Brambling female (back left) and male (front left) and chaffinch female (back right) and male (front right) | The RSPB

Bustling with bramblings or chock-full of chaffinches?

Winter can see birds flocking in huge numbers. One winter visitor that loves a crowd is the brambling.

But how can you tell them apart from the very similar chaffinches that they often flock with?

One of winter’s great natural events is an influx of migratory birds from colder climes, flying into our countryside, and even gardens, in search of food. Meet the bramblings, AKA the chaffinches of the frozen north. 

Similar in shape and size to the familiar chaffinches of our parks and gardens, bramblings visit from their breeding grounds of Scandinavia and Russia. And as they often join chaffinch flocks, it pays to keep your eyes peeled for these charming little visitors.

Brambling

Bramblings are winter visitors to the UK. They are close relatives of chaffinches and will often join with them in winter, forming large flocks. Listen for their nasal tones and look for their white rumps to help you tell them apart.

Identification

Very similar to chaffinches, but the tell-tale sign for both male and female bramblings is a brilliant white rump visible in flight – a characteristic not shared by chaffinches.


Male - winter

  • Male bramblings have a rich, rusty orange breast – in contrast to the redder breast of male chaffinches.
  • Yellow bill with a small amount of black at the tip.
  • Along the head, face and nape, feathers look mottled black and brown.

Male - summer

  • Males come into their breeding plumage in summer, with a few notable differences:
    • Glossy blue/back head, face and nape.
    • Black bill.

Female - year-round

  • Female bramblings are generally warmer in colour when compared with female chaffinches. Think rich autumn russets and browns, rather than the paler greys and light browns of female chaffinches.
  • Look for a distinctive orange tinge on the chest and throat.
  • Yellow bill with dark grey at the tip and along the centre.
  • Dark brown-grey head, nape and back, with a pale greyish face.

Call

Listen out for a loud, nasal ‘te-ehp’ call. Some people think of this as the birds saying ‘bubble and squeak’. Bramblings tend to sound croakier and more nasal than chaffinches, and have a less varied range of calls. When migrating, bramblings give out a repetitive, short and hard ‘yeek’ call.

Where to look

Watch for bramblings from mid-September onwards. They love beech-mast – the nuts from beech trees – so look out for them in beech woodland, as well as farmland near woods. Typically, bramblings head back to their breeding grounds in Russia and Scandinavia in March and April, but occasionally a few breed in Scotland.

Brambling call

Stuart Fisher, Xeno-canto

Female brambling | The RSPB

Chaffinch

Chaffinches are one of the UK’s commonest breeding birds and one of the most widespread. These plucky little finches can be seen at any time of year and almost anywhere, from urban gardens to the deepest woodlands.

Identification

Chaffinches are about the size of a house sparrow, but slimmer looking and with longer tails. Both males and females have white outer-tail feathers.

Male

  • Rusty-red breast.
  • Pale grey/cream bill.
  • Blue-grey crown, with rusty-red colouring on the sides of the head and face.
  • Look for two white bars on their wings.

Female

  • Females are much more muted in colour than the males, generally a greyish/greenish-brown, but with two white wing bars.
  • Pale grey/cream bill.
  • The two white wing bars are slightly narrower than in male chaffinches.


Call

With their loud songs and varied calls, you may well hear chaffinches before you see them. Their rich song is varied and hard to describe – some say it resembles ‘chip-chip-chip-tell-tell-cherry-erry-erry-tissi-cheweo’!

More easily recognisable is their sharp ‘fink’ or ‘pink’ call when perched. Or they may cry ‘rrhii’– the so-called rain call, once thought to predict wet weather. Chaffinches use this to establish or maintain a territory, to let a mate know they are there and to warn rivals away. Listen too for a frequent ‘yipp’ or ‘yupp’ call as they fly overhead.

Where to look

Chaffinches are seed lovers and their name ‘chaffinch’ comes from their habit of hunting for seeds through the chaff in the stubble of farmland fields. They eat insects too and are often seen hopping around the ground and beneath hedgerows, hunting for seeds and insects to eat. Chaffinches are ground-feeders, so although unlikely to visit hanging feeders, they will forage beneath feeders and visit bird tables.

Chaffinch call

Patrick Eberg, Xeno-Canto

Female chaffinch | The RSPB
Blue tit (l), Great tit (m) and Coal tit (r) | The RSPB

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