Open Country by Erica Hume Niven

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A sparkling winter fairyland has taken us through the month of December.

The lower the temperatures the more the fracturing of the ice particles and the greater they glitter in moonlight. The snow lost most of its moisture so that it could not be packed into snowballs. Though early in the snowfall, my friends made a snowman with their little daughter, Hannah, with a sign beside it that said ‘go go snow’ – what Hannah says to the tumbling flakes.

There is not a better pastime to undertake if you take your coffee and cigar outside than bird watching. A more gentle hobby than looking for birds’ nests on the farmland of antagonistic landowners in Lanarkshire. While I have many memories of looking for our feathered friends with my dad, there was one occasion at Riskinhope when he went out on several occasions to check if the flock of thrushes were redwings or fieldfares.

Lacking the knowledge of their calls they were just too difficult in silhouette to pick out as one species or another. I continued to focus my attentions on trees and flowers. They stood still, I knew where to find them. For spurious reasons I tend to take an interest in different creatures year by year; it may be simply that a more intimate experience of one species or another evokes a response in me. The first reaction is to put the encounter into words, the second part is to research it.

Flying in and out of the iced hedgerows the grey-black backs of fieldfares have caught my eye as they scrape the last fruits of autumn from the branches. Aware that fieldfares comprise ‘nomadic noisy flocks’ at the end of the year as they arrive to winter in Britain, I had not given them much thought. Just like a visitor comes and goes in your home so they may create much excitement and then leave; the opportunity to find out more about them tends to follow them out the door.

Although Scandinavia is their breeding grounds, a breeding pair was recorded in the Orkneys during the late 1960s. Breeding pairs rose to 10 in the 1980s, but the RSPB now shows that we have only four breeding pairs. This number is infinitesimal compared to the 720,000 birds that overwinter here. When the ground is frozen the major attraction is the windfall fruit.

However, before the last two severe winters, someone observing their garden visitors noted: “There have been few fieldfares in recent winters; they have not even been attracted by windfall fruit. This behaviour has been noted elsewhere and a possible explanation is that winter thrushes – fieldfares and redwings – are finding invertebrates in the ground, which is remaining frost-free owing to global climate change. This may be just as well as hedge-flailing is removing the berries from hedgerows that fieldfares and other winter thrushes would be feeding on.”

I noted that the website had been updated in July 2010 and wondered why the author had not qualified his statement by including the years when the winters were mild enough to warrant such a phenomenon.

What is certain is that there seems to be a great number of them this year. I have noted them feeding, their markings strong against the brilliant white of the snow, beside blackbirds. This occurrence is not unusual because they are sociable birds, often feeding with their travelling partners and family members, the redwings.

Reading through birders’ blogs it is apparent that the nomadic nature of our winter guest results in some people seeing them in flocks of 100-plus and others only seeing a lone bird or a smaller group of a dozen or so. If an atlas was made of weather conditions and numbers spotted I am sure their seemingly-erratic movements would become clearer. What is also a fact is that there are favourite feeding trees.

These tiny creatures survive by the scrapings of winter as we watch from the relative comfort of our cars or homes. As you are preparing your New Year dinner, layering your trifles and filling your glasses, please stop for a moment, take some food from your kitchen, like an apple, and stick it on to a tree branch. The sight of birds feeding will be as good as any Christmas present you received.