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Redwing: Incoming transmissions

28 November 2012 | Posted in Birds , Michael Blencowe , Wildlife

Author Michael Blencowe

Tseeep. For centuries we have looked to the stars above hoping for a sign. An answer to all our problems. Tseeep. And each November we get one. But we're just too wrapped up in our little lives to notice. Tseeep. Stand anywhere on a clear November night and just listen. Tseeep. There it is again; a thin, sibilant whistle. Somewhere, up there between Sussex and the moon, something is happening. Tseeep. As the Earth slowly turns and the seasons change that noise is the sound of our big, old planet on the move. It's the sound of the redwing.

redwing / Mark Greco
redwing / Mark Greco

Redwing are small thrushes. 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.

As the universe spins the bit at the top of our planet gets colder and redwing are begrudgingly forced to flee from the freeze and head for the relative warmth of England. Once here they roam the countryside in nomadic flocks, constantly harassed by the weather during their anxious search for berries and wild fruits.

The scale of this annual redwing invasion is massive - maybe a million birds, but this number changes each year depending on the weather conditions further north. Those that do arrive in Sussex are kettled around the county by cold fronts. 40,000 redwing were observed passing Beachy Head ahead of an advancing storm on Feb 16th 1969; a blizzard of snowflakes and blazing armpits.

They mostly migrate undercover of the night. That tseeep is their contact call; a single note of reassurance for their fellow travellers. Novelist John Fowles described it perfectly; "a sudden small gleam of old silver in a dark room".

Redwing breed across a wide northerly stretch of our planet running from Iceland to the Kolyma Basin in eastern Siberia. In March and April they'll leave Sussex and chase the retreating winter back to their defrosting fjords.

But until then stare up at the stars and listen out for that thin, wild, mercury whistle. Tseeep. A gentle reminder that, whatever your own little problems are, they're insignificant. You're just a tiny part of something much bigger; a planet on the move.

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