Make your Love of Nature Count!

To read this article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser please click here: Nature Notes – January 2018

I have to confess to having a love-hate relationship with statistics – perhaps this is true of most people? Statistics, numbers, charts and tables have the power to petrify us in boredom and the subsequent analysis can lead to mental paralysis! And yet all that collected data is powerful – it tells us things we need to know and informs us about action we need to take. This of course is no less true when it comes to data about wildlife.

I have always subconsciously resisted serious data collection and analysis when it comes to my love of nature. For me it is like reducing my marital relationship to how many times I’ve bought flowers, washed up or provided a taxi service for the kids. I love nature, like I love my wife, and any form of serious statistical analysis feels reductionist and, well, unromantic.

Nature, for me, has always been a kind of romance with magical moments of discovery, vast swathes of beauty and complexity, and layers of mystery and wonder. The words of the biblical proverb resonate with me, “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman.” (Proverbs 30:18-19)

And so I have been a reluctant latecomer to data collection and analysis, but like so many things I have initially resisted, it has proved rewarding in its own way. Regularly recording and submitting my observations to organisations such as the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) via BirdTrack their online data collection portal, has demanded of me a more rigorous approach to nature observation – not just vague incomplete lists, but times, dates and numbers recorded over regular, sustained periods.

All of this has been counter-intuitive to me but it has deepened my understanding of the places I go and the wildlife that inhabits them. Regular detailed observations have revealed patterns and behaviours that I wouldn’t otherwise have appreciated: the Little Owl’s favourite tree; the best time to watch gulls amassing in their pre-roost flocks and when they will have left for their final roost; and more recently, the feeding habits of Hawfinches – their love of hornbeam seeds. This in turn has led me to become expert in identifying hornbeam trees as this winter, as never before, finding hornbeams gives you a very good chance of finding that elusive finch!

While I never want to lose that sense of open-mouthed wonder when it comes to the natural world there are also moments that give pause for thought when we realize all is not perhaps as it should be. In the last thirty years, House Sparrows, Spotted Flycatchers and Swallows have vanished from my garden, both as breeders but also even as visitors. It seems that, in the same way that we occasionally have to sit down as a married couple and work out how to make improvements when things aren’t working, we must also stop and work out our relationship with nature.

Birds and wildlife that might feel scarce in our area may turn out to be thriving elsewhere, however, the data is often revealing a decline on a national scale. Swallows and House Sparrows really are vanishing and Spotted Flycatchers have all but gone. The observations that I have made in my own garden over the years suddenly connect me to a wider world of nature and a greater understanding for what may be at stake for the birds visiting my garden.

This weekend (27th-29th Jan) is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and an opportunity for everyone who has a garden, however small, to do some serious (but not onerous) data collecting and contribute to the latest snapshot of the state of our nation’s birdlife. By spending just one hour recording what you see in your garden and submitting the data to the RSPB you will be making sure the national picture that emerges is as accurate as possible.

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Last year’s survey revealed that Greenfinch numbers have declined by 66% in the UK over the last 10 years.  The species may now be added to the conservation ‘Red List’ of most endangered species in the UK.  Photo by Steve Round

Equally it’s an opportunity to connect with your nearest green space and one that often gets overlooked most of the week, especially at this cold time of year. Gardens by their very definition are enclosed spaces but not to the birds that visit. Instead they are vast arterial networks of greenery providing food, shelter and migratory routes for thousands of birds right across urban spaces.

Great Tits at Feeder copy

So switch off the TV for an hour and tune in instead to the natural world on your doorstep – you may be surprised at just how many birds visit your garden in an hour. For more information and to participate in the Big Garden Birdwatch visit: www.rspb.org.uk

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Let’s Go on a Hawfinch Hunt!

I wanted to write something about my recent experience of the Hawfinch invasion and hopefully it might help others enjoy this scarce visitor to the UK. It is my own views and does of course not try to compete with the good old Collins Field Guide or any other expert guide.

I am fortunate enough to have a dog that needs walking regularly and the work flexibility to do many of those walks. This has led to, what are now, many encounters with that magnificent ‘king of finches’, the Hawfinch.

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A Hawfinch – by Steve Round

Such has been the influx of birds this winter period that I can now genuinely say the Hawfinch has become a familiar bird on my walks. This is in contrast to every previous year (at least 40 of them) when I glimpsed just one or two individuals at locations in Kent, Essex and east Herts. Never did I dream that Hawfinch would appear in my own locality around the St Albans area such that I am now finding them in good numbers on almost every local walk I go on!

Of course, the Hawfinch are likely to head off soon, back to their breeding grounds, but in the meantime there has never been a better moment to get out and find your own Hawfinches! Truth be told, with the numbers moving around at the moment, they could turn up literally anywhere (I am still hoping for a garden tick!) but it does help to be a little bit informed about them and their habits.

Where to look…?

It is a now a well-known fact that their favourite food seems to be the seedpods of Hornbeam trees. So the simple logic would suggest find a hornbeam, find a Hawfinch.  But can we identify a Hornbeam tree…?  Hertfordshire is a great place for Hornbeam woods as the charcoal from the wood was in great demand in the 1800’s by the furnace-fired London industry. Known as ‘Hertfordshire Gold’, Hornbeams were pollarded or coppiced (chopped to encourage new, fast growth) to harvest as much wood as possible.  Our woods are therefore a mix of many-trunked pollarded and coppiced trees and some mature hornbeams that didn’t get the chop.

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A row of coppiced Hornbeam – photo Rupert Evershed

Superficially, the hornbeam is like the more familiar beech tree but with a darker bark, often coated in a green algal dust. The bark can appear folded, almost like folds of skin and often has a cell-like pattern on its surface.

 

 

At this time of year the trees are helpfully bare which is probably just as well as the leaves really are very similar to beech tree leaves, just a little longer and thinner. That said, if the leaf fall beneath the tree you are looking at matches beech/hornbeam-type leaves you should be in the right place. Here’s a photo showing the rather dried and curled leaves (central) and also the hanging seed pods (either side) much coveted by Hawfinch. I have seen Hawfinch devouring these, ripping off great clusters in one go.

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Hornbeam leaves & seedpods – photo Rupert Evershed

Earlier in the season, these clusters of seedpods could be seen hanging in the tops of the trees but now, thanks in part to hungry Hawfinch, you’ll be lucky to find a tree with any remaining.  If you do of course, hang around…they may be on their way!

That’s enough on hornbeams:  it’s a good place to start in any wood but as time has gone on the Hawfinch are being found in other trees too – oak, beech, ash and elm. They also seem to have a penchant for yew berries (*see added note below) so check out that local churchyard and possibly any orchards too. The birds are hungry and with their powerful bill most seeds put up little resistance.

How to look…

So, you’re in location what now?  Look up is the answer.  Hawfinch are nervous birds and their default setting is to fly to the top of the trees, dropping down occasionally to feed.  If you can find a viewpoint outside the woodland edge where you can scan the treetops this can be a good option. Once located, their dumpy posture and enormous bill give them a distinctive shape making them identifiable at quite a range.  If they fly they also show a very clear broad white wing bar.

Of course, other birds use the treetops too but in particular, at this time of year, Redwing and Fieldfare can form similar-looking groups perched high in the canopy.  It is worth checking these flocks out as Redwing are only a tiny bit bigger than Hawfinch and on a number of occasions I have seen Hawfinch with Redwing flocks – both in flight and settled.

Of course, walking through the woods can help locate them too (please stick to public footpaths though).  Spend time scanning the treetops for any signs of movement – it is rewarding even without Hawfinch and I have never seen so many Treecreepers, Nuthatches and Great Spotted Woodpeckers since looking for Hawfinch!

And don’t forget to listen…!

If you have good ears, which I thankfully do, then this is the ultimate weapon in Hawfinch location. Hawfinch can be completely silent (and also sit very still) but usually they are moving around and uttering a quiet “tick” contact note, given both in flight and when perched.  It is very similar to a Robin’s alarm “tick” but never run together fast like a Robin’s “tick-tick-tick”.  There is a difference in quality of the note (I think it’s a duller, deader “tick” that the Robin’s – more like an electric fence) but I would investigate any individual “tick” notes you hear.  Here is a recording:

http://www.xeno-canto.org/393969/embed?simple=1

They also have an alarm call or flight call that they frequently use. It is actually very distinctive and though similar in pitch to a Redwing’s call still sets them apart immediately when heard:

http://www.xeno-canto.org/391606/embed?simple=1

Hopefully you will locate them oneway or the other and get a good view.  In my (admittedly limited) experience, 2 or 3 birds can usually be seen together at the top of a tree but then if they are disturbed, suddenly 10 or 20 birds can fly up, appearing from nowhere!  Again, if you at the woodland edge, Hawfinch seem very fond of swapping woods by flying from one copse to another. This provides a great opportunity to count them!

Good luck!

*Additional Note Added Jan 31st 2018:

A few weeks on and I feel the need to highlight further the Hawfinches penchant for yew berries! I mentioned it briefly, but over the last few weeks listening to reports from around the country and also combined with my own local observations, it’s clear: yew trees are as good a place as any to find Hawfinches.

I have noticed a significant change locally in the Hawfinches behaviour. I have seen them feeding on the ground, in the leaf litter for the first time. On my local patch they have become far more elusive (as we were perhaps used to) as they have dropped down from the high treetops and disappeared into the thick foliage of yew trees. Of course, if disturbed they are still flying up calling constantly, but counting them has become just that bit more tricky!

I wonder what their next move will be? However, if you have a churchyard or park near you with big old yew trees, check them out! We have a few yews in our garden so here’s to hoping!

 


Credits:

Featured Image of Hawfinch by Steve Round (stevenround-birdphotography.com)
Hornbeam photos – my own
Sound recordings from www.xeno-canto.org
Antonio Xeira, XC393969. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/393969
AUDEVARD Aurélien, XC391606. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/391606.