As the world shuts down around us the uplifting role that wildlife plays in our lives becomes more vital than ever. So, for my own sanity as much as anything, I’m going to keep a daily diary of what I find around my garden. Photograph the wildlife you can see from your window or in your garden and post your pictures on the ‘Sussex Wildlife Trust Nature Table’ page.
I went for a walk last night, just to the end of the cul-de-sac. I had been on the phone to some friends and reading the news online all evening and the enormity of the situation is starting to sink in. Two friends are worried about their jobs and Bolivia has announced a complete quarantine. The virus is affecting everybody on the planet. Comforting friends and trying to process this ever-changing situation is not easy. And tonight it’s really affecting me.
I pulled on my winter coat, walked down the lane past the recycling bins to the junction with the main road. There were no cars. It’s a cold, clear night and I stood staring up at the stars, the satellites and Venus blazing bright in the western sky. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for up there, maybe a sign? Some reassurance?
It was then I that I heard it. ‘Tseep’. A thin, sibilant whistle, transmitting from somewhere up there between Sussex and Alpha Centauri. It’s a sound that I haven’t heard for a few months – the call of the Redwing.
Redwing are small thrushes, like a pale, streaky-breasted Blackbird. Their name comes from the flash of red revealed by the birds in flight – an underwing that looks like it has been rubbed raw from flying. Their furrowed eyebrows and blonde, drooping moustache give them the appearance of a permanently annoyed Scandinavian – and that’s exactly what they are.
Redwing breed across a wide northerly stretch of our planet running from Iceland across Norway, Sweden and Finland and all the way to the Kolyma Basin in eastern Siberia. As our planet spins through space, the bit at the top gets colder and each winter Redwing are forced to begrudgingly flee from the freeze and leave their homes for the relative warmth of England. Once here they are corralled around the county by cold fronts and roam the countryside in nomadic flocks in an anxious search for berries and wild fruits.
The scale of the annual Redwing arrival in England is massive – maybe a million birds, but this number changes each year depending on the weather conditions further north.
Now, during March the Redwing are leaving Sussex, chasing the retreating winter back to their defrosting fjords. They mostly migrate undercover of the night. That Tseep is their contact call, a single thin mercury note, broadcasting out into the darkness and hoping for a reply, a reassurance from their fellow travellers that they’re not alone.
You can hear the Redwing’s flight call here.
That lonesome whistle, from one little bird lost among the stars, was all the reassurance I needed tonight. It reminded me that each year millions of birds – thrushes, ducks, waders, swans, owls – have to take drastic action to escape from a challenging situation. But now, after a few months escaping the freeze, they are heading back north to their familiar homelands to build their nests in the sunshine.
As the Redwing fly home, it’s our turn to change our behaviour to manage a challenging situation. And it may take a few months, but something resembling normality will return.
A lone car drives past me, heading home through the night, so I turned and migrated back to my kitchen and put the kettle on.