Our Patch: Migration Musings

By on Wednesday, November 6, 2013

our_patch_sj_jarmanAutumn is a fantastic time to see large flocks, or murmurations, of Starlings.

Often overlooked, these squabbly, gregarious birds actually have beautiful plumage – star-spangled and iridescent.

When I first became interested in wildlife some 30+ years ago, starlings were incredibly common. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for them, I think because my Irish Granddad always called them sherbets or shebsters and never saw them as a pest like many did.

starlings

They would fight over the bird table, the bird bath, the lawn – everything – and congregate in huge numbers chattering loudly on the roof tops and television aerials until there were enough of them to head for their roosts.

When I moved to Whiston 11 years ago, there were still large numbers of starlings. I remember once trying to count in excess of 40 on our lawn, rooting out leatherjackets from the earth; it’s a long time since I saw such numbers here and I miss them.

woods_sun

We can still see flocks here, and I have written on the past how the weight of them can bend my young elderberry bush right to the ground, but it is sad to think they are declining, and something which was considered as almost a pest in my lifetime can be so much more difficult to spot. When trying to get a photograph on a sunny afternoon this week, I took an hour to locate any, partially thanks to the intervention of a sparrowhawk!

We are starting to see other winter visitors arriving in Prescot now, and whilst walking with a friend at Whiston Woods, we saw a small flock of Fieldfares.

Many of us will be familiar with the two commonest thrushes in our patch, the Song Thrush and its larger cousin the Mistle Thrush (pictured below), but we will soon be getting an influx of Fieldfares and Redwings.

mistle thrushFieldfares are probably the easiest of the thrushes to identify. They gather in large flocks (although there can often be other thrushes mixed in with them), and have a grey head and rump, brown wings and a very speckled breast, but the giveaway is the black tail.

Redwings are smaller, even smaller than the song thrush, with a red-orange patch under each wing. They are often heard flying at night: They make a “seep” sound, and can be mistaken for a bat in the autumn, although once we get into this cold weather, bats should be hibernating, and there should be no confusion.

Often naturalists have a list of species they would like to see, often visitors or species which are rare or shy. Over the years I have ticked one or two off, but there are still some I would have to wait many lifetimes to see in our patch.

This week I have seen one of these species right here – in fact, it’s such an exciting sight I have contacted the local recorder to let them know.

I was walking along Fox’s Bank Lane, and just as it becomes Cumber Lane, I saw two starling shaped birds. Something made me watch as they flew, right into the sunlight which revealed they were pink, and the end of their tail appeared to be black – I could hardly believe my eyes that a pair of Waxwings was flying over.

waxwingNot only are Waxwings stunningly beautiful, but they are difficult to predict. Depending on the berries fruiting in their native Scandinavia or Russia, they may not bother migrating here, and if they do, they tend to stay on the East coast.

Last year they were here in abundance. My sister had flocks of them eating her Laurel berries, (not when I was visiting), and my dad rang to say about 20 of them had been seen eating the ornamental berries in a supermarket car park, (not when I got there five minutes later), and the press were waxing lyrical about sightings all over the country (excuse the appalling pun).

So I am one very happy nature lover still beaming with the thought of my spot, but in the back of my mind there is an alarm bell just tinkling at the moment, but giving me pause for thought.

Perhaps these migrants had been blown off course during the storms last week and just decided to stay and take advantage of the huge number of berries available to them but… I think the natural world has a lot better sense than we do of the impending weather, and I’m wondering what the winter, whose frosty hold is starting to grip, has in store for us.

Photos: SJ Jarman, except Thrush (Sue Holland) and Waxwing (Randen Pederson)

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SJ, also known as Sarah and Sarah-Jane, held her dream job as a breastfeeding peer support worker until becoming a full-time mum of three. She still volunteers at Whiston Hospital.

In her spare time, SJ loves to read, and play cello with the Knowsley Youth Orchestra. She confesses to being a secret singer ever since hubby Trev bought her SingStar.

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