Saturday 22 January 2022

7- Eleven Hawfinches 21st January 2022

On visits to the USA in what now seems, pre-covid, another life, I encountered a widespread chain of convenience stores called 7-Eleven, the name telling one and all, when the stores opened and when they closed. If you are wondering what on earth this has to do with Hawfinches I will explain the link at the end of this blog.

After my visit to the Forest of Dean last Monday I decided on a return visit to see if I could do better with the Hawfinches at Parkend, which is known as one of the best places in Britain to see Hawfinches, especially in winter. Mark (P) and myself  had got there a little late on Monday with the consequence we were not in the best position to see and photograph the Hawfinches, as two cars had already beaten us to the best spot, opposite the well known Yew that is situated on one corner of The Green. We did eventually see a couple of birds, male and female (see my previous post) but we gave in to the cold after a couple of hours and that was that.

This time I planned to go solo and sit it out for as long as it took, all day if necessary, to get good views and images of one of the shyest and most enigmatic of birds that make the forest their home. Whether all the Hawfinches here in winter are resident I honestly do not know but it is known the resident population in Britain is augmented every winter by visitors from overseas.

To ensure I got the prime position by the Yew I rose in the dark and was on the road by 5am. As usual I had misjudged the time it took me to get to the Forest of Dean and consequently had no competition for the hallowed spot as, at just after 6.30am, I was at least an hour early!

Still, nothing ventured nothing gained and I set about casting copious amounts of sunflower seed under the Yew and on top of various logs and large stones, placed there by other birders/photographers.It was bitingly cold, my car's temperature gauge registering minus 4.5 celsius. With rare foresight I had made myself a thermos of coffee before leaving home and after putting out the sunflower seeds rapidly retired to the warmth of the car and a welcome hot coffee. Radio Three played soothingly in the background as I sat looking at The Green and its guardian Yews, slowly coming into focus as dawn crept over Parkend Church, sat high on its hill above the village.

By 7.30am it was light enough to just about see small, dark shapes darting around under the Yew. They were Blackbirds, chasing each other around or, at least an adult male was chivvying two first winter males away from the food, until he was seen off in turn by an aggressive female.

I was surprised no one else had yet arrived but eventually another car parked behind me. A lens poked out of his window. Brave man. It remained bitterly cold outside and I had been putting off this moment until the very last but felt obliged to follow his example and opened my car  window to the elements. The raw cold clutched at my face but I had come prepared and the rest of my body was well insulated apart from my feet but that was a minor discomfort.

I would love to say the Hawfinches soon showed up but they didn't. 

Guy Mountfort author of the New Naturalist classic 'The Hawfinch', a book long since out of print, described them thus: 'To have succeeded in avoiding the limelight for so long, in a period of rapidly increasing human interest in birds, is a remarkable tribute to the habit of stealthy self effacement which the Hawfinch has brought to a perfection shared by very few species.'

He went on to describe them as 'staunchly individualistic' and 'an exceptionally difficult bird to observe closely throughout the year.' How true and the opportunity to come to The Forest of Dean and Parkend in particular, where one has the chance to see them very close, no matter if just for a few minutes is what brings me and many others back here every winter. It is still not guaranteed the Hawfinches will cooperate, even here, but that is the challenge and when it bears fruit there is no better sense of achievement.

Every other bird did of course make a beeline for The Yew. An easy meal was on offer and the birds have long since become accustomed to the constant replenishment of seed under the Yew, brought by a daily succession of birders and photographers, keen to get a close view of the local Hawfinches.

All the birds set about the food I had so diligently spread on the ground for the Hawfinches. Blackbirds were ever present as were Chaffinches, some sporting white lesions on their legs and feet which are a viral papilloma specific to Chaffinches. Also a pair of Nuthatches were to'ing and fro'ing, carrying nuts away to stash for a later day. Great, Blue and Coal Tits did the same as the Nuthatches, while two Song Thrushes hopped around in the longer grass, dodging a truculent Robin and clumsy Woodpigeons.  Even a gang of five wary Magpies arrived, chattering excitedly amongst themselves but soon departed.


Male Chaffinch showing the viral papilloma on its leg which infects via cuts and in some cases proves  fatal to the bird

Male Chaffinch

A Jay concentrated on the peanuts, picking up as many as it could and swallowing them into the pouch under its bill, much as they do with acorns. In fact it was so stuffed with nuts it could not close its bill but still persisted in trying to wedge yet one more into its bill, then finally gave in and flew off, its large white rump a beacon as it headed for the Yews on the other side of The Green. 

Jays are lovely birds and under normal circumstances I would relish this opportunity to see one so close but today, somehow the experience felt diminished due to the lack of any Hawfinches coming just as close.

Although no Hawfinches had come down under the Yew, frustratingly I could see them foraging not that many metres away amongst the dead leaves and grass beyond the Yew. They were too distant and too obscured to photograph but I could at least see them clearly in my bins. The males looked superb as they always do. Their pale orange forehead and almost white bill standing out against the grey bark of the beech trees they were foraging under or perching on branches that swept low to the ground. I counted at least eight feeding close to the road, both males and females, but had to be content with just watching them in my bins. Not such a disaster really, as to see Hawfinches at ease and unsuspecting was a rare treat and I made sure I watched them as much as I could. It was the next best thing to photographing them.

I also comforted myself in the fact the day, currently, was so dull that under the dark Yews the light would cause my camera to struggle and I would do well to get an acceptable image. In many spare moments I fiddled with my camera settings, testing each setting on the Chaffinches until I thought I had something that would do the trick. I would have to wait and see. It all depended on the Hawfinches.

By 1100am and five hours into my vigil I had only one or two tantalising chances at capturing a Hawfinch with my camera, as various males, for seconds only, perched on the far side of the Yew before flying down into the leaves and grass on the far side of the Yew. One did perch relatively nearer in the Yew and looked as if it would come closer but in the end it too flew off. Not really what I had wished for but it did serve to spice things up a bit and revive my flagging resolve. And so I sat and waited but still no close Hawfinch presence came to test my camera skills and I was beginning to feel just a little downcast.

Male Hawfinch

It seemed today that the Hawfinches much preferred to feed in the leaf litter on the far side of the Yew rather than come and avail themselves of all the lovely seed I had laid out for them.The person in the other car gave up and drove a short way down the lane to the far end of The Green to try his luck there but I remained where I was. Wracked with uncertainty as to whether he knew of a better place or not, my answer came ten minutes later when he drove back up the lane and headed off. 

The other not inconsiderable inconvenience about Parkend is the amount of disturbance. Not only is The Green by a busy road and opposite a huge timber yard from which issued regular loud bangs which sent every bird flying across to the far side of The Green but there are also dog walkers, trailbikers, joggers, cars, delivery vehicles, sundry walkers and occasional birders who are unaware that it is best to remain in your car. All this has to be contended with.

You either shrug and adopt a zen like state of mind or you give up and huff your way off to somewhere else.I am pleased to say that for whatever reason, be it stubborness or blind optimism, I felt compelled to remain, stay calm and not give in to whatever disturbance came along to frustrate my ambitions. Sooner, probably later, I would get my chance. Wouldn't I?

Although the Hawfinches kept their distance I regularly saw see them flying across The Green  when they fled from whatever had alarmed them, their white wing bars and especially the broad white band at the tip of their tail prominent. They are bigger than the Chaffinches, the other finch here with white wing bars that fled with them, and after a while they are easily distinguishable as they speed across The Green in an undulating flight before swooping up and disappearing into the dark fastnesses of the Yews. Many people are more than satisfied with such a view of a Hawfinch but I definitely wanted more.

Noon arrived and still no Hawfinches had come to feed under the Yew. They were all around but for some reason still shunned the Yew. Lingering thoughts of a pasty and coffee at the nearby Postage Stamp Cafe began to feature more and more. I was weary from my very early start and my determination was fading. I told myself I would give it one more hour then leave, feeling sure the birds would eventually come but who was I kidding, knowing full well that when the hour was up and if no Hawfinches had arrived, I would rationalise and give it yet another hour. 

I looked for a thousandth time at the ground below the Yew. A good number of Chaffinches were  currently feeding on the ground and then it happened. A superb male Hawfinch dropped out of the Yew and down onto one of the logs. At last! Perfect! I raised my camera. Then came crushing disappointment. It hopped down by the far side of the log and where I could not see it. Noooooo! Why? There was nothing that could be done but sit tight and hope it would come out into the open, but now at midday there was all sorts of disturbance around and the bird could flee at any moment Surely fate could not be so cruel? The Hawfinch, of course, was perfectly content where it was as its timid character meant it felt reassured by the concealing log.

Its head began to emerge from behind one end of the log just as a couple with a dog came up the lane. It immediately flew up into the Yew and that was that. Six hours of  waiting and when it all came together an innocent couple had confounded my hopes. 

I was philosophical, reasoning if the Hawfinch had dropped down once then it could do so again. It was after all still in the Yew as far as I knew and its appearance had certainly served to galvanise me and strengthen my resolve.

Fifteen minutes slipped away as I waited, anxious and on edge, and then the birding angels finally smiled on me as the male landed on top of another log and set about the seed I had placed there, posing perfectly in the process.

I suppose one can say it was a triumph of will over adversity and I just enjoyed the all too brief time the Hawfinch was on the log, which was no more than  two or three minutes, and watching as it adopted a pose of intense concentration, dexterously rolling a sunflower seed lengthwise in its mandibles, splitting the husk along its seam with the resultant split pieces sticking to its bill momentarily as it extracted the kernel with its tongue, swallowed it and bent its head to pick up another seed. The act of consuming each seed completed in a matter of seconds.

Of course it could not last before once more it took alarm and fled as a passing motorcycle backfired on the nearby road. Give me strength !

However, as if by some unknown signal, Hawfinches seemed to have suddenly decided that under the Yew was their favourite place after all and a female was next to appear, also favouring the log and a nearby rock to perch on, giving me another opportunity to take yet more frame fillers with my camera

Female Hawfinch

The male descended once more but not onto the log and was obscured to a certain extent in the grass and leaves beyond.Still he was nice to watch for the brief time he was present. I have yet to see a Hawfinch here that remains on the ground for more than a few minutes.There always seems to be something that alarms them, be it real or imagined.

Having finally achieved success it was inevitable that I would want more. Just one more encounter to send me on my way. I gave myself another half an hour but it did not happen and in the end  I conceded that I should be content with what I had got and really it was getting silly now. I was cold, hungry and tired, so I went home. Thawing out my chilled body on the way with the car heater turned to maximum.

Oh! I nearly forgot to explain 7-Eleven. Well, I spent seven hours sat in my car by the Yew and was rewarded with eleven minutes of watching Hawfinches under the Yew.


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