Following on from my butterfly hunt I followed the track through the lower woodland of the Bryn and again had arrived at a perfect moment; the air was filled with birdsong. Blackbirds and robins provided melody that was accented by chiffchaff, wren, blue tit, great tit and chaffinch. But all were relegated to background accompanists by the loud, unmistakable ringing song of a Mistle Thrush. From the sheer volume of the delivery it was clear the singer was close by, but though standing for a good fifteen minutes trying to spot him up amongst the complex tracery of tree branches and leaves, I couldn’t locate him. When the singing stopped I carried on walking upwards and as I neared the top of the track it began again. The thrush had clearly flown to another spot and once more I stood scanning the vegetation, but still could not see him. I resigned myself to being content with having been treated to the singing performances, which alone were rather special, but then I recalled that one late afternoon last year, wandering around this side of the top of the hill, intent on photographing rockroses, I met a mistle thrush out hunting on a narrow track around the rocky cliff edge.
I headed off in that direction now, reckoning on this being an established mistle thrush territory and on that basis they could be out and about in any part of it. I could hardly believe my luck then, when I spotted two largish birds flying towards a tree on the edge of the wooded slope below, near the bottom of the hill. One landed at the very top and from its size and overall grey-brown appearance I was pretty sure this bird at least was indeed a Mistle thrush.
Thrush landed at the top of a tree
Although some distance away I could see that the birds had been drawn to the tree by ivy berries and I was able to watch them for a good few minutes while they stayed to feed on them.
Mistle thrush with ivy berry – showing pale tip to the tail feathers
The other of the two, better showing the breast
I sat on a rock, a damp one as I realised when I stood up, and watched the birds for some time until they flew away.
Mistle Thrush – Turdus viscivorus
Other traditional names: Missel Thrush; Storm Cock Welsh: Brych y coed
The mistle thrush was first described by Linnaeus in his Systema naturae in 1758 under its current scientific name. The bird’s fondness for mistletoe berries is indicated by both its English and scientific names: Turdus is the Latin for “thrush”, and viscivorus, “mistletoe eater”, comes from viscum “mistletoe” and vorare, “to devour”.
The largest thrush native to Europe, the Mistle thrush is a large greyish thrush, with larger breast spots than the Song thrush, from which it is also distinguishable in flight by the flash of whitish underwing. The long tail has white tips on the outer feathers. There are no plumage differences between the sexes; juveniles are similar to adults, but have paler upperparts with creamy centres to many of the feathers and smaller spots on the yellowish underparts. By their first winter they are very similar to adults, although the underparts are usually more buff-toned.
The mistle thrush is quite terrestrial, hopping with its head held up and body erect; when excited, it will flick its wings and tail. The flight consists of undulating bounds interspersed with glides.
One of the finest songs of our resident birds, the male mistle thrush has a loud melodious ringing song with fluted whistles that are repeated three to six times, and used to advertise his territory, attract a mate and maintain the pair bond. He doesn’t have much of a song, just a reiteration of a few notes, but those are rich and deep in tone, and delivered with great energy and enthusiasm. Compared to its relatives, the song thrush and the blackbird, the repertoire is less varied, lacking the mellow fluting of the blackbird and the elegantly repeated phrases of the song thrush. The delivery is slower too, however the song is much louder, often audible up to 2 km (2,000 yds) away and can be sustained for up to an hour in a single performance.
The song is given from a treetop or other elevated position and welcomed as it comes early in the year before the other birds are in full song. The song may be heard in any month, although mainly between February and May/June, as being an early nester it is one of the first of the songbirds to fall quiet.
The mistle thrush has another traditional name too, the storm cock, attributed to the bird for the way in which it will sing from a tree top in all weathers, even in the teeth of a fierce winter gale-force wind. Unlike most other birds, who seek shelter from stormy weather, the Mistle Thrush actually seems to be stimulated by approaching storms and will sing or call lustily before and through bad weather.
The main call, given by both sexes, is a dry chattering krrrr, louder when it is alarmed or excited. It is often likened to the sound of a football rattle. There is also a squeaky tuk contact call.
Generally found in cultivated country, farmland, gardens, parks,orchards and where there are scattered trees.
The mistle thrush feeds on a wide variety of invertebrates, seeds and berries. Its preferred fruits including those of the mistletoe, holly and yew. Mistletoe is favoured where it is available. An interesting behavioural trait displayed by Mistle Thrushes in winter is resource guarding, when one or sometimes two birds will vigorously defend a food source such as mistletoe clumps, holly, yew or nowadays even a cotoneaster. This is defended against all-comers, the vigilant bird trying to ensure that food resources are maintained for itself throughout the winter. It has been shown that resource guarding birds have bigger and earlier clutches than birds that do not do it.
Mistle thrushes are found as individuals or pairs for much of the year, although families forage together in late summer, and groups may merge to form flocks of several tens of birds and it is not uncommon for up to 50 thrushes to feed together at that time of year. They roost at night in trees or bushes, again typically as individuals or pairs, but with families roosting together in autumn.
Breeding typically commences in mid-March in the south and west of Europe and late February in Britain.
The nest is built by the female, although the male may help. The thrush’s nest is a large bulky cup of sticks, dry grass, roots and moss, coated on the inside with a layer of mud and lined with fine grass and leaves and frequently ‘decorated’ with white scraps of paper or rag. It is usually built 10-40 feet up in a tree, often in an exposed position, but not uncommonly lower down and occasionally in a hedge or bush or on a ledge of a cliff or a building.
Typically the breeding season of the mistle thrush is March to early June, but the nest may contain eggs as early as February, long before there are any leaves to offer any protection. Nests built early in the breeding season are sometimes destroyed by bad weather. 3-5 eggs are laid and are incubated by the hen only, hatching within 13-14 days and nestlings then leave after about 15 days. There is often a second brood.
During this time the mistle thrush may display aggression; it may even attack a person or another bird should they venture too near its nest and has been known to swoop down to threaten a cat.
The common chaffinch often nests close to a mistle thrush, the vigilance of the finch and the aggressive behaviour of the thrush benefiting both species.
I turned and walked back and up towards the hill’s summit to look for orchids and other flora, and once again the song of the thrush rang out from the trees below. I still couldn’t find him though and had resigned myself to being contented with the singing and the sightings I had already enjoyed. Then as I walked slowly back down the track, still keeping half an eye out for a glimpse of the songster, the singing stopped. At the same moment a largish bird flew to an ash tree and there finally I had sight of a mistle thrush, although I wasn’t convinced it was the one that had been singing.
Finallly, a better view
The sun by now was lower and shining directly behind the bird, so I wasn’t hopeful of getting a good shot, but it turned out to be good enough as a front view. Even better, as I reached the bottom of the track the singing began again and this time from a slightly higher vantage point than on the way into the woods earlier on, I managed to locate the singer high up on a leafy branch. The markings on this bird were much heavier.
A well-marked, singing mistle thrush
I was pleased I’d had these opportunities to hear and see the mistle thrushes, as returning a week later there were none to be heard, although I did catch sight of one out hunting amongst the rockroses in the meadow. It was some distance away from me, but good to see it away from the trees and demonstrating the birds characteristic upright posture.
A mistle thrush out hunting amongst the rockroses