With the bitter cold of winter often come unexpected and welcome surprises. Two years ago, flocks of waxwings graced us with their presence as they passed through from Scandinavia. The following year, hawfinches could be seen crunching hard seeds with their formidable bills. In 2019, it seems to be bramblings that are turning heads as they gather en masse across the UK. While they have been known to breed in Scotland in previous years, this is very rare. However, bramblings often visit the UK during the winter months, with this year being no exception.
At a quick glance, bramblings could easily be mistaken for a male chaffinch; these birds are of the same size and have very similar colouration, if a little more diluted than our more common garden inhabitants. Both male and female bramblings have an attractive orange blush on their sides and a white belly. In summer, males have black markings on their head. Bramblings can be found in beech woodland and close to other wooded areas, often joining flocks of chaffinches to look for food. Like many finches, bramblings prefer seed, so providing a good seed mix could attract them into gardens. There are several collective nouns for finches, including a “charm”, “company” and “trembling”. I couldn’t find a specific term for a gathering of bramblings, but as the birds themselves are so charming to look at, a “charm” seems appropriate.
It is thought that the reason behind this year’s explosion of bramblings is beech mast, or fruit, that falls from the trees, dispersing seeds for the birds to eat. If the beech mast fails in European countries such as Scandinavia, species including bramblings will move south and west in vast flocks to find more food. While impressive gatherings of five hundred bramblings can currently be seen in areas of the UK, earlier in January there was a flock of around five million in Slovenia. This number of birds could seem difficult to comprehend, but even that pales in comparison to the flock seen in Switzerland in the winter of 1951, which was up to 70 million strong.
As with all winter visitors, the bramblings’ time here could be short. Despite the plummeting temperatures, wrap up warm and head outside to find some of these beautiful finches. For more information on wildlife winter sightings, check out the BBC Winterwatch page. I for one would love to see a charm of bramblings before the winter wanes.