Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Scramblin' for A Brambling 11th January 2021

About ten minutes from my home is an area of neglected land almost too big to be called a field but that is what we will call it and unusually, this winter it has been left fallow and unploughed with the consequence that seeding plants abound and flocks of finches have not been slow in taking advantage of this now all too rare source of food. This is how it must have been before Britain's agriculture became so intensified and hostile to nature.

Beside this haven for the finches, bordered on two sides by roads, the one to the east the busier and leading to Chipping Norton, the other smaller, a quiet country lane of little consequence leading to Cornwell, lies an untouched neglected covert of emaciated hawthorns, elder and the occasional mature beech and ash tree, sheltered on its eastern side by a ragged stand of tall conifers. The covert is inconsequential enough that one can walk round it in about ten minutes. Bramble has been left to its own devices and the long exploratory shoots, some still bearing leaf, rest now after rampaging through the covert in the spring and summer of last year. They remain as a convoluted understory, dense and hostile enough to ensure that any encroachment into the covert is only for the most determined. Wild clematis doggedly clings to the outermost twigs of some hawthorns, bringing to reality its alternative name of Old Man's Beard, as puffs of grey seeding down cluster in a last despairing caress amongst the fretwork of twig and branch.

The disappearance of leaf cover reveals that before this tangle of bush, bramble and tree ever arose there were one or more small outbuildings here, their long forgotten brick foundations all that remains and still clearly visible amongst the brambles and moss. A less welcome sign of human existence manifests itself in various bits of long discarded scrap metal, thrown into the bushes to be forgotten. Styrofoam food cartons  and drink cans, have joined them, thoughtlessly thrown from cars passing along the road. At one end of the covert by a gate leading into the field a pile of overfull black polythene bags and other household waste, like some malignant growth, squats by the road. Whoever dumped it here too lazy and lacking in social conscience to otherwise dispose of it properly. Why bother when this quiet country lane will do nicely. No one will see. Out of sight, out of mind. Someone else's problem now. The council will clear it up anyway. I stand and stare at the pile, a jarring eyesore in this otherwise rural winter landscape of bare trees, fields, wide skies and the rolling contours of the Cotswolds, a testament to the times we are living in. The rubbish mocks the discrete stone I passed earlier bearing the legend 'The Cotswolds - An Area of Outstanding Beauty.'

The combination of a seeding field and the comparative safety and security provided by the adjacent bushes and trees grants the finches their two most pressing requirements, food and security. The hidden feeding flock flee in regular alarm from the ground cover of the seeding plants to perch high or deep in the tangled twiggery of the nearest hawthorns or the rigid upright stems of an elder, waiting until they feel secure enough to fly out and descend once more to feed in the field.

As a consequence of the field's neglect this unprepossessing corner of the Cotswolds has attracted finches in an increasingly large and mixed flock, the most notable of which are Bramblings, the Scandinavian version of our familiar Chaffinch, and joined in large numbers by Linnets and the aforementioned Chaffinches, many probably from northern  mainland Europe.

The flock of Bramblings has increased steadily since a colleague discovered them in late autumn last year and as winter has progressed the flock has grown from around fifteen birds to one which some estimate is now in excess of sixty, the increase possibly as a result of the severe frost and snow of the preceding few days.  Personally I can attest to no more than forty or so Brambling but confess to finding it immensely difficult to assess the true number as the birds are flighty, and often do not show themselves as one flock but as random individuals or small groups. Mixed in with them, to add further confusion and doubt, are more than fifty Chaffinches, their behaviour bringing the same difficulties in assessing their number as with the Bramblings.

To add to this finch fest there is a roving flock of over one hundred and fifty Linnets that regularly rise from the ground to whirl around in the sky, a restless tight formation of twittering fuss but being united in one flock they are easier to count. It is noticeable that, unlike the Chaffinches and Bramblings, if they settle they choose the highest tree possible and sit out on the exposed topmost twigs.


There is something about Bramblings that sets my birding juices flowing. I like their bright combination of orange, black and white plumage, at this time of year obscured but not totally hidden by long feather fringes, creating a pleasing intricate patterning of spots, chevrons, bars and stripes, which will wear away by spring to reveal the underlying colours.

The female looks similar to the male but is less strongly coloured, a paler imitation and her head is noticeably greyer with little sign of underlying black. The variation of pale feather fringes on the heads of individual males  is considerable. Some are advanced in wear, enough to show obvious black indicating they are without doubt males, but on others the black is still largely obscured. It all adds to the enjoyment of the occasion, trying, sometimes unsuccessfully to sort out the sex of each bird. The excitement when you spot the distinctive white back and rump of one or more Bramblings amongst a flock of fleeing Chaffinches is not to be underestimated either. 

I stood at a discrete distance on the edge of the field so as not to disturb the birds and to be able to regard the favoured hawthorns and elder where the feeding flock would fly to seek sanctuary on their periodic scares from the field. I could hear, every so often, the distinctive hard nasal tchaay call of a hidden Brambling coming from a hidden part of the covert. There were always one or more birds to see in the favoured trees, a mix of Bramblings and Chaffinches  but it was not so easy to photograph them. Nine times out of ten the birds would be partially obscured by twigs as they sat deep in the tree but every so often I would find a bird unobstructed by twig or branch and then it had to be hoped it was a Brambling. Capturing them with the camera brought me to heights of exquisite tension when one would perch in the right spot but then, in the seconds it took to focus my camera, it would have moved position or flown off. But once or twice it all coalesced favourably and that was enough to retain my enthusiasm and engender hope for one more photo opportunity. 

Bramblings come in varying numbers to spend the winter in central and southern Europe including Britain, flying across the North Sea from their breeding areas in Scandinavia. In some years they can be scarce, remaining in southern Scandinavia and in other years much more numerous. It is thought this depends on their food source in winter. If it fails in Scandinavia the birds have no option but to migrate to survive.Their food of choice is beech mast which itself varies from year to year in availability. Here in my part of northwest Oxfordshire, bordering Gloucestershire, there are stands of beech trees and I sometimes see, while driving past, the flash of their distinctive white backs as they fly up from where they have been feeding by the road. Some years ago there was a large flock, the largest I have ever seen, feeding under beeches near my previous home in Kingham.There must have been over a hundred but this pales into insignificance when you consider flocks of fifteen million at Pau in France in the winter of 1964-65, four to five million at Lodersdorf in Austria in 2008-2009 and as recently as the winter of 2018-2019, five million were feeding and roosting at the Zasavje Valley in Slovenia. 

Some of the 5 million Bramblings in Slovenia
Photo courtesy of Ruj Mihelic

To finish I want to go back to one very personal experience involving Bramblings that brought the wonder that is bird migration to a place where the dead lay below me in the ground and the living, in the form of migrating birds, flew above me in the cold dawn sky. 

I was standing in Easington Cemetery which lies on the Spurn Peninsula in Yorkshire bounded to one side by the North Sea and on the other by the huge Humber Estuary. The cemetery is small, a walled square of tranquillity, isolated amongst the wide flat fields that surround it, the ancient grave stones and dark yews standing, for yet another autumn, under tall sycamores. It was early October and dawn had recently broken. Bitterly cold, my face was frozen to a rictus but the advancing day was promising to be bright as the wind from the northeast blustered across the fields to shake and rattle the dead leaves in the tops of the sycamores. From high above in the sky came a distinctive scraping call, elemental as the weather and blown down on the wind. A Brambling and then others, the birds hurled on the bitter wind, from the sea and calling their relief or excitement as they finally made landfall after a night crossing the sea from their Scandinavian home. 

They dropped into the sycamores and clung to the twigs, the winter sun at this early hour so very low in the sky but sufficient that its glow illuminated their orange breasts to gold. 

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