Red Letter Day

For the last couple days the winds has been coming in from the East, sending birders scurrying to the coast in search of rare and vagrant birds brought over from the continent. Red-flanked blue tail, yellow-browed warblers, Isabelline shrike and Pallas’ warbler all turning up at coastal sites around Norfolk and Suffolk. To me, yes these are exciting birds, some of which I would love to see. But my priorities have changed. And it is not all down to the little Robyn bird that has become the centre of my world over the last 12 weeks. Even before she arrived, once I had become a bird ringer my priorities and focus shifted from birding to bird ringing. The easterly winds may have brought some unusual birds but it also heralded the return of our common winter migrants. Across the dark velvety sky in the early hours of Wednesday morning, with stars still twinkling and only the smallest hint of lightening of the sky signally the coming dawn, came the distinct but thin, almost wistful ‘seep’ call of one of our commonest winter migrants, but also one of the most beautiful.

In the gathering light, with the reeds and trees at Cranwich rustling quietly in the breeze, we set a series of mist nets. Through the dark comes the deep rumbling roar of Red Deer, hidden by darkness and trees but sending tremors through the early dawn. As the morning draws on the sky is soon filled with hundreds of small, dark thrushes, with that distinct ‘seep’ call. They are Redwing. Circling through the sky now filled with hurrying clouds, moving in flocks from one tree to another and soon dropping down to where our nets stretched through open corridors between the pools, reeds and trees.

The beautiful Redwing

Up close they are beautiful birds. A bold, creamy stripe above the eye, cuts through the olivey brown feathers of the head. A slightly less pronounced stripe runs underneath the eye. The glossy brown continues down the back and tail, while underneath the pale chest is streaked with dark brown spots. Under the wing is a deep, chestnut-red splash of colour that spills onto the flank and from which the bird gets its name.

For each bird we look to age it by assessing the quality of the feathers, looking for any changes in colour, any pale fringing and the amount of wear. From this we can tell whether the bird hatched this year, or either the year before or at some point before. Due to the way adult passerines moult after each breeding cycle we have no way of knowing exactly how old the bird is from feathers alone. Only ringing details can do that. Once aged, we measure its wing, record how much fat it has, the condition of its breast muscle, and weigh it. It is then released to join the rest of the flock still hanging round the willows and alders of Cranwich.

It is a tremendous day, with so many Redwings moving through we inevitably managed to catch a few…. Well 66 to be exact! But that was not all for the day, Goldcrest, Treecreeper, Robin, Chaffinch, Chiff chaff, Wren, Greenfinch, Reed Bunting Long-tailed Tit, Cetti’s Warbler, Kingfisher, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll, Song Thrush, Marsh Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit and even a Willow Tit (a species that until this year we have not caught on the site since 2009!) added to a the grand total of 195 birds caught and processed on this Red Letter Day for ringing at Cranwich.

Willow tit


Cetti’s Warbler

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