Country Diary: Joy to hear the song thrush – a breath of spring

A song thrush uses a stone as an anvil to break through the snails shell.
A song thrush uses a stone as an anvil to break through the snails shell.

Like tiny snowflakes, dancing up and down on invisible threads, a swarm of winter gnats surprised us near Johnson’s Pond, Burniston Road. Look for such swarms in your garden during fine afternoons this winter. They resemble small crane-flies.

Another surprise, as we drove up Limestone Road and parked in the vicinity of our previous sightings of barn owls, produced yet another viewing. It was almost dusk, when sure enough, the owl approached from the opposite direction beside the grassed verge, and flapped silently past the car. Its prey, located by ear, can be caught in total darkness. Owls have long, muscular legs and powerful toes equipped with sharp talons for gripping their prey.

The song thrush has undergone a massive decline in many areas. It’s quite some time since we discovered a thrush’s ‘anvil’, where snail shells are smashed against a prominent stone or concrete path to gain access to the nutritious body inside. It was a joy to hear its superb song on January 24 – a breath of spring! Each song phrase is repeated two or three times.

“Quick”, shouted Michael, as he gazed from our kitchen window. I was just in time to admire a handsome fox standing in the drive, no more than 10ft from the window. Glancing back, he proceeded in broad daylight with the confidence of a dog. Although a fox is a carnivore, killing and eating animals, it’s also an opportunistic feeder taking carrion, fruit, and berries, along with raiding dustbins, and taking hens or reared pheasants when available. Foxes are essentially nocturnal animals, but even in urban areas may be active in daylight hours. We knew we had a fox, as it leaves distinct footprints in the moist flower borders and triggers our porch light in the evening.

About 30 years ago, Michael and myself observed long-tailed tits feeding on Forge Valley’s bird tables. This report was refuted by a well-respected ornithologist. “No – they never feed on bird tables!” Since then, we’ve frequently observed these unmistakable, pretty birds in black and white and pale pink plumage, feeding there. Even the RSPB “British Birds” states, “They visit bird tables only rarely, but when they do so, they may come regularly, sometimes for more than one winter.” We’ve recently recorded five at a time. Do go and view them.

This winter, we also observed at the same feeding station, the brambling. There were two or three along with chaffinches, but the latter seemed to resent brambling intrusion. These winter visitors are very similar in appearance and need very careful identification. Look for the conspicuous white rump when in flight, or perched. Both male and female have an orange breast band and pale orange shoulder patch. The male’s black head is obscured by grey in winter. Mainly a ground feeder, they love insects and beech mast.