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Redwing on a fence

How to listen for

winter

thrushes

Redwings and fieldfares are fascinating winter visitors, but can be hard to spot. Charlie Peverett explains how we can use our ears to help identify them

It's January. The robins are still singing their hearts out (they never bothered stopping). On the brighter days, a few song thrushes and dunnocks warm up their throats. Wrens give the odd brave burst. But on the whole birdsong is at a low ebb. Ears sensibly under hats, we can be forgiven for waiting a few months before we listen in earnest.


Ears are, however, brilliantly helpful for helping us find some of the lesser-seen birds of the winter. If you've never knowingly shared a frozen walk with a fieldfare or a redwing, this is the season to put that right.


Every winter, the UK becomes home to many hundreds of thousands of thrushes, escaping to our milder climate from northern and eastern Europe.


These include plenty of blackbirds and song thrushes, that add to the blackbirds and song thrushes already resident here. But two species, fieldfare and redwing, are almost exclusive to the winter months. And despite being here in droves they can be easy to miss.


Hard weather will bring fieldfares and redwings into gardens (where they will grateful to guzzle any fruit laid on for them), but for much of the season these birds hang around in the wider countryside, particularly around rough pasture, big hedgerows and scrubby woodland. It's in these places that we are most likely to encounter them in January and February.


Unlike the robins, wrens and great tits that will pop up right beside us from time to time as we walk, the winter thrushes are usually more distant and easily spooked.

Often they melt away over the next hedge before we have had the chance to see them properly.


This is why the calls are so helpful. Redwings and fieldfares tend to come in crowds, and are quite vocal to keep in touch with each other. Catch on to these sounds and you're more likely to identify those otherwise anonymous brownish birds before they've moved off, so you can admire them properly.


Fieldfare

The easiest of the two to identify is the fieldfare. It makes a rapid chacking or chuckling noise, with odd squeaks thrown in.

This is often made as they fly, which they do in a rather slow and deliberate way. They also call when perched, upright and alert near the top of a tree, and sometimes on the ground, while they're darting around with lots of other thrushes looking for food in the grass.

Fieldfare

Photo by Lukasz Rawa on Unsplash

If you get to lay eyes on it you quickly see that it's more strongly marked than any of our other thrushes. Females and males are much alike, with a grey head, white belly and dark tail.


The broad patch of grey on the rump extends right up the back, forming a long letterbox shape – a good feature to look out for if one is flying away from you along the ground.


Redwing

The redwing's call is a subtler sound, a high, thin but loud 'tseeer'. To my ear it's like a tiny bit of air escaping from a pressurised bottle.

It's most familiar as a noise made on nocturnal migration. Redwings call constantly as they pass low overhead, especially around Halloween and Bonfire Night when they can often be heard quite clearly over urban streets.


Redwings make this noise through the winter too, while perched in trees or hedgerows, and especially when moving between them. This will often be as part of a loose flock – a few will take flight, followed by a few more and then a few more. (Compare this with the way a bunch of starlings often take flight almost as one.)

Redwing

Telling a redwing by sight at a distance can be tricky, as they are a similar shape, size and colour to a song thrush. However, a reasonable view will reveal the strong stripe over the eye, which gives it a more streamlined look, and the dirty-orange patch on its flank, just under the fold of the wing.


Later on in the spring, on warm days, some redwings are tempted to sing. It's a few flutey notes that devolve quickly into a messy warble. It's a taste of Scandinavian or perhaps Estonian summer, no passport required.

Charlie Peverett is a bird guide and educator, and founder of Birdsong Academy, which was borne out of organising dawn-chorus Zoom calls during lockdown.


From January to June, Birdsong Academy publishes Shriek of the Week, a weekly email with a bird sound to listen out for. You can subscribe for free here.


And for those who want to go deeper into birdsong during the spring, there is a 10-week course, British Birdsong Essentials, which explores the songs of over 25 species – and offers expert ID support, group practice, Q&A sessions, and more.

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Little Green Space January 2022