The season’s new arrivals on display
- Credit: Archant
September sees off summer and by October we know winter is at the door!
Trees and bushes empty of their leaves and with them go the little parties of 'leaf warblers' - willow warblers and chiffchaffs - that had softened the September air with their liquid calls.
In the fields around crops have been cut and the grass fields mown and baled. The landscape is exposed once more but by no means empty.
A new harvest awaits winter arrivals from the north who will fill the would-be vacuum of summer life. Already flocks of a hundred-strong meadow pipits squeak and scuttle in the rough stubble, picking up insects and grubs exposed by the plough. Soon they will be joined by skylarks that have been silent since July but return now with a more subdued rattle of abrupt notes, only occasionally hinting at their former musical splendour. It is a time for flocks, whereas before the summer greenery provided safety out of sight, security must now be found in numbers.
As if to provide the necessary counter-magnet to the flocks of northern denizens, trees and bushes are laden heavily with bright berries, spreading upwards towards the sky as their flowers did before them. Arrowing down from their southern trajectory winter thrushes - redwing and fieldfares - will descend to strip these banquets bare.
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The anxious wheezing calls of redwing and the bolder 'chacking' notes of fieldfares are the soundtrack to winter skies and will remain with us into April next year when their internal compass returns to north once more. If I listen for the willow warbler's sweet cascading tune in spring then it is the redwing's thin flight call that I wait for in autumn. The willow warbler's notes drop into a bright mist of new green leaves: willows bathed in warm sunshine and vibrant with new bursting buds. In contrast, the redwing's first call pierces the chill nighttime silence as I stand in the garden and listen - an audible beacon from this little bird navigating the dark void above.
It is not just the berries on offer to our returning winter birds. Walking along the River Colne recently (sadly almost completely dry following a long period of drought) the alder trees are laden with fresh seed cones. A small flock of goldfinches twittered in the bushes nearby, perhaps anticipating the not-quite-ripe-yet feast, but soon they will be forced to share, as siskins and redpolls arrive from their northern breeding grounds.
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Theses little finches are strikingly beautiful but, like so many British birds, have perfected the art of subtlety. The blends of green and bright yellow, punctuated with black on the male birds, match perfectly the broken, dappled foliage of autumn alders and birches. Likewise, observing the little brown redpolls feeding on the seed cones, it's not always clear where the cone ends and the bird begins!
Swinging upside down on their feast these little flocks can fall completely silent save for the tiniest of twitters. Time and again I have searched for the siskin or redpoll I thought I heard overhead only to find a host of tiny finches feeding just above my head!
These little birds brighten any winter day and, if the collective noun for goldfinches is 'a charm', I would want to add a 'reward of redpolls' and a 'sustenance of siskin' for their infectious vibrancy on even the dullest of days. All these wintering birds give reason enough for us to get out and search for them and you may not have to go far as many of them visit out gardens: the finches at the feeders and the thrushes on the berries and windfall fruit.
As always, my mantra is "Get out in it! " and experience nature first hand and never more so as we embark on the winter period. Searching for and finding this season's new arrivals is the perfect antidote to claustrophobic days of rain when it would appear nothing is 'doing' outside. You'll find these hardy little visitors crack open the grey surround and brighten even the darkest of days!