Most people in the UK will be familiar with at least some of this survey's main study species, but not all the thrushes are equally well known. This page is intended as a brief summary of what all the species look like (in the plumages that we see in the UK in winter), and where we are likely to find them. Thrushes occasionally cause identification problems and some of the more common difficulties are noted below
The adult male Blackbird is most distinctive – plain black, with a bright yellow bill and eyering. Males in their first-winter plumage have characteristic dull brown wing feathers and the bill and eyering start off blackish, becoming yellower during the course of the winter. Some show some paler barring on the underparts. Female Blackbirds are brown all over, with a variable amount of mottling on the breast: again, first-winters have dull brown wing feathers but this is far less contrasting than on males.
Blackbirds are common throughout the UK and occur commonly in urban as well as rural habitats. Strongly mottled females, and birds with white patches, may cause confusion with other thrush species.
Fieldfares are perhaps best known for their 'chack-chack' calls, heard from birds flying overhead, Especially when there is lying snow, the bright white undersides to the wings show very clearly. They often feed in big flocks in open fields, showing contrast between a pale grey rump and a black tail as they fly up into a hedge.
They are very rare in midsummer but can be abundant at times in winter, especially in open country. If cold weather brings them into gardens, look out for their grey head and rump, rich brown back and rich orangey, speckled breast. Males and females are very similar but the colour contrasts between head, back, rump and tail are more muted in females.
Redwings are the smallest and daintiest of our thrushes and have a distinctive chestnut-red area on the flanks, extending across the covert feathers on the underside of the wing. In overhead flight, note their relatively small size and their thin, downslurred 'see-ip' calls. When heard at night, these calls are a sure sign that migration is under way. Redwings are often shy, but a close view reveals cold grey-brown upperparts and a long whitish supercilium.
Redwings often accompany Fieldfares in open fields but also feed with other thrushes in grassy paddocks or in woodland. Visits to gardens may be brief and usually prompted by harsh weather.
Ring Ouzel is a mountain version of the Blackbird. Although of similar body size, the wings and tail are longer. Adult males are blackish with a broad white crescent across the breast, rather scaly on the belly and with a silvery-grey panel across the wing. These features are progressively diluted and less obvious in adult females and first-winter males and females. Seen well, all Ring Ouzels are longer-winged than Blackbirds, with a breast-crescent (possibly hard to pick out) and a pale wing-panel.
Ring Ouzels may be encountered in any undisturbed bushy habitat at migration times but are rare in the UK between late November and late March.
Note that abnormal Blackbirds with white patches on the breast occur quite frequently and should not be mistaken for Ring Ouzels!
Song Thrushes are most likely to be seen singly but sometimes gather into small, loose groups. Disturbed from a hedge bottom, one is likely to rise with a single sharp call and a flash of a rich orangey-buff (but not red) underwing. This thrush has the unique habit of tapping snails onto stones to break them open – a noise that can often be heard from under hedges or undergrowth in gardens or parks. The rich brown upperparts, smaller breast spotting and smaller size of the Song Thrush help to distinguish it from the scarcer Mistle Thrush.
This thrush is widepread all year but rather scarce. It is the largest and heaviest thrush and has a very distinctive churring or rattling call. The plumage is paler and colder than that of Song Thrush and the underwing is white, like that of Fieldfare. The breast spots are larger and rounder than those of other thrushes. Some Mistle Thrushes adopt berry trees and defend them against all comers, with aggressive calling and chasing. Though generally in small parties or solitary, Mistle Thrushes can gather into Fieldfare-like flocks of several dozen and be an identification pitfall for the unwary!
A further ten species of thrushes (of the genera Zoothera, Catharus,Geokichla and Turdus) have been recorded in Britain on more than one occasion in recent decades during the Winter Thrushes Survey period of September to April. It may be that one or more rare thrushes will be encountered during the survey. If so, the first priority should be to validate the identification – for example by alerting other observers. If possible, any rare thrushes should be included in survey returns. Black-throated Thrush is perhaps the rarity most likely to be found. Good luck!
The Waxwing is not related to thrushes but is included in the Winter Thrushes Survey because it often feeds on berries alongside thrushes in hedges, amenity plantings and gardens. Waxwings are Starling-sized but have very distinctive soft grey and brown plumage and a wispy crest that may blow upright in the breeze. The wings show patches of white and yellow and a variable number of red blobs (like sealing wax) on the ends of the secondaries.
Waxwings often allow a very close approach. Any colour-ringed birds should be reported (via www.ring.ac) to help current studies of their movements
Starling is not a thrush but, because they so often feed in mixed groups with thrushes, and on similar foods, the Winter Thrushes Survey includes options for recording this species also.
Especially in winter, Starlings can form dense feeding flocks of dozens or even hundreds of birds. They may occur in open fields, in hedgerows or other bushy areas, or in gardens or other built environments. Nighttime roosts gather many thousands of birds from wide areas, with often spectacular aerobatics by flying flocks before they drop down into the roost site.