The day was sopping before it started. Wringing and beating itself into barely light. Even so, first thing I took the rain-ploughed track north through a small band of woods near Chichester. No one else ventured out – just me, the banging winds and squalls of rain up past the deserted medieval village towards Monkton. There’d been word of them recently enough, only yesterday, great gatherings seen this way in the fields and corridors of woodland, and the thought of this spectacle was enough to get me out.
I found them quickly enough, three or four hunched in the dull hedges like overnight embers. They took flight as I neared, joining others I’d not noticed in the smudged trees around, then more from beyond, flock into flock out onto the dripping maize stubble; bramblings flew with more and more – chaffinches, hawfinches, yellowhammers – their white behinds clear as snow in the drizzle.
Bramblings are a birder’s bird. More precise still maybe: a bird for the binocular-swinging, hibernal fanatic. For those, like me, who are northerly-minded while others dream themselves south in the darker months; who savour the vocabulary of north – ice and floe, taiga and tundra, this bird forms a winter trinity, poles apart from the summer lover’s turtle dove or nightingale.
The brambling, redwing and fieldfare all come to our isles in autumn, seeking warmer climes, but bringing short days and Arctic winds with them. Their plumage marks these extremes, as though flaunting a self-assigned symbolism: the fieldfare’s frosted underwing, the brambling’s rump – pristine as Arctic swans – or hoary hood that slowly wears away to black come spring, and the redwing’s bold eyestripe. But all three flare with heat, too, the colours of whisky, winter dusk, the slow burn of wood fires.