Basin Notes

THE HIGHLY evocative, far-carrying and distinctive “seep” contact notes of migrating redwings, as parties of this Scandinavian thrush keep in touch with each other in the darkness above, are a definite highlight of October nights, and are a sure sign that autumn has truly taken hold.

If you listen carefully, you can often hear the birds’ sharp/clear communication calls drifting down even in built-up, busy and noisy areas, especially on crisp, clear nights (like the ones we were all enjoying until relatively recently – before all the rain and subsequent floods). Invisible but somehow reassuring, the nocturnal arrival of these beautiful “refugees” from colder lands to the north, can often be very subtle and unobtrusive.

The scale of this seemingly “quiet” migration can be somewhat surprising when you actually consider that nearly a million of them flood into the British Isles each year.

The redwing is most commonly encountered in our area as an autumn/winter bird, and is actually the UK’s smallest true thrush – its creamy strip above the eye and orange-red flank patches make it very striking and highly visible.

Both sexes are remarkably similar in appearance, with plain brown backs and dark brown spots on their white under parts. A significant vanguard is already with us, and they will be around the Basin and Montrose, for the next few months.

Like the geese and other wildfowl, they arrive annually - to escape the intensely harsh and severe winters of their breeding grounds (which include the woods, gardens and tundra of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Iceland). It’s worth noting, however, that a few pairs do also breed/nest in some secluded areas of our own highlands.

I recently witnessed some in a “mixed flock” feeding hungrily on some rowan berries just outside my window at work. Later on that day, a passing sparrowhawk caused serious panic among them (and the other ravenous blackbirds and song thrushes) all of which rapidly abandoned the site en masse to perform some incredible aerial revolutions and manoeuvres - not unlike those associated with starling flocks – a really fantastic spectacle to behold and one I’ll never forget.

Having always considered this species as “creatures of habit”, I was a little shocked and surprised to discover, in the book entitled ‘Thrushes’ (Christopher Helm Publishers Ltd, 2000), that Redwing display a remarkable lack of consistency when it comes to their choice of wintering habits and quarters.

For example, there are numerous recoveries of ringed birds which have overwintered here in Scotland but were as far as Italy, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Georgia or even Iran in subsequent winters. Such recoveries really show/reveal just how highly nomadic this particular species can be.

So, if you happen to be out and about in the Angus countryside over the next few weeks, or near any local orchards/fruit trees, hedges with berries, or simply have a rowan or hawthorn tree in the garden, please remember to keep both your eyes and ears wide open.

With patience, I’m sure you’ll eventually come across these wonderful birds yourselves – they’re very often seen alongside our own native thrushes and blackbirds, or that other Nordic visitor, the fieldfare.

Good luck and remember to tune in to the new series of BBC Autumnwatch at the end of the month, where I’m sure all this will be mentioned in greater detail.

Michael Craig