Guide to Winter Thrushes

Our Senior Conservation Ecologist Andy Karran explains all about visiting Redwings and Fieldfares in his guide to Winter Thrushes.

We have thrushes with us in Gwent all year round. We have our resident, familiar Blackbird, Song Thrush and Mistle Thrush that serenade us with their songs in spring. Later, the very luckiest among us might get to see the scarce Ring Ouzel, which visit our uplands in summer. Winter however, is the real time of the thrush, when our resident populations are swelled by winter visitors from farther afield. The Blackbird that has been in your garden all summer may not be the same as the one that spends the winter here, this may be a migrant from the frozen north. For me, though, the real “winter thrushes” are the Redwing and the Fieldfare.

Just as the first Swallow heralds spring and brings with it hope, these thrushes say winter is on its way and with it the excitement and interest that comes to me with every changing season. Although far more obscure, I nevertheless love hearing the first soft “seep” call of Redwings migrating somewhere overhead in the dark of an October or November night. Redwings are our smallest proper thrush species and are named for the red under their wings, which you will generally only see when the bird is in flight. Its distinct, pale eye-stripe is another distinguishing identification feature, that can be more readily seen.

Fieldfares are an altogether larger and stockier thrush than the Redwing. From a distance they perhaps don’t look all that special, although the grey rump in flight can be a distinctive feature. Closer up however they reveal themselves to be a fantastic mix of slate greys, dark spots and purpley-brown patches, making them very handsome birds indeed. The harsh “chack chack” call of a roving flock often reveals their presence.   

Redwing and Fieldfare breed in Scandinavia and further east into Russia, (a very small number breed in Scotland each year also.) These areas get very cold in the winter and the low temperatures coupled with a lack of available food drives the birds south and west to arrive on our relatively mild shores in October and November. Here they are able to gorge themselves on the bountiful supply of autumn berries, with Hawthorn being a particular favourite.

The huge marauding flocks I witnessed in Craig y Cilau in the Brecon Beacons a couple of autumns back were a sight to behold, giving the impression of out-sized locusts devouring bush after bush of berries. Once the berry supplies are running low, they will turn to windfallen apples, illustrating yet another reason why the traditional orchards we are lucky enough to have here in Gwent are of such importance to wildlife.

When the supply of berries and apples is exhausted they are not adverse to probing the ground for earthworms, however if the ground becomes frozen or covered in snow they can quickly struggle. When this happen it is common for there to be cold-weather movements of birds as they shift even further south and west to escape the freeze and drop down out of the hills to the lowlands. It is when this happens that Redwings and Fieldfares turn up in our gardens and these normally quite wary and flighty birds can become quite tame. This allows us to have great views of them, but we must remember that this apparent tameness has come about through desperation and exhaustion and so not to disturb them and also to ensure, if we can, to put out extra food for them and all the other garden birds.

Those that survive our winter will head back north in spring to breed, with our summer visitors arriving hot on their heels to replace them - so life never gets boring!