A west wind was blowing, teasing its way through the bare treetops and carrying on its back a wide band of cold, cluttered clouds full of intent. I knew it would rain before long, so I hurried my pace. My boots slid through the wet grass; the soil beneath was soggy and squelching with a month’s worth of January drizzle and nothing in the landscape seemed dry. The footpath led along a field margin, the field was on a hill and had been harvested so that a thick stubble of frayed stems remained. A red fox sat in the remains of the crop staring at me, it had a gammy leg which had probably been grazed by a car on the nearby road. It didn’t want to move, so I walked on and left it to its fate.
A high-pitched note flicked my eardrum, it had come from over the field, my eyes swiveled and my head twitched and my brain picked up movement in the sky. A small shape, a feathered body, it bounced low over the stubble then twisted both wings and tail to rise up vertical, make minor adjustments, and drop with precision into a tangled thicket of bramble. I had glimpsed a dark tail edged with white and a streaky body, through binoculars I could now see a brown humbug head pattern – a Reed Bunting.
This field was quiet, so I moved to the next one, also covered in golden stubble. A mature, uncut hedgerow ran along the top of the field, it looked like a perfect refuge for birds. As I got closer I could see that, dotted here and there along the hedge, were what looked like small lemons hanging from the twigs. Through binoculars these lemons were revealed to be male Yellowhammers in pristine glowing plumage. The more I looked, the more I saw, tucked into the hawthorn stems or perched boldly on top of the hedgerow, at least 30 or more buntings of both sexes and with a few Reed mixed in. Just as beautiful as their yellow heads and breasts were their rich chestnut rumps which both sexes possess.
Halfway along the hedge I stopped. Ahead, in the southwest corner of the stubble field was movement; fluttering things dashing from hedge to hedge and from hedge to ground and ground to hedge. Every now and then, some unknown trigger would make them all rush up at once and into the safety of the trees. Flashes of white were all I could discern, so I set up my scope. Most of them were Chaffinches, a flock of at least 40, a mixture of males and females and they were feeding in the damp stubble. As I watched, a lone male Bullfinch hopped along the hedge nearby, his stunning red breast and white rump made him seem like a lost Christmas decoration.
Then I saw something different; a bird among the Chaffinches with a bright orange breast and a bright orange bill. It moved from its perch in the tree and I lost it for a moment, then I found it again and I could see a mottled black head and more orange in the wing – a male Brambling. At last, what I had been looking for this whole time; the mountain finch, Fringilla montifringilla, the Brambling. A bird that breeds in the distant taiga forests of Russia and Scandinavia and which comes to us with the snow and the ice as if it were born from them.
I searched the feeding Chaffinches and picked out a further three, all females with stripy grey heads. Next to the very familiar Chaffinches, there is an obvious similarity, yet the Bramblings look exotic and odd – as though someone had taken a Chaffinch outline and coloured it in all wrong. Bright white rumps, glowing orange bills, fiery paprika-coloured breasts and smart black patches mottled with grey and white on the head, back and wings. They are a winter jewel, but one that is scattered and hidden in the fields and hedgerows of the countryside, unseen to all but those that seek it.