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 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!


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!

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)

 

Strange Summer Soundtracks!

 

Twice this year I have found myself listening to birds that do not sound at all like birds! The first occasion was whilst camping in Dorset amidst the wild and beautiful heathland bordering the edge of Poole Harbour…

On a still, warm evening in late spring and early summer you are almost guaranteed to hear the strange song of the Nightjar issuing out from dusk until dawn on the Dorset heathland. I say ‘almost guaranteed’ because on the very, seemingly perfect, night I chose to lead a small group out into the twilit heathland a deafening silence greeted us! We had to wait a long time but did eventually hear a distant male bird’s song, but not before my birding credentials had almost been teased to tatters. Of course, the very next night, the campsite itself played host to several male Nightjars happily calling loudly high above our tents!

The song of the Nightjar is best described as a continuous churring sound, rising and falling in pitch. If you hear it you may be forgiven for attributing it to an amphibian or even to a piece of machinery. The Nightjar’s song contains 1,900 notes per minute and in the warm, stillness of a summer’s evening, seems to fill the air, mixing with the rising heathland scent of heather and pine. It is a magical experience reminiscent of holiday evenings in the South of France listening to cicadas as the light fades and the day cools off. Perhaps this is what J.A. Baker had in mind as he wrote his beautiful descriptive prose of the Nightjar’s song:

Its song is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep and booming cask. It is an odorous sound, with a bouquet that rises to the quiet sky. In the glare of day it would seem thinner and drier, but dusk mellows it and gives it vintage. If a song could smell, this song would smell of crushed grapes and almonds and dark wood. The sound spills out and none of it is lost.” (J.A.Baker, The Peregrine, 1967)

The bird itself is no less peculiar than its song with a wide, gaping mouth, reinforcing a sense of the amphibian. Indeed, its closely related family of foreign cousins are called ‘Frogmouths’. During the day, it remains perfectly hidden, its brown plumage matching the dry litter of the heathland floor – not revealing itself unless practically stood on.

Like the nighttime jarring of the Nightjar another, much smaller bird, has recently been singing its equally un-bird-like notes much nearer to home – at Heartwood Forest on the edge of St Albans. At this time of year, Heartwood is alive with the buzz of insects, cashing in on the abundant supply of nectar from the wildflowers blooming in the warm sun. Calling grasshoppers and crickets herald the start of lazy summer days while boisterous buzzing bees share petal space with the altogether quieter and more delicate butterflies.

Out walking the dog at Heartwood I paused to take in the scene and listen to the buzz all around me. As I listened I realized that above the stridulations of the grasshoppers a louder, more persistent ‘grasshopper call’ dominated. Almost identical to the song of its insect counterparts this was no insect but a little brown bird aptly named the Grasshopper Warbler.

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A Grasshopper Warbler – by Steve Round

Like the Nightjar’s song the Grasshopper Warbler’s reeling notes – likened to the sound of a free-wheeling bicycle or a winding fishing rod spool – rise and fall in pitch and volume as the little bird, its whole body vibrating with the sound, turns its head this way and that. The resulting ‘spray’ of notes has a ventriloquistic quality making it very difficult to locate the bird, often perched just above the long grass on a twig or bush.

Once spotted, the little bird is nothing much to look at with its mottled brown plumage and bright pink legs. Like the Nightjar, the Grasshopper Warbler is perfectly camouflaged and designed to remain hidden and, as a result, both birds are heard far more often that they are seen. This visual secrecy seems to amplify their strange un-bird-like songs and, although unlikely to be heard together, add a layer of mystery to the summer landscape wherever they sing.

The Nightjar is sadly now absent as a breeding bird in Hertfordshire but, as I write this, the Heartwood Grasshopper Warbler is still singing his heart out and proving unusually showy. If you do get a chance to hear him, or indeed a Nightjar elsewhere in the country, I’m sure their strange summer soundtracks will captivate you!

Published as Nature Notes in the Herts Advertiser on 13th July 2017