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.

 

 

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Where People and Nature are thriving…

Please click on this link to read my Christmas 2017 “Nature Notes” as it appears in the Herts Advertiser:  Where People & Nature are thriving…

Where People and Nature are thriving…

This time, two years ago, we decided to get a dog.  It was a decision that marked the end of a long period of resistance on my part.  I was not so much a ‘dog-hater’ as a ‘dog dis-liker’, but a clever pincer movement by the rest of the family left me out-manoeuvred.  Added to this, chinks were beginning to appear in my own armour, as I had to concede that recently acquired pups of friends weren’t entirely unlikable.

And so, on Christmas Day, two years ago, we ‘unwrapped’ the decision to the absolute delight of the children.  There were shouts of glee, tears of joy and Christmas was made. A month later we collected a tiny black bundle of wobbly fur and our hearts melted, including mine.

Max, as we named him, was here to stay and, though there were occasional early moments when I wished he wasn’t, two years on and he is a fully integrated and accepted member of the family.  He brings much needed laughter, energy and madness to our lives that are all the more rich for it.

I think one of my fears as I surveyed the prospect of dog ownership was that my lovely quiet walks in the countryside would come to an end.  I had images of a dog routing every form of wildlife that could flee and relieving himself on every part that couldn’t.

Never for a minute did it cross my mind that rather than detract from my enjoyment of nature he would actually add to it.  Not only has he proved an excellent companion, warrant- ing the title “a man’s best friend”, but he has also, in subtle but significant ways, helped bridge the gap between the human and the natural.

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“One Man & His Dog” – Me and Max out on a walk – photo by Kathy Evershed

We are so used to hearing about the negative impact that we as humans have on the natural world that it is easy to assume a chasm exists between us:  the needs and habits of humans appearing irreconcilable with those of nature.  I think this perception underlay my concerns about getting a dog and that this human habit of dog walking would somehow seal that disconnect with nature.

I was wrong, and walking this domesticated animal has taken me down new paths (literally) and led me to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world.  With the need to find suitable dog walks not far from home I have begun to explore what I think of as the “edgelands” of St Albans – the zones where houses and the built environ- ment give way to more rural areas and countryside.  There is an intensity about these areas as urban recreation mixes with farming practices and busy paths and roads parcel up the land.

In the past, I had chosen more remote locations for my walks, away from built-up areas, away from people and away from dogs on the assumption that my experience of nature would be that much richer.  But, led by the dog, I have discovered these busy ‘edge- lands’, a truly domesticated landscape, to be far wealthier in wildlife than I had ever imagined.  In fact, they appear to be more bountiful than the undisturbed and undoubtedly more scenic countryside walks I have done elsewhere.

One of my favourite “edgeland” walks is around Highfield Park and the surrounding farmland on the southeastern edge of St Albans.  Prior to owning a dog I hadn’t really explored this corner of suburban St Albans, albeit only a short distance from home, but it has proved itself a treasure trove of wildlife.

Despite the constant roar of the dual carriageway bordering the area, the hedgerows and fields are rich in birdlife.  Consequently an array of predators – kites, foxes, buzzards and the occasional peregrine – are regulars here.  Two sets of little owls have found a home in old tree holes, one overlooking the noisy games of kids’ football held every weekend.  The site is also home to some of the largest populations of breeding yellow- hammers in the area – a species on the conservation Red List due to its rapid decline in the UK.

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A Yellowhammer – photo by Steve Round

Clearly the park managers at Highfield and the local farmers are doing something right but what I find most striking is that all of this wildlife is thriving in the midst of busy human activity.  When we are so often cast in the role of either the destroy- ers of nature or its saviour it is gratifying to find evidence of a happy co-existence. I wonder if I would have appreciated this had not that domesticated dog, embodying the link between his wild ancestors and his human owners, demanded a walk?  Good boy Max!

Same Nature: New Viewpoints

Sometimes in the course of my hobby as a birdwatcher I am conscious of moments of expansion in my experience and understanding of all things avian. With that increase comes a deeper and richer enjoyment of the pastime of a lifetime.

It is as if in walking the well-trodden corridors of my seasonal birding habits that a new door suddenly appears and opens, ushering me into a fresh and vital new experience of the natural world in which I live.

I am sure this is true not just of my hobby, but of others too. David Attenborough is a testament to the fact that 91 years on, new doors are opening with each new exploration, most recently the discovery of not just life in the deepest recesses of the oceans but also abundant, extraordinary life. Nature never fails to surprise and delight and is apparently boundless in its ability to do this. My own hobby is but a small part of that world, a lens through which I access that immense and beautiful whole.

Every autumn thousands of birds move across our skies as they either leave for warmer climes or arrive for the winter. It is a well known fact and even those with no natural interest will be aware of certain bird species vanishing at the end of the summer and others arriving. But do we ever see it happen? Is it possible to actually see the birds moving from A to B, after all there are thousands of them? The answer is of course yes, but you have to look up and preferably, but not essentially, you need to be on high ground.

This autumn past has seen and an extraordinary ‘visible migration’ across our skies involving many common birds such as woodpigeons, chaffinches and skylarks but also the less common as well – bramblings and redpolls. Already this autumn I have seen more of the latter two species that during the whole of last year. One bird in particular has arrived in unprecedented numbers – the chunky hawfinch. Usually a scarce bird seen perched high on a hornbeam or feeding quietly in the woodland leaf litter, most birdwatchers would consider themselves lucky to see even one or two in the year. However, this autumn, possibly as the result of storm Ophelia, hawfinches have been recorded in almost every part of the UK flying over in flocks, often totaling 50-100 birds over the course of a morning.

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A Hawfinch – photo by Steve Round

This movement has prompted a renewed interest in hilltop viewpoints with longtime favourites such as Parliament Hill in London’s Hampstead Heath providing daily reports of sightings. Most of the time the visible migration involves smaller birds making short journeys, maybe from one county to the next. The exciting element comes from the fact that amongst the commoner birds almost anything could appear – winter geese and swans, waders and birds you wouldn’t normally expect to see in your area. It does help of course if you are able to identify the birds by call, or to have someone with you who can, but the spectacle of continuous streams of flocks flying overhead is nevertheless worth witnessing. For me it is to be caught up momentarily in nature’s ageless seasonal shifts: just one movement in a great symphony of soft flight calls and wing beats, orchestrated across continents.

This year’s migration is largely over now, (although as I write this, hawfinches are still being reported across Hertfordshire daily), but the memory will stay with me. It is a ‘new room’ in my bird watching experience – it has always been there but now I have consciously ‘walked into it’ and begun to enjoy it. With it I have added a new verb to my vocabulary: “visi-migging” – the act of watching visible migration! It is another world with its own Twitter hashtag of #visimig that connects me with “visi-miggers” and their sightings across Britain.

As I parked my car on top of the Maltings Car Park in St Albans today (a kind of concrete hill and great viewpoint) I paused to observe the skies around me. A flock of over 30 fieldfare passed overhead and then a chaffinch, followed by 9 goldfinches. A peregrine patrolled, maybe hoping to cash in on the ‘visi-mig’. I left the car park but in just five minutes I had recorded 10 different species, but more importantly, like a breath of fresh air, I had connected anew to that wider world all around us that, in our busy lives, we are apt to overlook to our loss.

Please click on this link to read my article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser:

Nature Notes – Herts Advertiser 30th November 2017

 

Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

Please click on this link to read my November 2017 “Nature Notes” as it appears in the Herts Advertiser: Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

I had been wondering if she would be there. I had encountered what looked like the remains of her feasting along the path. The telltale circle of piled feathers that indicated a pigeon devoured, plucked breast up, the carcass taken for final pickings by its captor.

Usually I would attribute such feathery leftovers as the work of a sparrowhawk but today the pile is huge, with a wide radius, as if something far more powerful has torn and plucked the bird. Around me too the landscape has shifted closer to winter when I would most expect to see her again.

And there she is, perched midway up the pylon, busy preening and cleaning herself. Her size and plumage tell me she is an adult female peregrine, returning hopefully to her wintering grounds – my ‘local patch’. Her dark black hood speaks suitably of the skilled executioner she is. Indeed at my very feet another pile of pigeon feathers ruffle in the breeze. She has been busy and now clearly is engaged in a post-postmortem cleanup.

Juvenile Peregrine

A juvenile Peregrine with its prey (a Moorhen) – photo by Steve Blake

Peregrines must bathe daily to clean off the inevitable blood and guts of their hunting lifestyle. It is a little observed behaviour of the bird, known better for its aerial supremacy and powerful stooping dives on prey. It is behaviour that I have been lucky enough to observe at a local gravel pit. I watched, in that instance, a young peregrine, bedraggle itself at the water’s edge, unusually vulnerable and ruffled. Nothing mobbed it, no crow swooped down to take advantage of the predator’s pause. I wonder if it was just simply because the peregrine was unrecognizable, stripped of its threatening prowess and hidden in its bath-time obscurity.

Such behaviour was written about by that great admirer of the peregrine – JA Baker, who found his local peregrines returning again and again to a quiet spot along his local river in Essex. More recently a peregrine has been filmed washing at the edge of the River Thames in Central London, observed by the many tourists along the embankment.

The peregrine before me today may be a bird that has bred not too far away. Increasingly peregrines are being observed in the breeding season in nearby larger towns such as Watford and Luton, usually perched high on an industrial structure, always with a precipitous view and teetering ledge. Wherever this bird has come from, she commands the airways as she hunts from her pylon peaks – her own corridors of power.

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A juvenile Peregrine looks down from its pylon perch – photo by Steve Blake

I, for one, welcome the return of the peregrine – I expect the local farmer does too for it is the ultimate bird scarer! The bird never fails to add a thrill to the wider landscape and makes those ugly pylons objects of interest, to be scrutinized carefully lest they conceal a roosting peregrine.

Autumn has its own spring for while leaves fall and plants die back there are new arrivals, like the peregrine, that are as welcome a sight as returning migrants in March. Though they arrive on cold winds to a damp landscape they revitalize it with their busyness and the drama of their flocks. On the dullest day there is never a dull moment and this is nature’s gift to us if we can brace ourselves in the cold months ahead and leave the dull subfusc eye of electric bulbs and ceilinged spaces to get outside in it!

 

A Taxing Time of Year – Profit or Loss?

Please click on this link to read my October 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: A Taxing Time of Year – Profit or Loss?

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The humble Wood Pigeon – photo by Steve Round

 

Passenger Pigeon

The now extinct Passenger Pigeon – illustration by Nicolas Primola

 

Exotic Travellers in Herts’

Please click on this link to read my September 2017 “Nature Notes” in the Herts Advertiser: Exotic Travellers in Herts’

European Bee-Eaters

European Bee-eaters – photo by Wim Hoek (Shutterstock)