Thursday 8 February 2018

A Puddle in Hampshire 7th February 2018

In a recent post about Hawfinches I bemoaned the amount of disturbance I encountered at Parkend in The Forest of Dean when I recently went to see the Hawfinches there and was subsequently advised to try another location at Romsey, which is in the fair county of Hampshire. Although it was a public place I was told it was much less prone to disturbance which was all I asked for and the Hawfinches there could, according to reports, be seen really well. So if you read this Chris, many thanks for drawing my attention to this location.

I duly did some internet research about the site and armed with all the information I needed headed off at 6am from my home, under a night sky that was clear of cloud and with a million twinkling stars stretching above me to infinity, for there is no light pollution where we live in northwest Oxfordshire. The car roof had acquired a light powdering of frozen snow overnight and the temperature gauge showed it was minus 1.5 degrees but once inside the car I was soon cocooned in a warm interior as I headed south along the rural lanes that led away from my home.

Although it was a normal working weekday, even the main trunk roads south from Oxford were surprisingly free flowing and two hours later I was discreetly parking the car in a mundane suburban road that was part of a large estate of ordinary looking houses and sheltered accommodation. The morning had now transformed into a classic manifestation of all that I regard and welcome as an archetypal winter's day in Britain. Bitingly cold but ameliorated by full sunshine and crystal clear azure skies.

The precise location I was looking for was a small area of parkland that was said to be at the end of the housing estate and the road I had parked in but it was not that obvious, so first I had to find it. As was to be expected at 8.30am  there were plenty of people about, walking dogs, jogging, taking kids to school or heading off to work. A lady walking a dog came past and I asked her where the park was. She smiled knowingly at my birding gear and said 'Come for the birds have you?' I nodded in affirmation and she laughed and pointed out where to go which was hardly difficult, as all I had to do was walk over a small bridge that crossed a tiny canal and then walk south for a couple of hundred metres along a tarmac path running alongside the canal and then go left over the next small bridge and follow the path.'You will see the other birders there' she advised. 'There have been lots of you birders lately' she added.

The park, if that is what it can be called, is little more than a green corridor consisting of mature trees, bushes and open areas of grass with a small play area, all sandwiched between the close proximity of  surrounding houses and a tiny non navigable canal, more resembling a wide and water filled ditch. 

The track by the tiny canal with the park on the right behind
the trees, and houses on the other side of the trees on the left
The area of parkland could hardly be called extensive and I suppose it provides a welcome green space between the houses for parents to take their kids to play in and people to walk their dogs. The thing that makes it so remarkable and attractive to birders is that when the park was originally conceived it was planted with many wild cherry trees which are now mature and this is what proves equally  attractive to the Hawfinches in winter, as they seek out the cherry stones from the fruit that has fallen to the ground. The Hawfinches are present here every year but  are in larger numbers this winter due to the exceptional invasion of these birds from mainland Europe.

I headed off and having crossed the second bridge, briefly followed a tarmac footpath  before coming to a wide earthen track on my right, no more than a hundred metres long which was almost a tunnel due to the overhanging bushes and trees growing along either side. I looked down it and saw two birders/photographers at the other end of the track where it opened onto some grassland, no more than dark shapes silhouetted in the sunlight, squatting on the ground behind huge lenses,  I stretched out my arms in mute enquiry, not wanting to disturb any birds they might be photographing and they motioned to me that it was all clear to come down the track to join them. I was pleasantly surprised as I expected to have to search for any birders but here were two and they obviously knew where was best to see the Hawfinches.

They were a  friendly pair and told me they were keeping an eye on the large puddle which I had walked around on my way down the track as this was where the Hawfinches were supposed to come down to drink during the day.

The earthen track where the Hawfinches came down to drink from the puddle 
just about visible in the shaded centre of the track with a green line of moss 
across the puddle and cherry trees on either side of the track
I could already hear Hawfinches calling in the trees around us and as usual they were hard to see but eventually I saw a couple, just briefly visible as silhouettes in the branches. We got talking as birders inevitably do when it is quiet and little or no birds are about. I learned that the two best places for Hawfinches were this very track we were surveying and, just around the corner on the other side of the trees to my right where there was a place they came down onto the grass to seek out cherry stones. The two locations could not have been more than a fifty metres apart.

We waited patiently but nothing happened to get us excited. Slowly others joined us, each and everyone armed with a camera and lens of varying size and expense until there were about a dozen of us. One person in particular had an enormous lens and a very professional photography set up and enquired if he could enlarge the puddle with a bucket of water he had filled from the canal. Not content with that, he then placed a band of bright green moss by the puddle's edge to enhance the aesthetic effect should any Hawfinch come to drink.There was talk amongst the photographers about reflections, light angles and camera settings but eventually everyone settled down and it was quiet. I would say the photographers outnumbered the birders but we all had the same right to be here and there was no animosity as everyone was considerate and did nothing without the consent of everyone else. I was quite happy to acquiesce to the photographer's constant fussing as their attention to detail would allow me to also get some good pictures if the Hawfinches came down to drink.

No members of the general public came along the track, no doubt deterred on viewing a formidable looking phalanx of 'camoed' photographers and birders crouched or standing, silent and still at the other end of the track. Sensibly and I would like to think considerately, they took another route. Fine by me as the park was popular, being well used from what I could see as a short cut from the houses on one side of the park to the other. Apart from the people taking the short cut there was the occasional lady with a pram and kids in tow or dog walkers  but that was about it.

Hawfinch enthusiasts. Birders and photographers with one
common desire - to see a Hawfinch.
Time drifted on and the sun warmed my back as I stood and waited for a Hawfinch to appear. It was sheltered where we were positioned, out of the cold northwest wind and far from unpleasant. I did wonder if we were too near to the puddle which was only some twenty feet away but no one else seemed bothered. This current situation was so different from Parkend in The Forest of Dean where to get a close view of a Hawfinch it is essential to remain concealed in a car with restricted movement but here, although we had no cover and were very visible, we had the luxury of freedom of movement.

Other birds were less coy about coming to the puddle to drink and sometimes to bathe whilst we waited for the Hawfinches to arrive. Chaffinches and Blackbirds were the main visitors but there was a visit from three portly Woodpigeons that waddled along the track, a very wary Collared Dove, a female Siskin and an assortment of tits, Great, Blue, Coal and Long tailed. A Little Egret flew over us, following the course of the canal and two Ravens kronked their way across the parkland.

Male Chaffinch

Male Blackbird
Female Blackbird


Collared Dove
However the main distraction was provided by the constant presence of a very confiding Robin which endearingly hopped around amongst the tripod legs and at our feet or regarded us with its bright dark eye from the thin branches and twigs right beside us, showing no fear whatsoever.

Two hours had passed and still there was no sight of a Hawfinch, just their calls coming from the surrounding trees. The interminable wait was beginning to weary me but my flagging resolve was re-assured by the stoic presence of the others, particularly the photographers, some of whom were local and obviously were confident that the Hawfinches would eventually appear.

Finally one did, a beautiful male which flew into some low bushes on the left of the track and then gently slipped down through the branches to ground level before hopping out onto the track and across to the puddle to drink. It was not there for long but it was enough to revive my spirits and I eagerly waited for another to appear.

Male Hawfinch
It was not to be, however, and another long wait ensued with, frustratingly, Hawfinches flying down onto the far end of the track and feeding with the local Chaffinches. I consoled myself with the knowledge that despite a lack of action around the puddle I was, at the very least now seeing Hawfinches on a regular basis, albeit a little distantly and that many people would be extremely grateful for the views I was getting.

Male Hawfinch feeding on the earthen track
A little later another Hawfinch, a female this time, came to drink but remained for less than a minute and was then gone in a flash of white barred wings and white tipped tail. Female Hawfinches are not  as colourful as the males and although their plumage pattern mirrors that of the male it is more subdued and dowdier but they still retain that indefineable 'wow' factor.

Female Hawfinch
Another long wait with nothing to show for it prompted me to check the time. It was one o' clock and only two Hawfinches had visited the puddle in four and a half hours.True I had seen quite a number feeding distantly at the other end of the track but I had been spoilt by the earlier close views of the male and female Hawfinches at the puddle. I wanted more of the same. Who wouldn't!

About fifteen minutes later a loud ticking call alerted us to the presence of another Hawfinch and a superb male landed in a bush  to the left of the track and perched there, a glory of orange, buff and brown plumage, in the sunlight. His enormous bill, yet to turn pewter grey, which it does in the breeding season, looked almost ivory white in the strong sunlight. It was obvious he was contemplating coming to drink from the puddle but as always was ultra cautious. Anxiety levels in all of us rose considerably as silently we willed it to not fly away but come to the puddle, while the Hawfinch dithered on its perch, in two minds as to whether to come and drink or flee. This was the moment and what I had been waiting five hours for. A handsome male Hawfinch just feet away from me.

Would it or would it not come down to the puddle?

If it came down the opportunities to get a superb photo were virtually guaranteed. For what seemed forever it kept us on tenterhooks, neck stretched upwards, head turning this way and that as it surveyed the ground for any possible danger. Not one of us dared move, no one spoke, we all waited. Tense and with cameras at the ready. The sense of anxious anticipation was palpable. The Hawfinch dropped lower through the network of small twigs and branches, arriving on the ground but still ensuring it was obscured and partially hidden. Yet another tense and anxiety racked few minutes passed as it again surveyed the track and then, emboldened by the quiet of the undisturbed track it hopped out into the open and across to the puddle. The next two or so minutes passed as a blur in my mind as it drank from the puddle, its reflection in the water mirroring its glorious plumage and form. A fusillade of camera clicks accompanied its every movement as it drank from the puddle, raising its huge head to let the water slide down its throat and that eye, so fierce, so alien, constantly and impassively staring.

Male Hawfinch
The Hawfinch sipped the water with slow and great deliberation. First it would regard the water with head cocked to one side and then lower its bill so just the tips of the mandibles delicately caressed the puddle's surface and gathered in a few drops of water. It would then raise its huge head at an angle and with a partially open bill allow the water to slide down its throat, holding the position as if savouring every drop. This achieved, a few seconds of further quiet contemplation ensued before it commenced the process once more by lowering its bill to the water.  As its bill touched the still water a series of tiny ripples emanated from the bill tip and in the sunlight were mirrored as flickering lines across the bird's  breast and belly. 

Two minutes, maybe a little more, were enough to slake its thirst and then it was off in a whirrrr of wings, back into the reassuring concealment and comparative safety of the surrounding trees and bushes.

Its departure resulted in an instantaneous release of the tension amongst us. Everyone had got a good picture, you could hardly fail and everybody was content and happy with life.We chatted amongst ourselves as if we had known each other all our lives, letting the pent up tension of the previous hours of anxious  waiting subside before we had to lapse into silence again as another two Hawfinches came to settle low in the bushes, obviously intent on drinking from the puddle but then thought better of it and flew off.

Another forty five minutes passed as we waited and occcasionally watched Hawfinches, still frustratingly feeding on the ground at the far end of the track, with up to six together at one point.

A Redwing put in a brief appearance just as another female Hawfinch flew in and we reprised another anxious wait as she dithered in the bushes before flying down to the track and hopping on bright pink legs and feet over to the puddle.


Female Hawfinch
She was only there for a minute before another male Hawfinch arrived from the bushes on the other side of the track and hopped up to her, to which she responded aggressively  but when the male stood his ground and threatened her in return she beat a hasty retreat. 

This interaction left us with the not unpleasant situation of regarding yet another male drinking for a couple of minutes from the puddle before he too flew off.

Male Hawfinch
I chatted to a local birder and in the course of our conversation he told me that at least thirty one Hawfinches had been counted leaving their roost here. From my experience today I could well believe it. I waited another hour but no more Hawfinches came to drink and it was now almost three in the afternoon. The shadows were lengthening and the sun had moved so far round that it no longer warmed me and I began to feel the cold once more.

I knew I could do no better than this and packed up my camera but as a last afterthought checked the other favourite site of the Hawfinches which was just through the trees no more than fifty metres away from where I had been standing for the last six hours.

The grassy area under the cherry trees where the Hawfinches
could be found feeding in the grass
I looked into the long grass growing under the trees and saw two Chaffinches and then found yet another male Hawfinch, half concealed and quietly feeding on cherry stones that it found hidden in the grass, rolling them into position in its beak in order to crush them. For ten more minutes I watched it feeding unconcerned and surprisingly well camouflaged in the long grass and scattered dead leaves, its plumage so bright when seen on the bare earth was now perfectly matched to the surrounding scatter of dead leaves. 

It could not last of course as a stray dog caused it to fly up into the trees. A small crowd had by this time gathered to watch the Hawfinch which was now distantly perched, high in a tree.

It was time to go and a brilliant day of birding came to a close.

I confess that I just cannot get enough of Hawfinches at the moment.

1 comment:

  1. Gorgeous! (I was right, I should've pushed you in the reservoir yesterday.) ;o)