The BTO’s Graham Appleton on winter visitor the fieldfare

Fieldfare (BTO/Jill Pakenham)
Fieldfare (BTO/Jill Pakenham)
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Birdwatchers will remember the October and November of 2012; these months produced some great birds and wonderful spectacles along the east coast.

For many of my BTO colleagues it was almost torture to ask them to sit at their desks in Thetford, when there was so much going on just an hour’s drive away, including arrivals of thousands of fieldfares, the smart winter thrushes with the distinctive ‘chak chak’ call.

So, where are these fieldfares now? This is a really interesting question and one to which BTO volunteers are trying to provide answers. We suspect that most birds will by now be in the west-country, where the winter should be warmer and there are orchards in which to feed, but thousands have probably remained in Suffolk.

Some will be seen by our Garden BirdWatchers, perhaps searching for fallen apples, early in the morning after a night of heavy frost, others will be found by BirdTrackers, who send in lists of birds they see when out for a walk with a dog or a pair of binoculars and yet more will be encountered by those involved in the Winter Thrushes Survey.

Although BTO organises many long-running surveys, the chief aim of which is to keep an eye on the annual ups and downs of populations, we also arrange special projects, such as the Winter Thrushes Survey, which tackle particular questions. What is it that hundreds of thousands of fieldfares, redwings, blackbirds and song thrushes are looking for when they tackle the potential hazardous journey across the North Sea? We know that they feed in hedgerows and fields but what are they eating and which are the best species to add to new conservation hedgerows? Hawthorn for the early winter? Sloes and hips for later use?

One of the complications of trying to study fieldfares is that they can do different things in different winters. The number of birds that fly this way in any autumn varies tremendously. BTO volunteer bird-ringers have discovered that many birds return to the same orchard in subsequent autumns – 2,000 km or more from where they breed – but some are more fickle. The bird hopping about under your apple tree today could choose to head southeast or south, instead of southwest, next year. This could take him or her to Turkey. To see a map showing these movements visit

With a large proportion of the thrushes from Scandinavia and northern Europe spending the winter with us, we have a duty to try to provide the resources they need. If you can help us by telling us about the thrushes you see, that would be great. See

 Next time: Christmas card favourite, the pheasant.