Category Archives: thrushes

Finding the fieldfare

When it comes to favourites, certain British birds nudge their way into the top ranks repeatedly: the robin – unofficially Britain’s top choice – is predictable enough, as are other garden species, such as blue tit and blackbird, or perhaps something less commonly seen; a barn owl or kingfisher. I suspect my own favourite, though, is shared by few, and would never occur to anyone curious enough to hazard a guess. Fieldfares are unfamiliar to many, a birder’s bird maybe, unnoticed in the hedgerows of sodden ploughlands in such short and dreary days. But these mobster thrushes are mysterious and attractive. They exist like the promise of hard snow – overnight, sudden and thrilling, they come with the boreal cold.

Fieldfare in snow. Image: RSPB (

This year, as every year, I have been walking and driving the lanes in search of fieldfares and their thrush cousins, redwings, mostly across the flatlands of Romney Marsh not far from home in Kent. These winter nomads breed right across sub-arctic Scandinavia and the Baltic regions, making their annual incursions each October and November to wander and raze berry harvests in southern Europe. I found a roving flock last November, one bright and blue morning when it was painfully cold. I knew the birds were there long before I saw them, announcing their presence with restless stony calls, a ringing magpie ‘chak-chak’. For all this commotion, they can be frustratingly difficult to catch in good view. They remain teasingly invisible in the bare but impenetrable thorns. Suddenly, at the moment you become just too close, they burst from cover as though the trees have kept their leaves all along to release just now in a brisk gust. The action is surrounded by accelerating notes that rise in pitch and dynamics, scattering with as much force as the birds themselves. These cackling fits disappear again just metres down the frosted path, though some birds veer upwards to sit defiantly at the top branches. They mark my advance like a procession, always just ahead and out of reach, as though alarmed and mocking all at once.

The fieldfare’s evasive presence seems fittingly mirrored in their slight cultural legacy. The name as we have it is certainly medieval, but its origins, although almost certainly older (Old English feld ‘field’ + fara ‘to go’), are all but lost, scantily and obscurely present in the inky tracks of just one or two Anglo-Saxon scripts for scholars obsessed with such things to ponder and trace. Fieldfares, curiously in my view, have never attracted poetic attention in the way of so many other British species. John Clare, of course, does not forget them as passing details: they ‘chatter in the whistling thorn’ (‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’) or ‘come and go on winter’s chilling wing’ (Shepherd’s Calendar, March). At the end of the medieval period, though, it is clear that fieldfares did not go unnoticed: Chaucer ends his catalogue of birds in The Parliament of Fowls, unexpectedly, with the ‘frosty feldefare’, and in the Sherborne Missal (c. 1400), there is a remarkable titled image of the bird, accurately depicted in all its striking colours (see here for some of the images, although the fieldfare page is not included).

I find a new, hustling chatter of fieldfares on Romney Marsh again this week in mid-February. By now, with most berries stripped, they are dispersing to the fields, roaming in big numbers. Chaucer’s phrase, I’d say, has it right – their hoary plumage is a precise configuration of winter splendour, even on a day as drab and wet as this. They mark extremes: that pristine white underwing and belly, that storm-grey hood, are balanced with colours that flare like hibernal dusks, or the light and warmth of indoors we seek against such cold – the colour of smoky whisky, or the slow burn of wood fires. I follow fieldfares across tree-lined fields, follow their flights down hawthorn paths to be with all that clattering verve that turns and turns again straight into the wind.


A winter lover’s bird

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.

Source: RSPB, Graham Catley
Source: Wikipedia Commons