Saturday 18 November 2017

Thrush-family-Robinson of redwings

Arrival: The redwing is the most common of our winter visitors from northern Europe Photo: Depositphotos
Arrival: The redwing is the most common of our winter visitors from northern Europe Photo: Depositphotos

Joe Kennedy

Snowdrops, emerged and emerging, droop their little heads in modesty beneath the shelter of a silver birch with peeling bark like layers of dried paint.

In the old garden, blue tits make their unseen presence heard within a dense Leyland Cypress and a cocky blackbird struts and hammers at apples on a path of flat stones where footfalls are few to slow the advance of 'scutch' grass in the joints.

Last year, redwing visitors had found a cotoneaster berry trove and returned daily for hurried snacks.

Last week, a squadron of this thrush-family-Robinson of red underwings dropped on to a south Dublin park, exhausted, and startled a dog-walker.

Another flush of about 50 was sighted by a reader on the Cooley Peninsula in north Louth. On that particular day of a wrestling of wind in the trees, a mighty sea had risen, almost surreptitiously, along the east coast and was a panorama of natural drama viewed from the windows of the northern-bound Enterprise express. Passengers took phone pictures of turbulent surf and majestic swells as if a bomb had fallen off the coast of Wales.

The redwings, normally wary birds, had arrived in the midst of this turbulence, exhausted and hungry.

This most common of our winter visitors from northern Europe is the smallest of the thrushes and more than one million pass through these islands in autumn/winter, settling in fields and open woodlands - and gardens of berry-bearing shrubbery - to seek food, sometimes with fieldfares.

We get the Icelandic birds; the Scandinavians head for southern England.

The redwings' flight silhouette and action resembles that of starlings, their reddish flanks and underwing coverts distinguishing them from other thrushes.

They also sing in the dark! As loose flocks pass overhead, they utter distinctive, far-carrying calls.

The novelist John Fowles wrote of hearing them once at 3am in a silent, deserted town in France.

"Suddenly I became aware of countless thin voices, the unmistakable whistle of redwings.

"(They have) a curious cry, a very thin, high-pitched, glistening whistle, an inbreath... like a sudden, small gleam of old silver in a dark room. Strange, remote, beautiful sounds..."

It is incredible that this beautiful little bird can be shot at, and eaten, in France, where, according to the naturalist Mark Cocker, they are "more highly regarded than quail or woodcock".

It must have something to do with their diet of apples and berries.

Redwings are usually nervous birds, unlike most from Europe's far north where humans are thin on the ground.

When disturbed, they will rise into treetops raising continual warnings.

When they are hungry new arrivals, pushed on by snow and hard frost - deargan sneachta is their Irish name - they usually lose their wariness.

However, they will soon prepare for reverse migration, heading northwards again, singing in their rambling way as they leave as spring days arrive in earnest...

Sunday Independent

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