An autumn arrival: redwings on the move

Martha Boalch, 21/09/2018

Redwing are a migratory bird of the thrush family that seeks winter refuge in the UK. They tend to arrive in September and October and can be seen in large groups feeding on berries alongside fieldfare and thrushes.

How to recognise redwing

Redwing are the smallest true thrush. They have a brown head with a pale stripe above and below the eye and brown back and wings with a pale mottled front. A key feature is the rusty orange underwing.

Find out more detail about identification of redwing in comparison with fieldfare in my earlier blog.

Redwing have a brown back and a pale belly, Cephas Picture Library Alamy

Pale stripes above and below the eye, Colin Varndell Alamy

Rusty orange underwing, North East Wildlife

Summer breeding

  • Over the summer redwing breed in Scandinavia, Iceland or Russia.
  • The males sing to attract the females.
  • They nest in trees or on the ground in low boggy birch forests, preferably with plenty of shrubs for shelter.
  • It is common for redwing to rear two broods.
  • They are known to be a shy species, most likely to nest away from people.
  • If people walk near to a nest where parents are incubating the eggs the parents will keep quiet.

Migration

Those that migrate from Scandinavia and Russia to southern England for winter are the’ iliacus’ race. Some birds stay loyal to a migration destination, others vary their destination and may change each winter between UK, Portugal, Greece, and Iran.

Redwing that come from Iceland are said to be the ‘coburni’ race of redwing, displaying darker and more striking markings. As they travel from Iceland they are mainly seen in the west of the UK. Check out photos of the two races.

The iliacus race faces a perilous journey across the North Sea. They migrate by night and complete the 500 mile journey in one go. If you listen out on dark clear autumn and early winter nights, particularly in the east of the UK, you are likely to hear the thin 'tseep' of migrating redwing overhead.

The numbers that arrive depend on how successful a summer of feeding they have had and fatalities during the journey. David Snow (eminent ornithologist) estimated that the British Isles provide a winter home for possibly one million birds but many people feel that this number may have fallen over the years.

Redwing distribution in the UK

Redwing with eye stripe and pale throat, Dennis John

Map reproduced with permission from Bird Atlas 2007-11, which was a joint project between BTO, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists' Club. www.bto.org/mapstore

Redwing numbers are highest in counties in the South West, the Welsh borders and the Midlands. During a hard winter they may continue their migration west to Ireland or south to mainland Europe to avoid cold weather and frosts.

Redwing are very sociable and form large flocks with other thrushes particularly blackbirds and fieldfares. In some cases up to 200 birds have been recorded in a single group.

Feeding

During the summer, breeding redwing will generally feed on the ground, turning leaves and debris to find earthworms, moths, mayflies and other invertebrates. When they arrive in the UK in October they feast on fruits in hedgerows and orchards. Later on they move to the ground in field or parks to look for earthworms to feed on.

This year some first ripe fruit dates have been quite early due to the warm summer, it is possible that summer residents will have already consumed much of the fruit before the redwing arrive.

If it is very cold they may resort to foraging and sheltering in gardens – as some of our recorders noticed during February and March 2018.

Conservation status

Redwing is a red list species of highest conservation priority in the UK. This is because we have a very small breeding population, confined to the northern third of Scotland. 

Although the small number of breeding birds is a concern, we should also spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands of birds using our farmland and orchards as a winter refuge. Our landscape management needs to support the redwing requirements for food and shelter (as well as other wildlife).

How can you help?

Climate change is leaving many migratory species like redwing vulnerable as they face pressures both in their winter and summer homes and the timing of winter migration for many species is already changing. The more we know about these creatures the more likely we are able to understand their needs and the challenges that face them.

If you enjoy being outside and observing wildlife, you can let us know the first date you see redwing this autumn. Our database of phenological records supports scientists studying the impacts of weather and climate change.

Download your free desktop calendar to remind you what to look out for this October.

Join thousands of other people and let us know what's happening to wildlife near you.

Join thousands of other people and let us know what's happening to wildlife near you.

Have you seen your first butterfly or swallow of the spring? Is it a good year for wild autumn fruits? Take part in Nature's Calendar and help scientists to monitor the effects of climate change on wildlife.

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