Country Matters: A glistening whistle in the night time
A sizeable flock of redwings (Turdus iliacus) dropped on to a field in a Border county last week - somewhat earlier than expected. A reader asked if this was a sign of harder winter days ahead.
I'm afraid to act the soothsayer and would suggest that these food-sourcing 'earlies' - down from northern Europe, through Britain and over to this isle - are scouting some likely habitats and eating well while the ground remains soft.
The redwing is an attractive little thrush, plentiful in its usual Scandinavian habitat, and is noted for its variety of calls and whistles wherever it settles, a mite nervously, in new surroundings.
It was once widely hunted like snipe and woodcock and still is a target for shooters, especially in France where the little ortolan bunting got a reprieve in recent times. I remember schooldays winter-bird-hunting when wood pigeons were cooked on an open fire, where potatoes had been thrown to bake, and even the humble starling was considered succulent! This was not unusual in past times. (Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, legendary editor of The Field, sampled almost every wild creature and wrote about it. He was stumped, though, by grey heron which he described as tasting like a box of children's water-colour paints!)
Redwings are sturdy birds which will also turn up in suburban gardens seeking berry-bearing bushes such as cotoneaster. About a million of them are estimated to pass though Britain and Ireland during the coming months, settling mainly in fields and open woodland. The bird's flight silhouette and action resembles a starling, the reddish flank feathers marking the difference.
These birds also whistle in the dark! This, A Whistle in the Dark, was a well-known play title (Tom Murphy) and another writer, John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman), wrote of hearing their unique sound overhead in a French town at 3am! "They have a curious cry, a very thin, high-pitched, glistening whistle, an in-breath, like a sudden small gleam on old silver in a dark room - strange, remote, beautiful sounds."
Unlike most birds which drop in from the far north, redwings are wary of man but hunger brings courage and the "deargan sneachta" will appear at suburban bird tables and descend on berry-bearing garden shrubbery until spring sends them back north again.
Bird migration is a fascinating topic having fostered many books and route studies. The newest one is To the Ends of the Earth by Anthony McGeehan (The Collins Press, Cork, €29.99 hardback), who writes with considerable detail on how and why birds prepare for incredible journeys using directional information from the world about them, coupled with the in-built skills nature has furnished them.
The subject is dealt with in a clear, scientific manner and is superbly educational. This is an exceptional seasonal gift for all birders especially those who feel they know it all. They don't! Read this and be amazed.