How to spot autumn birds in Cheshire

Redpoll (c) Bob Coyle

Redpoll (c) Bob Coyle - Credit: Bob Coyle

Autumn heralds a time of change for our birds. Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Adam Linnet explains what to look out

Redwing (c) Margaret Holland

Redwing (c) Margaret Holland - Credit: Margaret Holland

We all know that one swallow does not a summer make. But no swallows definitely makes it autumn. From a young age we’re told about birds moving south for the winter. The swallows have taken their leave, along with our other summer migrants, such as swifts, chiffchaffs and ospreys. Something that I always felt was rarely said to a much younger me, was that while these species were heading south from the UK – there were other birds heading to us. These are our wintering migrant species and they contain some of the most beautiful birds that symbolise the changing of the seasons as much as their summer counterparts do.

Some head west from places like Germany, others head south-west from Scandinavia, and some make the southward trip from Iceland. The reason we get these species moving to the UK is that we have much milder winters than other parts of Europe. Propped up by the warmth of the Gulf Stream, our winter temperatures usually hover above freezing; barring any Beast for the East type events. Whereas the aforementioned countries have averages below freezing, with colder spells seeing the mercury drop even further. Our warmer climes mean the birds need to burn fewer calories to maintain their body temperature in the UK. They also have an easier job finding enough food to survive.

This is especially true in coastal areas and the south coast, but even here in Cheshire, our average temperature in the depths of winter are between 1C and 5C, a lot warmer than the -10C parts of Iceland get.

But whatever the underlying cause of the migration, it is the wonder and beauty of the species that always holds my interest. The main group I think of as winter migrants are the thrushes. While it is true a lot of our common species see their populations swell when their continental cousins head over, we do get some new species moving in too.

Fieldfare on branch with rowan berries (c) Richard Steel

Fieldfare on branch with rowan berries (c) Richard Steel - Credit: Richard Steel/2020VISION

Redwings are the real indicator to me that autumn is on the way. They migrate at night, giving their very distinctive “zztseep” call as they fly overhead. Listening out for them adds a lovely nature-based twist to an evening walk when they start to arrive late September. If you want to see redwing, then keep an eye out on berry-laden hedgerows or on rowans in car parks. They often form large flocks, sometimes with other thrushes, but the red patch on their armpit (from where they get their name), the striking stripe above the eye, and their constant call are the best ways to pick them out of the crowd.

The other new thrush on the block is the fieldfare. It is one of the larger members of the thrush family and, in my opinion, the most dapper. The subtleness of its features, the fact it is less showy or colourful than others and, yet, its distinctive-marks make it an absolute wonder to behold. The gorgeous shade of grey on the head, the black markings around the ear and the way the buff tone and scale-like spots of the chest give way to the white of the belly – all make the fieldfare the smartest looking thrush. But saying all of that, it is quite a shy bird, making an up close encounter quite rare. It is likely to be its size compared to other thrushes that gives it away; only mistle thrushes are larger and they rarely form flocks like fieldfares do. Like redwing, fieldfare have a distinctive call. The main one is a repetitive “chuk-chuk, chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk” which has a slight laughing tone to it and is often given in flight.

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These two species tend to be the most widely visible wintering species we get in Cheshire, but depending on where you live, there might be more to be seen. The UK is internationally important for its estuaries and coastal hideaways for birds. The Wirral is renowned as a haven for coastal species, especially wading birds and waterfowl. In the winter we see species that breed up on the tundra of northern Europe or the uplands of the UK coming back to the Dee and Mersey estuaries.

These places can account for large percentages of the entire European populations of some species, making them great places to go and see a real wildlife spectacle. A visit to our Red Rocks nature reserve is an absolute must over winter to see the birds flocking together as the tide comes in. Just remember to wrap up warm, as the wind can be more than a bit fresh at times!

A mistle thrush (c) Margaret Holland

A mistle thrush (c) Margaret Holland - Credit: Margaret Holland

So you can enjoy the splendour of these winter visitors up close, I recommend attracting them to your garden. I’ve not found many better ways to spend an autumnal morning than with a cup of tea, looking out of my kitchen window, watching the birds gather on the food I’ve provided for them. It’s a great way to warm your body and soul.

Host your own Autumnwatch

There are some simple things you can do to entice winter birds into your garden. The first is more of a long-term plan: planting trees and shrubs that produce berries and fruit through the autumn. These can include apple trees, rowans, hawthorn and holly. If you don’t have the space to introduce new trees, try putting fruit on your current trees! Staking apples onto cut branches can be a great way to bring redwings and fieldfares up close, as is stacking them on the lawn.

Providing water in a shallow sided dish is worth doing year round, but as the temperature starts to drop it can be one of only a few sources of unfrozen water available to our feathered friends.

You can also provide seed and nuts through the winter. This will be vital for birds trying to find enough to eat to see them through the cold nights. You might even attract the slightly rarer species, such as an overwintering chiffchaff, and that flock of goldfinches might harbour a siskin or even a redpoll. Try a variety of seeds and nuts, such as sunflower and nyjer seeds, to find out what your feathered visitors prefer.