Country diary: Fieldfares perch as if awaiting instruction

The first big blows of north-easterlies brought down fieldfares from Scandinavia with snow on their wings and beaks sharpened in frost and ice. Their redwing cousins seeped into Britain all through the autumn, but fieldfares are true winter thrushes, best served up chilled to the British countryside. At the tail end of November, a fellow birder in Lancashire emailed me a reply – “redwings yes, fieldfares none”. I missed their calls, those endearing rattles that remind me of customers passing through a faulty turnstile.

And now, carried in by cold winds, they’re back, chack-a-chack, bouncing across the field in a straggly flock maybe 50-strong, self-choreographing into the topmost branches of a rowan. Silhouetted against the sky, they adopt an identical stance, pointing due north, stuck all over the tree like so many Christmas baubles. Motionless and now mute – they scarcely speak when still – the fieldfares perch as if awaiting instruction.

Fieldfares were ever present here in the first months of the year, an infectious antidote to lockdown, for they were everything it wasn’t – gregarious, exuberant, highly mobile chatterers, riding out over our grounded troubles. One morning they hedge-hopped down the lane on either side of me shouting “this way!” and their excitable cries had me racing to keep up. Running with fieldfares? Silly man.

A soundless exhortation now shakes them out of the rowan, like a fist exploding into an open palm, the birds fanning northwards on a broad front. In a rebellious instant, one bird breaks away from the splintering flock, taking a wide arc to the east and then banking round to head south.

I see it cut a lone path across my path, a high flyer, with that typical fieldfare tilt towards the sun. Then the whole flock it has left appears to vote in midair: ayes to the right. One, two, four birds sheer off, triggering the whole group to bend and coalesce behind them, now in an unusually tight formation. They are drawn into the slipstream of the breakaway bird and the flock tilts, this time to the right. Westward ho!

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