Girton Birdwatch - February 2010
The bad weather has had advantages and disadvantages for local people interested in birds. One of the major advantages is that some birds which would normally avoid our gardens have ventured in in search of food. This year more and more people have reported seeing Redwings and Fieldfares in their gardens and this, for those without binoculars, has meant that close-up views of these attractive birds have proved possible. Large mixed flocks of these birds visit the Rec and near-by fields every year - they are a classic herald of winter, with roughly a million arriving in Britain annually - but this year they have proved especially bold. Opinion is divided as to which is the more beautiful species of the two, but perhaps the Fieldfare, known in Spain as the Royal Thrush, probably edges it. It is 10inches (26cm) in size with a blue-grey head, nape and rump; a chestnut back, dark tail and speckled brown breast.
Fieldfares usually arrive here from Scandinavia, pushed out when they've exhausted the Rowan berries, but they can travel as far as the African coast. The British visitors settle first on open pasture or plough land where they search for invertebrates, although they are not averse to fruit and once they - and the Redwings - settle on hedges of holly, hawthorn or dog rose, they can strip them at an amazing rate. The snow and ice has encouraged them into our large gardens where they gobble up any remaining windfall apples, but the exceptionally harsh weather also means that they have entered smaller gardens, too.
The Redwing is smaller than the Fieldfare (a little over 8inches;21cm), and slightly smaller and darker than the Song Thrush, from which it can be told by its prominent white eye-stripe and red patches on its flanks and under its wings. It also has a streaked, not spotted, breast. Most of the visiting thrushes from the far north have little experience of humans and are relatively easily approached, but Redwings are more nervous and wary and, when disturbed, will seek the safety of the nearest trees, which makes their presence in our gardens all the more welcome.
A much smaller bird - the Reed Bunting - has also been seen around the village and its environs. It is a sparrow-like bird but with a black head, chin and throat and a white moustache, although in the winter the head and neck are mottled brown. The rest of the bird is unremarkable, although the white-edged tail, with a clear fork, often helps to pick them out in mixed winter flocks. Reed Buntings are resident here although they move south in the autumn; others visit Britain in the summer, while some fly in from the Continent for the winter, in the same way as many of our nesting birds go south. I see them regularly along the Beck Brook: marshy areas, river margins and reed beds being their favoured nesting areas, although they don't like it too wet as they nest close to the ground. However, since the 1960's, when their populations grew, and farms were losing damp areas of marginal land, they have adapted to far drier conditions and are even to be found with Yellowhammers in scrub and chalk-land. Moreover, in recent years they have increasingly been seen feeding with Chaffinches and Sparrows at suburban bird-tables; they are visiting Bob Benton's garden in the High Street for example, so keep your eyes open.
Other small birds to look out for - and to feed - are Blackcaps and Goldcrests, both of which have been in our garden, and around the village. The smaller the bird the more vulnerable they are to the cold and lack of food and water, so we may notice a drop off in spring of some of the small birds which have benefited from recent mild winters. We usually get 5 or 6 regular Goldfinch visitors to our niger seed feeder but the other day there was a flock of 20 - which at first I thought might be Siskins - vigorously attacking the dormant catkins on our silver birch.
Little Egrets are also becoming regular visitors to the area and creeping closer to the village. Two were in the fields adjacent to the start of the footpath to Westwick near Histon - surprisingly easy to spot despite the snow - while one flew out of the Beck Brook near the Riding stables, nearly colliding with Dave Heath's car! Around the same period, 13th January, a Great Egret (sometimes called a Great White Egret or Great White Heron) - the largest all-white bird occurring in Britain and Ireland and hard to confuse with anything else - was reported from north-west Cambridge, flying south-east. On 15th one was seen from a train at Waterbeach, another was over Newmarket road on 16th, and yet another - although they all might have been the same bird - at Pymore on the 19th. Sightings of this bird in Britain are on the increase, mirroring their expansion in eastern Europe, with in excess of 115 being recorded, more than 85% of which have been since 1978.