Unless you have been living under a rock, or are simply disinterested in this sort of thing, you will surely have heard by now that this Autumn has seen an unprecedented number of Hawfinch arriving in the UK. Indeed, at present, Britain appears full to bursting with these usually scarce, cherry-stone splitting finches – the invasion marked by uncharacteristically high counts of migrating birds at coastal watchpoints and the presence of Hawfinches at numerous locations well outside of their traditional range.
After nearly a fortnight of enviously glancing over celebratory tweets and jubilant Facebook posts and following years of missed opportunities, yesterday I found myself presented with an opportunity to finally get to grips with my first Hawfinch on British soil. An opportunity that I quickly seized, enjoying a sensational Autumn day in the wilds of Northumberland.
Making the one-mile walk from Morpeth to Mitford, all the ingredients for a perfect Autumnal day were seen in abundance. Crisped leaves of a hundred hues tumbling elegantly downwards from the denuded canopy, fieldfares passing overhead in rowdy, cackling flocks and the occasional seep of a passing Redwing making for a most enjoyable morning. Indeed, during the short walk to the intended site – a tranquil area of mixed woodland near Mitford – the local wildlife performed admirably. Minutes into the journey a Marsh tit sneezed from the cover of a roadside thicket while, by the river, a Kingfisher fished for ten minutes or so in plain view, before darting upstream and out of sight of its enthralled admirers. A sight which, coupled with sightings of Siskin, Grey Wagtail, Jay and Dipper, left me feeling altogether optimistic.
Arriving on site and after issuing the usual pleasantries to the assembled bird folk, I soon set about scanning the tops of the golden Hornbeams the finches had apparently been favouring. Nothing, no sign at all – my attention soon turning to the other species going about their business nearby. Behind me, in the wood, a Jay wailed from the upper echelons of a naked Oak and the machine-gun rattle of a Mistle Thrush was enjoyed briefly. With other points of interest including a number of showy Goldcrest, a few Bullfinch and a second flock of Fieldfare heading West with haste. Lovely, each and all, but still, no Hawfinches in sight; thus I decided to break off from the crowd and wander – I have always disliked the standing in one place approach to birding.
Rounding a corner into a nearby paddock, my attention was immediately drawn to a dumpy bird hopping about in the shade of a Hawthorn. The fearsome, preposterously large bill of the individual leading to an inevitable conclusion: Hawfinch. Opting to alert the other birders on site to its presence and pulling my focus begrudgingly from the bird itself, it was soon lost to sight. At least until emerging a few minutes later in the branches of one of the aforementioned Hornbeams – enormous bill and piercing stare accentuated in the jaded Autumn sun. From here, the bird showed wonderfully: sitting stone-still on its chosen branch as the amassed crowd scoped, photographed and admired to their heart’s content. Only moving from its favoured spot when a Grey Heron, of all things, passed overhead – enveloping the finch in shade and surely causing a slight bit of alarm.
This encounter, the first of its kind for me, personally, was an altogether marvellous one. An encounter which brought back memories of admiring the species on TV – watching the outlandish finches as they cracked beech masts and wondering whether I would one day, be lucky enough to see one. To date, that possibility had seemed a long-shot, given the species virtual extinction as a breeding species in my native Northumberland and the difficulty associated with getting to the sites at which they still thrive further afield. Clearly, patience does pay off; though it would be difficult not to see one this Autumn given their prominence in the countryside. I hope that readers of this blog are equally lucky in their endeavours.
The photograph in the header was borrowed from Pixabay to highlight the theme of this post. I fear my phone-scoped efforts (shown below) would not have had the same effect…
Hawfinch – Mitford