Friday, 10 February 2017

Freezing in the Forest 9th February 2017

From now until mid April it is possible to see Hawfinches really well in the Forest of Dean at a village called Parkend. It is a well known site, with birders and photographers alike making an annual pilgrimage to see the Hawfinches there. This was my second year of visiting and eagerly anticipated. Hawfinches can of course be seen at other times of the year and in other places in the forest but this to my knowledge is one of the most reliable places to have an encounter with this most enigmatic and sadly now rapidly declining species in both the Forest of Dean and in Britain.

The Hawfinches feed on the ground under the ancient Yews that encircle the Village Green and above them stand huge trees, many of them Beech, their bare branches at this time of year skeletal fingered against the sky. The Hawfinches like to perch at the very top of these trees on first arrival each day, before descending to the Yews which never lose their dark green spiky leaves, and the dense dark interior they create is very much to the Hawfinches liking as they can hide in there when alarmed or wait to feel secure before dropping down onto the ground below to feed.

Parkend Village Green and the Yews
Parkend Village Green is an unlikely looking area to attract such numbers of this shy, retiring finch as it is small and surrounded on two sides by a busy and noisy road but the copious amounts of seed, peanuts and sunflower hearts distributed by a succession of birders and photographers under the Yews has obviously persuaded the birds to temporarily overcome their shyness.

You can get very close to them indeed by using the car as a hide, parking literally a couple of metres opposite the first couple of Yews on a wide unsurfaced track called Crown Lane, running down one side of the Green. This is what I did today but having miscalculated the time badly I arrived far too early in the dark and had to await the dawn which arrived an hour later. I slept for a while, then read the news on my phone app and listened to the Today programme, all the while itching for the sky to lighten, which it duly did but annoyingly slowly. It was soon obvious there was to be no sunrise this morning, just cloud and a bitter cold. Photography would be difficult, having to contend with both the gloomy weather and the fact the Yews would add to the lack of light as their dense foliage shaded the ground below, where the Hawfinches feed.

The first birds to arrive under the Yews were half a dozen Blackbirds and a couple of Robins. Barely discernible in the early morning half light they gradually became more visible as the daylight strengthened. Chaffinches soon followed and perched in the Yews first, to re-assure themselves all was safe, before descending to pick at the seed. Snatches of song from the males told me Spring was on its way despite the weather which was now bringing brief flurries of snow. The male Chaffinches spent a lot of time squabbling amongst themselves, chasing each other at lightening speed around the Yews and frustratingly often spooking the rest of the feeding birds into flight.

A flock of around twenty Chaffinches had eventually gathered on the ground and then at just before eight a larger, more bulky finch dropped from the first Yew, the downdraft from its wings stirring the fallen copper brown beech leaves scattered over the ground. A female Hawfinch. At last! The light was way too dull for any photography so I just watched her from the car. Her feeding action was interesting as, on short pink legs, she progressed by means of a staccato hopping motion and a distinct upright profile, searching for and then digging out seeds and beech mast from the loam and leaf litter. manipulating them in her huge pale bill, the husks falling away on either side of the mandibles.

They are such incredible looking birds with a bill, head and bull neck that seems to comprise almost one third of its size. The bill has formidable powers and can exert a huge force. Sufficient to crack a cherry stone if necessary but today all they had to cope with were sunflower seeds and beech mast. 

This bird still has the pale bill as part of its non breeding plumage
This bird has already acquired the black bill as part of its breeding plumage
I diverted my eyes away from this individual and found that another four had dropped down from the Yews completely un-noticed,  so there were now five feeding within three or four metres of me. They were intent on finding food, constantly moving, searching and digging out seeds which they then stood and dealt with, their fierce eye staring about or already looking for the next seed.

At this time in the morning it was relatively quiet but any passing large truck or noisy car on the nearby road sent the entire mass of birds into a panic and back up into the safety of the Yew, and then it's a case of waiting, often for some time, before the birds descend again. The Hawfinches are always the last to fly down but conversely when there is a general alarm amongst the mixed feeding flock they will often remain on the ground for a minute or so after the other birds have fled, before losing their nerve.

There were of course other birds coming to the area and a Nuthatch regularly came to collect sunflower hearts and took three or four at a time in its bill to store in some nook or cranny in a favourite Yew. A Song Thrush, often associated with Yews as the berries are a favourite food, put in a regular appearance as did Great, Blue and Coal Tits but really I only had eyes for the Hawfinches.

European Nuthatch

Song Thrush

The downside to these close and personal experiences with the Hawfinches is that due to the location there are many things to disturb the feeding birds and scare them away. If you are of an impatient nature then maybe this kind of birding is not for you. The frustrations are many and varied. Being close to a busy road does not help, nor do dog walkers, mountain bikers, local residents going to get the morning paper, roving sheep, other birders who cannot remain in their car, and even a passing police car, blue lights flashing and siren wailing, all ensuring the birds regularly took fright and sought sanctuary in the Yews, 

With the car window having to be constantly open I felt the bitter cold but as Hawfinches were regularly coming and going I soon forgot about that and concentrated on taking as many pictures as I could of the Hawfinches. They do not always remain in the one spot but move around the Green and feed under the other Yews also, but it is not possible to take any pictures other than at the one particular location I have mentioned, as you just cannot get a car close enough to them anywhere else and if you get out of the car they are gone in an instant.

The morning progressed with the feeding birds opposite me regularly taking alarm and fleeing, then me waiting and the birds eventually slowly descending in ones and twos, first the Blackbirds, then the Chaffinches and finally the Hawfinches. Sometimes I could see the Hawfinches flying across the green towards 'my' Yew. Their large bill and huge head is distinctively pale when seen head on  and if seen flying away in their swooping, bounding flight, equally distinctive are the prominent white tips to their tails giving their identity away immediately.

They can look like miniature parrots with their top heavy look, chunky body and short tails and they invariably fly into the Yews to hide, before later descending to the ground. With my bins I checked the ground below the other Yews around the Green and counted as best I could other Hawfinches I found there. A group of at least twelve were feeding under a Yew at the far corner of the Green and there were at least five opposite me so that made seventeen, a good number certainly, although there were probably more. I rarely managed to see them perched in the Yews as they usually hide well inside but just occasionally they would briefly perch  out in the open but never for long.

I saw only two males, sadly both too distant to photograph, so here is a picture of one I took last year.

Male Hawfinch
All the birds near me were females but I am certainly not complaining. To see any Hawfinch is fabulous, especially as they are becoming very scarce and are so shy. To see them feeding only a few metres away was almost beyond my wildest hope. It was just a fantastic.

As the morning wore on I was joined by a few other cars containing birders who knew the score and remained in their vehicles. Just one person had to get out and stand at the far end of the Green with a telescope but this worked in my favour as he scared all the Hawfinches up to my end!

By now I was getting progressively colder and as the visits of the Hawfinches became less regular and at longer intervals I was certainly noticing the cold more and more. The spell was finally broken as I started the car's engine, put the heater to maximum and drove off to the local and quaintly named Postage Stamp Cafe, where a latte coffee, a pasty and some Tiffin did the trick nicely, and with spirits and body revived I set off for the hour and a half journey home. Five hours of serious Hawfinch interaction had passed in the Forest of Dean, an experience that had left me both delighted and wanting more.

I am definitely going back

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