Am I missing something or has anybody else noticed a scarcity of redwings and fieldfares this winter - it is certainly the case at Cabragh Wetlands.
There was a time when you could set your clock or at least mark your calendar for the arrival of a whole range of winter migrants but climate change and changing conditions in the homelands makes bird migration forecasting a far trickier task than heretofore.
The fieldfare is a large confident thrush found throughout Ireland in winter but rarely as a breeding bird. It has a slate grey rump, head and nape in contrast to its chestnut back and black tail. The throat and breast are golden brown heavily streaked with black. The redwing is the smallest of the thrush family often seen in dense mixed flocks with other thrushes on berry bearing bushes. Its plumage is like a song thrush but it has a diagnostic chestnut-red patch on each underwing and flank especially in flight. It also has a prominent creamy eye stripe.
A great place to watch redwings is from the hide at Cabragh as they feed on the nearby native hedgerow. Berry bearing bushes provide their autumn feast for a purpose. By consuming the berries, birds unwittingly act as dispersal agents, passing the seeds out with their droppings. Hawthorn and rowan are particular favourites. Redwings are very selective when choosing hawthorn berries, choosing only the largest and most ripened fruits. The bird may make several attempts at swallowing a berry, turning the fruit this way and that with its tongue until it can slip down easily. They do occasionally drop a berry which is snapped up by ground feeding birds or small mammals. If it is a hard winter, there may be fierce competition with other members of the thrush family. Redwings build a cup shaped nest of twigs lined with mosses and hair sited in the fork of a branch.
There are few more evocative sites than that of a newly arrived flock of fieldfares gorging themselves on a bush laden with berries. Chattering, squabbling birds vie with each other for the best sprays. Fieldfares are tail flicking and wing twitching as part of their communication system. The behaviour often indicates the presence of a predator but rivals also receive the same treatment. The splayed tail feathers make the bird look much bigger than it is particularly when they perch on posts or branches in full view.
There is a definite pecking order in many bird species but it is quite obvious in the thrush family if the weather turns nasty.
Under normal circumstances, blackbirds and song thrushes feed side by side. Come a fall of snow, however, things change. Blackbirds will take precedence over their smaller cousins but when a mistle thrush arrives it takes possession of the food source. Redwings fit between blackbirds and song thrushes in the pecking order but fieldfares take command over the whole range of thrush family members.
Even among the fieldfares, a few males will try to dominate the scene. Fieldfares will also communally defend their nests against predators such as crows. The birds aggressively attack the intruder, dive bombing it then braking at the last minute and veering off while simultaneously defecating. This will continue until the predator gives in and retreats to safety.
A good way of attracting fieldfares and redwings to the garden is to keep windfall apples in the autumn and leave them out when needed. Berry bearing shrubs and trees will also help in an emergency. Red or orange berried plants are best such as cotoneaster, holly or crab apple while a sprinkling of currants, sultanas or raisins previously soaked in water will also help.
For the number of years that this column has been in existence, it has been definitely one way communication on the lines of a Redemptorist mission!
This year we invite our readers to send their comments on the articles, their own observations of the natural world and any relevant questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we may be in a position to answer some queries or provide a deeper explanation of any aspect of Cabragh Wetlands or the Irish natural environment which is so central to our existence. Who knows, someone might be inspired to write their own observation on their unique locality or feel that they might be able to make a real contribution to the day to day running of this voluntary project.
As indicated last week, Cabragh Wetlands celebrates St. Bridget’s Day on Jan 31st at 8 p.m. This get-together will feature the making of St. Bridget’s Crosses along with the stories and lore around St. Bridget’s Day. Bain trial as!
Slán go fóill.