Friday 2 March 2018

Frosty the Fieldfare 1st March 2018

My rural village home in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds is regularly snowed in and today the threatened snow finally arrived from the East and deciding discretion was the better part of valour I resolved to stay put in our house and let the weather do its worst.

I work from home anyway and the bedroom I use as an office looks out onto a courtyard garden with an ornamental crab apple tree Malus Rede Sentinel (for those of you who are gardenersgrowing close to the window and granting me a grandstand view of the upper branches and its profusion of the small red apples that are in fact not much larger than a substantial berry.

The ornamental Crab Apple Tree
This morning it was snowing continuously with the ground being steadily covered, and with food sources at a premium at this lean time of year the still abundant fruit on the tree was proving attractive to the resident Blackbirds. Being small in size the berries are more manageable for the bird's bills than the larger kinds of crab apple, so are understandably popular.

Looking out of the window this morning I was delighted to see a Fieldfare also taking advantage of the berries but not for long, as the resident pair of Blackbirds chivvied it away from the tree and on a couple of occasions even drew feathers from the Fieldfare as they attacked it but the Fieldfare was hungry and not to be denied, so continually returned despite the threats from the Blackbirds. I harboured a hope that the Fieldfare, being the larger of the two would give the bullying Blackbirds their come uppance but it always demurred to its commoner cousins.

Its presence must have attracted another passing Fieldfare which joined it in the tree and to my delight I saw that this individual had an almost white head and breast. Fieldfares, any Fieldfare are beautiful at the best of times and I have even read that they are considered one of the most beautiful thrushes in the world. Certainly this aberrant Fieldfare, with part of its plumage embellished with white undoubtedly looked every bit the part.

I went and bought all the apples I could find in the village shop as well as some bird seed and topped up the peanuts in the feeders to hopefully tide over the regular garden birds through this hard spell of weather and any others, such as Fieldfares, that were passing. 

The presence of the Fieldfares and especially the one with the white head brought a pleasant start to the day and forgetting work I spent the rest of the morning indulging myself in a bit of a Fieldfare fest, enjoying the unusual experience of watching and admiring the normally wary Fieldfares not more than six feet from my window. I could not, however, help  but reflect on our very different situations with me sitting in a warm room watching these birds feeding for their very lives in such inhospitable conditions outside.

A Mistle Thrush discovered the tree and the Blackbirds were now nowhere to be seen. Unlike the similar sized Fieldfares the Mistle Thrush would brook no interference. The Blackbirds tried it on but were confronted by a Mistle Thrush that refused to be intimidated and met any aggression from the Blackbirds with lowered head, open bill and spread wings that clearly persuaded the Blackbirds they were outdone on this occasion!

Mistle Thrush
Later in the morning the apples I had put out had done the trick and attracted more Fieldfares and also some Redwings both of which, despite the apples, showed a preference for the berries on the tree.  As equally beautiful as the Fieldfares, up to three of the smaller, more delicate Redwing fed on the berries in the company of half a dozen Fieldfares. The Blackbirds had by now conceded the tree, outnumbered by the two Scandinavian species but now the tree was dominated by one particular male Fieldfare which, with drooped wings and fanned tail, his plumage fluffed out to both banish the cold and intimidate, pursued his fellows and the smaller Redwings around the tree until satisfied it had enough space to itself. I had to laugh when a Starling landed in the tree and on being confronted sent the bullying Fieldfare packing with one jab of its sharp bill.

The Fieldfares technique for dealing with the berries was to stab and twist at them, all in one motion which tore off chunks of flesh but occasionally they would pull off an entire berry and attempt to swallow it whole with decidedly mixed success. Despite the appalling weather the males still had time and energy enough to dispute with one another over feeding rights and yet other individuals had the time to preen their plumage or sit quietly regarding their fellow Fieldfare's continued frenzied feeding.

By lunchtime the Fieldfares had totally commandeered the tree and replete with crops bulging, some just sat in the branches of the tree until they were hungry again. It makes sense, as here is a food supply that may mean the difference between life and death and conveniently, a tall dense holly hedge just a few metres away by our driveway in which to roost tonight. Why go anywhere else?

I spent most of the day by the window, occasionally working but mainly admiring and making the most of this almost unique opportunity to watch, what had now, by mid afternoon, risen to forty or more Fieldfares, gorging the fruit of the tree no more than feet from me. They were so close it gave me the opportunity to note the subtle differences in the depth of colour of their plumage with presumably the adult males showing the most saturated colours, their backs a rich dark purple brown and their breasts deep golden buff thickly streaked black, whilst presumably females or younger birds less than a year old were much paler overall and less strongly marked but nonetheless handsome.

The resident male Blackbird made a late and abortive attempt to take back control of the tree but was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Fieldfares and retreated to sit, morose and disconsolate on a log pile to regard these foreign interlopers trashing his former domain.

I guess the Fieldfares will be back tomorrow. I just hope the berries will last, the village stores manages to get more apples and the weather will improve for these birds, sooner rather than later. It is a tough time for all birds at this low period of the year and a struggle to survive. The cold wind is quite vicious today whipping the frozen snow from the surrounding roofs in minor blizzards and tossing the birds about on their slender perches so they have to use their wings to balance.

Tonight the temperature is predicted to again go well below freezing, with a strong and bitterly cold wind and I will think of the Fieldfares and Redwings roosting in the holly hedge nearby. I hope its dense foliage will shelter them from the worst of the weather.

Friday Postscript

The crab apple tree was invaded at first light by the Fieldfares. There were many more now than yesterday, at least a hundred and it was a complete frenzy of feeding birds, fluttering, fighting and tugging at the fruits, a constant feathered animation  that I doubt will ever be repeated in my lifetime. Certainly I have never witnessed anything like this in the twenty five years we have lived here. I made the short walk to the village shop and another horde of Fieldfares flew out from an orange berried cotoneaster growing on the wall of the cottage next to the shop.There must have been at least a hundred and fifty birds, their throaty chuckles of alarm ringing out as they flew over my head to perch in a nearby tree.

I wanted to go into the nearby town of Chipping Norton to get some apples to sustain the Fieldfares for another day but it was impossible, the roads being thick with uncleared snow and impassable to cars.

By eleven in the morning the crab apple tree was stripped bare and the show was over. The Fieldfares, living up to their name, moved on. Just a few remained, quiet and still, sat in the snow while others hunted for any fallen berries beneath the bushes and shrubs under the tree.

I do hope they find another food source and survive to fly back to their home in the forests and parklands of Scandinavia and Russia.

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