For days now marauding hordes of Vikings have been streaming across the North Sea hell bent on plunder

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Redwing, Waxwing & Fieldfare

Normally the first clue is a high-pitched “tseep” call overhead and if you are quick enough you’ll see a band of redwings at treetop height battling westwards. 

The redwings, which are a bit smaller than a song thrush, are fleeing plunging temperatures in Scandinavia and Russia for our milder winters – and the promise of berries in our hedgerows and windfall apples in our orchards. They have been joined by their bigger brothers, fieldfares, which are nearly the size of mistle thrushes and announce their arrival with a sinister chuckle. 

To complete the Nordic trio the first waxwings have been popping up, with supermarket car parks a top destination thanks to the berry-rich shrubs that are often planted there. These beautiful starling-sized sandy brown birds, which look to have overdone the mascara, spend the winter foraging for berries. 

This influx means that a new book, Winter Birds by Lars Jonsson, could not be more timely. Lars is a wonderful artist whose paintings have graced many a guide book. His latest work chronicles the cast of characters visiting his snow-covered garden on the Swedish island of Gotland. 

Among the stars are the hoarders: jays, nuthatches and tits, which gather seeds and nuts and store them for the winter. They wedge them in bark crevices or bury them in the soil, unwittingly helping to reseed forests. 

A jay can collect and hide 5,000 acorns each autumn and its memory is so good that it will later retrieve up to 75 per cent of them, says the British Trust for Ornithology. But that still leaves 1,250 acorns a year that may grow into new oaks. So the jay could reasonably claim to have helped build the British Empire by providing the trees that were the backbone of Lord Nelson’s Royal Navy. 

Among Lars’ winter regulars are birds in terminal decline here such as grey partridges and tree sparrows. Our tree sparrows are on the Red List after suffering a 90 per cent decline between 1970 and 1990 and flatlining ever since. 

But in Sweden these country cousins of the house sparrows are among the top three feeder visitors. Whatever the Swedes are doing we need to learn from it. 

As for the Scandinavian thrushes currently winging in for their winter break, they come with a warning. In Sweden the fieldfares used to be nicknamed the “snow magpies” because they arrived with the first snow. They are true harbingers of winter. 

Read the full story here by John Ingham at the Express