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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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!
*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!
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.