There are three members of the Cranleigh Family: Cranleigh School, Cranleigh Prep School and our latest member, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi. They are all characterised by similar behaviours determined by a shared ethos, and indeed similar markings, branding and motto and heraldry, all of which identify them as Cranleigh, even though each is distinct.
In the same way, the avian world has its own families. A dry exeat weekend provided me with the opportunity to go looking for five distinct family members, two of which are visitors only in the autumn and winter. These are the true thrushes, or turdidae, and there are six that are either resident of migrant in Britain. All five that we can see in the South East are in Cranleigh School during the winter: the song thrush, mistle thrush, redwing, fieldfare and blackbird.
The sixth British thrush is a summer visitor only, the ring ouzel. It prefers upland areas in Scotland, northern England, northern Wales and Dartmoor, though they can be seen in the South if they stop off when migrating. I have never seen one! In the 1940s and 50s, there was a thriving Natural History Society at Cranleigh and I am grateful to OC and archivist Martin Williamson for passing to me the Birds of Cranleigh District, which it published in 1951. It was largely the work of a master at the school, D. D Lees. He says of the ring ouzel: ‘During the 19th Century, it was a regular visitor to the district on its spring and autumn migrations. It may have bred on the hills. Now very rare.’ Lees notes that the other thrushes are very common in Cranleigh. I am pleased to report they are still present in good numbersIndeed I did not have far to go and on 23rd January, I managed to see all five within 20 metres of each other in the trees and on the grass around the Outdoor Education Centre. The fieldfare was exactly where I suspected, feasting on the cherry fruits on the two trees adjacent to the footpath. It is a large thrush with a stunning grey head and a buff front and is often on playing fields. They are often in larger numbers but I spotted only two in my walk around the grounds. A closer look with binoculars at the oaks and ashes enabled me to spot the distinctive cream-white eye strip and the orange-red flank that gives the redwing its name. These are often one of the first migrant birds to arrive in the autumn and they like to roam the countryside in large flocks, and in particular open fields. My circuit took me from the Outdoor Education Centre via Bluetts, Loveday, the Equestrian Centre, course, golf course and home. The large oaks around the site are providing good perches, with up to 20 on trees around the golf-course and Bluetts. A good place to see them most easily is at the Equestrian Centre in the fields adjacent to Gatley’s pond and High Upfold . A large flock of around 30 was ground feeding in the paddocks. In fact the Equestrian Centre is a good place to pause. Flocks of sparrows, wagtails, meadow pipits and finches are winter feeding there at the moment. Do go soon: if they have not moved on to another location, the fieldfare and redwing will both leave during March and April. Very few birds sing during the winter, but both the song thrush and the mistle thrush do. I have frequently heard the mistle trushe’s more melancholy notes around the golf course near the Woodland Centre but more usually on a winter walk to the village across South Field of late, I have heard its distinctive football-rattle alarm call as it defends its food. It is bigger and more upright than the song thrush. A lone one sat perched in one of the ash trees by the back gardens of the Horseshoe Lane cottages, another flew from the ground into the oaks adjacent to Pickup.
I rarely walk towards the Sanny Lane entrance without hearing a song thrush singing, so do stop to listen. On a dull late afternoon, I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Darkling Thrush. There can be few better winter sounds.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full hearted evensong
Of joy illimited
An aged thrush, frail gaunt and small
In blast beruffled plume
Had chosen to fling his soul
Upon the glowing gloom.
It is easy to overlook the final member since it is so ubiquitous and unmistakeable: the blackbird. Cranleigh’s hedgerows provide great nesting sites and because they are territorial birds, they are present all around the school. I kept flushing them out as I walked, their distinctive high speed rattle as they fly away usually the first clue that there was even one present . Come the spring we will be glad of their melody.
Five members of a very special family, connected but distinct, each with its own voice and habits happily living alongside one another within our school community. I will avoid the cliche and allow you to draw your own conclusions.