Redwings, red berries and away again

© Amy Lewis

London Wildlife Trust's Director of Conservation, Mathew Frith, on one of London's winter visitors.

Redwings, red berries and away again

Last weekend I was interrupted, whilst making coffee, by a high-pitched jinking sound. Looking outside at a stand of bare-naked ashes, I saw six or seven redwings flitting through the branches, occasionally dropping down to pluck at fat ivyberries snug near the ground. Some nestled in the crown of a pollarded pear tree, seemingly warming in the morning sun, despite the bitter cold.  This was the first time I’d seen redwing from the flat window since moving to Sydenham in 2011. They hung around all day, and later on I saw a few more spiralling in and around a garden hedge, snatching the clementine-coloured berries of pyracantha and cotoneaster.  By the time the snow had gone on Monday, the redwings and their delightful tinkling had melted away too.

Redwing in Regent's Park

A redwing in Regent's Park. © Sheila Smith

Redwing are a winter visitor to London, often first arriving in Britain in large dispersed flocks from late September, often flying high on starlit nights. Many birders are attuned to their distinctive ‘glistening whistle’ calls, as their arrival often heralds that of other winter visitors, such as the closely related, but larger, fieldfare.  An average winter will witness upward of a million birds arriving from colder climes, principally Scandinavia, Russia and eastern Europe (smaller numbers fly from Iceland to Scotland and Ireland).  Some records over past decades suggest many thousands can arrive in a coastal area over a night, revealing huge numbers at dawn seeking food from trees and bushes – and dropped apples and pears - to replenish their energy.[1] In London, dependent on the severity of the winter and availability of food their arrival is usually later into winter.

Redwings are the smallest (just) of the five thrushes commonly seen in London (ring ouzel is associated with upland areas[2]). As their name suggests, they sport a rich russet blush on the flanks of their speckled breast, and in flight, their reddishness is also visible from the rusty hues of their underwings. They also have a characteristic dark eye strip, flanked with yellowish-cream stripes. In Denmark and Germany they were once named after vineyards, in which they would find much to eat, but vindrossel and Weingaerdsvogel were mistranslated as ‘wind bird’; windle and winnard becoming other English names mostly now long dropped.

a redwing in a holly bush with a berry in its beak

A redwing in a Croydon garden. © Beverley Foulkes-Jones

In winter, redwing and fieldfare can often be seen together, although redwings – despite being flighty and nervous of proximity to people – appear to be much more commonly seen across the mosaic of parks, gardens, playing fields and woodlands towards inner London. I’ve seen them almost snuffling through leaf litter in parks, roosting on playing fields, and flitting in small flocks, gathering atop roadside rowans, hawthorns and garden berry-bushes, chattering constantly whilst taking their fill before moving on. 

Nevertheless, some very large flocks have been recorded in London; 300-400 birds near Denmark Hill in 1880, 2,000 at Beddington Sewage Farm[3] in the harsh winter of 1947, 2000 in Addington in December 1962, and 5,000 at Beddington a month later (as that winter turned very cold).[4]  Milder winters over the past 20 years has probably led to smaller numbers being seen here since (530 being a notable flock seen over Walthamstow Wetlands in October 2018), although the recent cold snap – and lockdown - has meant many more of us have been able to enjoy their gregarious presence. Many will soon be off towards their north European breeding grounds; I’ll be hoping for a quiet dark night later in the year to hear their return.

 

Mathew Frith

Director of Conservation

 

[1] Simms, E. (1978). British Thrushes, New Naturalist, Collins & Son Ltd.

[2] Blackbird, song thrush, and mistle thrush are resident, fieldfare another winter migrant. Less than 100 ring ouzel are usually recorded each year as they pass through London, mostly in April or October.

[3] Now known as Beddington Farmlands

[4] Self, A. (2014). The Birds of London, Bloomsbury