Wednesday, 9 March 2016

My,what a big beak you've got! 7th March 2016

A cold and crisp Monday morning found myself and Hugh in the Forest of Dean at just after first light. There is a location here where it is possible to get close to that most elusive and shy of birds, the Hawfinch. Although we both had seen Hawfinches we never before had the opportunity where we might get extended and close views. From March to early May Hawfinches can frequently be found searching for food on the ground and it is thought this is because the seed crop in the treetops that they favour has run out.

The location is fairly well known and bird photographers regularly place seed on the ground to attract the birds. So we thought we would take advantage of this, not so much for the photography, more that it would give us the opportunity to get close to the birds, as normally glimpses of Hawfinches in my experience are all too brief and distant and often they involve the birds flying away! I did take my camera along just in case, although I would not class myself as a bird photographer but rather a birder first and foremost but one not averse to pointing a camera at a particular bird in the hope of getting a half decent image.

The secret is not to leave the car but use it as a hide and with this in mind we parked on a track running parallel with one side of The Green which is bordered on its four sides by ancient Yews which stand sentinel around its perimeter and impart that mysterious magic and sense of history that all such Yews seem to possess. The Green is not as you would imagine a secluded spot, being surrounded on two sides by busy roads and near to housing and a pub but it is a magnet for Hawfinches. I have a theory that it is so attractive because of the Yews, whose dark, close knit foliage is ideal for hiding in and feeling secure, whilst above the Yews on one side of The Green stand some much taller trees which provide another Hawfinch favourite, elevated perches that give a panoramic view of the area.

The day had dawned dull and raw and not a bird was to be seen as we sat in the car and waited. A few Chaffinches descended from the Yew nearest to us and slowly their numbers built up to around thirty to forty picking at the ground, shuffling under and around the gnarled Yew a few metres from us.They were joined periodically by a Jay, a Nuthatch and a Great Spotted Woodpecker but of the Hawfinches there was no sign at all. We sat in the car, nibbled a biscuit or two and waited. The passing traffic and occasional loud noises from the yard across the road caused the Chaffinches to regularly take alarm and fly up into the dark fastness of the Yew branches spread above them but they soon got over their fear and descended to the ground once again.

As we waited I noticed that the other Yews around The Green were also attracting their complement of birds feeding below them. It must give a feeling of security to have a large tree, uniquely at this time of year with dense foliage, whose branches provide an embracing canopy and a dark refuge should a threat, actual or imagined cause  concern.

We could now hear the Hawfinches distinctive tsick tsick contact calls so knew they were around but it was crucial to remain in the car. At last a female Hawfinch appeared, perched on a low branch of the Yew right by the car. What a satisfying bird they are to see at close quarters. Having just returned from Colombia I had seen a lot of small parrots and to me the Hawfinch showed very much the same profile with its huge bill and large head to accommodate it and a short tail, so the whole bird looked slightly 'front ended'. Top heavy if you like. 

The Hawfinch joined the Chaffinches, dwarfing them with its size and bulk. A fierce demeanour, enhanced by its hard staring eyes belied the bird's inveterate shyness and lack of aggression to the surrounding Chaffinches. Using its huge bill  it dug in the soil to extract half hidden seeds and kernels, constantly moving in an upright posture, hopping along whilst nibbling and manoeuvering the kernels in those formidable mandibles. The disproportionately large head is necessary to accommodate the jaw muscles that operate its massive beak which has the capacity to exert a pressure of between 30-48kgs, enabling it to crush cherry and plum stones with ease.

Female Hawfinch
The time passed in anticipation of further appearances of Hawfinches and finally a male came and descended to the ground by 'our' Yew. We both remarked on its beauty, such a rich and satisfying depth of pastel colouring to its plumage as it fed just metres away from us. The orange chestnut of its head merging gently into a silver grey wash around its neck. Its underparts yet another pastel shade this time of dull vinaceous pink. Its bill was the colour of pewter surrounded by black feathering running into a neat little bib and encircling the eye and its dandy breeding finery was accentuated by the ruffled blue black feathers on its wings. It is such a contradiction that this shy, enigmatic bird can look so incredibly fierce.

Male Hawfinch
A sudden dread came over the birds  and they fled up into the Yew and the ground was bare again. I noticed that there was regular commuting by the birds between the Yews and watched as a group of four Hawfinches flew to a Yew on the other side of The Green and in this group were two males, so much more colourful than the greyer females. Their chestnut orange colouring and the white flashes of their wings and tails appearing almost exotic against the dark mediaeval green of the Yews.

For the next two hours we watched enthralled as we sat within just a few metres  of these unsuspecting birds, feeling dismay as they periodically flew off in alarm and then overjoyed when they returned to feed once more so close to us.

The magic moments could not last of course. As the morning progressed so more people were up and about, dog walkers, delivery drivers, people just going about their lives and as the disturbance grew so the birds spent more and more time hidden in the Yews rather than feeding below them. We went elsewhere and then came back in the mid morning to find two birders standing close to the Yews and not a Hawfinch in sight. It was over.

Footnote 1

This wondrous species has declined by 76% in England and Wales between 1968-2011. It is estimated that there were only 500-1000 breeding pairs left in England and Wales in 2013. It is not found in Scotland unless on migration. The causes of its decline are unknown at present.

Footnote 2

The images above show a male with a lime green colour ring and I submitted the details to the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology). The reply from Jerry Lewis the co ordinator for colour ringed Hawfinches told me the following.

This bird was ringed near Cinderford, which is not far from where I photographed the bird, on 10th April 2008 and had not been seen again until now. This time span is approaching the longevity record for a Hawfinch which is 8 years 1 month and 22 days

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