – bears fruit which are not very good for anything but cooking. They’re neither proper cookers – being quite small – nor eaters – being quite sour, but they make for a nice crumble or stewed down and frozen for later in the winter, when home-grown fresh fruit is at a premium. It yields well, though, and I take care only to tidy up the apples which fall within easy reach of the path. The rest I leave for the birds.

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