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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Phil Gates

Country diary: These red grouse seem ill-suited for foraging in trees

A red grouse feeding on hawthorn berries.
A red grouse feeding on hawthorn berries. Photograph: Phil Gates

Four red grouse, perched in the bare branches of an old hawthorn, feathers ruffled by a bitterly cold wind. For most of the year they are furtive ground dwellers whose heads pop up among the heather when they see me coming, hunker down, scurry away, and then, if I get too close, explode into the air with a whirr of wings, scolding: “Go back! Go back!”

These birds seem ridiculously ill-suited to arboreal foraging, but the lure of the last hawthorn berries must have been strong. They are struggling, too portly to reach berries in the dense central tangle of thorny branches, too heavy to reach those on the slender tips of the twigs that bend under their weight. They flap their wings in frantic struggles to retain balance.

When the hawthorn berries have been eaten, redwings’ diet switches to earthworms.
When the hawthorn berries have been eaten, redwings’ diet switches to earthworms. Photograph: Phil Gates

Weeks ago, agile redwings polished off most of the haws on this row of trees, where heather moorland meets high pastures. The few berries that remain seem wind-dried and wrinkled, but are evidently still worth the effort.

Last autumn we had one of the heaviest hawthorn berry crops that I can remember. All the way down the hill into the village, the hedgerow was laden with crimson fruits. The winter arrival of migrant redwings and fieldfares didn’t seem to make much impact until the first snow fell, then the fruits disappeared quickly. The easy pickings are long gone. Spring still seems distant up here.

Halfway down the hill, the redwings – formerly flighty, chattering flocks that peered down on passersby from the treetops – are grounded in roadside pastures. In another month ivy berries will be ripe and ready, but for now these foragers have been brought down to earth by the need for a change in diet. Their beaks, probing in waterlogged ground for worms and leatherjackets, are stained with mud.

One of the pleasures of living in the Pennines is that seasons can be transcended just by walking uphill or downhill: the illusion of cheating time with a small shift in altitude. At the bottom of the bank, sheltered from cold winds, a few hawthorn leaf buds are already breaking. Down here in the valley bottom, another turn in the cycle of the seasons has already begun.

• Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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