Mark (P) called me last night asking if I was up for a trip to the Forest of Dean as he was keen to see some Hawfinches and Crossbills to add to his year list.
Hawfinches in the Forest of Dean are one of my favourite winter outings so there was little hesitation in accepting his kind offer. Mark duly collected me from my home at 7am and in the still dark morning we set off for the forest. Negotiating the heavy rush hour traffic reminded me how graieful I am no longer have to drive to work every day like the unfortunate souls rushing past us at high speed.It is only when you stop doing this that you realise what madness it is.
Our first stop was at the traditional site in the forest to see Hawfinches, namely the Green at Parkend with its perimeter guarded by ancient yews in which the Hawfinches love to secrete themselves before descending into the leaf litter below to feed on the seed scattered by birders and photographers to lure them close, The secret to see them is never under any circumstances leave your car. Do so and you will not see a Hawfinch or if you do it will be at the top of the tallest tree possible. Remain in your car and you have every chance of viewing Hawfinches only metres from your car, feeding below the Yew that you can park your car opposite.
We were relatively late in arriving and pulled in behind two birder's cars already stationed by the Yew. Mark opened the car windows and the soporific warmth of the car was banished by freezing air rushing in and although the sun was shining it brought not the slightest benefit to our chilled bodies and frozen fingers.
For quite some time we sat, waited and scanned the ground below the adjacent Yew. Any number of Chaffinches were feeding below the ancient tree joined by busy Nuthatches and the occasional Great and Blue Tit. No sign of a Hawfinch though. This is how it always is, as the Hawfinches wait until they see other birds feeding on the ground, which gives them the confidence to descend and join the other feeding birds.
I looked into the dark green depths of the Yew, my eye having being caught by a movement of a bird that looked plumper and heavier than the customary Chaffinch.
Hawfinch! I whispered to Mark.
A male! In the Yew!
Mark could not see it and in a second it had disappeared but this set the juices flowing and we waited expectantly, but it was quite some time before a Hawfinch dropped to the ground and was not the expected male in his rich pastel colours but a duller female. But no matter, this was a Hawfinch, always a thrilling encounter whatever the circumstances, so there were no complaints from us but we did think it would be special to see the male again.
Having made numerous visits to see the Hawfinches at Parkend I have come to expect that females are the more likely to be seen. They are less secretive and bolder for some reason than the shy males.
The female Hawfinch fed greedily on the sunflower seed that had been placed atop a branch deliberately laid on the ground. Perfection for a photographic pose! As before I admired this bulky formidable top heavy looking finch with its baselisk eye, huge bulbous head and bill, seeming almost out of proportion to its body which in turn looked too big for the delicate pink legs and feet that supported it. Their head and bill is so big to enable it to exert a huge pressure on things such as cherry stones, their cheeks bulging with muscle to close the massive vice like mandibles and crack whatever nut they are tackling. They can exert a pressure equivalent to 150 pounds per square inch and one thousand times their own weight. Dealing with the sunflower seed scattered around must be a doddle in comparison.I watched as she manipulated the seed in her bill, splitting the outer casing to get at the kernel and even as she was doing this cocking her head to select the next seed to take her fancy.
The contradiction in their fierce appearance, due to the lack of forehead and a flat crown below which stare eyes that suggest no compromise with the reality that they are quite meek birds with a shy demeanour is always something that strikes me, each time I see them.
For a few minutes, maybe two, maybe three, she remained on the branch feeding but as always happens in this very public spot she was disturbed. Usually it is a passing car, trailbiker, dog walker or even a loud noise that can spook them and the other birds. Just about anything can cause these ultra shy, wary finches to flee. It is something you have to accept as it will never change. Occasionally you are lucky and when the Hawfinches are on the ground feeding, there can be an extended period of viewing due to no disturbance but even then it is only minutes before they find cause to fly up into the Yew or away across The Green to the trees on the other side.
The female we were watching was eventually disturbed, this time by a car passing down the narrow track between us and the Yew. She was gone. Never to return although we were not to know that at the time.
Let's hang on Mark. Hopefully she or the male might return.
Half an hour later and a male Hawfinch dropped out of the Yew, sadly not onto the branch but onto the ground behind it. What a beautiful amalgam of rich colours, comprising a head of rust orange with a boa of dove grey around his neck, a broad slash of white wing bar and rich chocolate brown mantle. His underparts a delicate woodpigeon pink and the curious ruffled feathers towards the wing tips, iridescent blue in the sunlight. A veritable stunner and his finery positively shone in the sun as he glared impassively. Unfortunately he never came as close as the female and remained at a distance that caused my camera to struggle but I managed a few passable images.What one apologetically calls 'record shots' but they still bring a thrill each time I look at them. Hawfinches can do this to you
Two or three minutes, no more, was granted us before he too was disturbed by a passing trailbiker and departed, flashing white on wing bars and the tip of his tail as he flew fast, in swooping flight, across The Green.
We hung on for another forty five minutes but the disturbance had increased and it was obvious there was unlikely to be any repeat visits from the Hawfinches.
We gave in to a combination of hunger and cold, retreating to Parkend Village and a cafe which had a large log burning stove dispensing a radiating heat which did a fine job of thawing us out after our prolonged and very chilling vigil in Mark's Landrover.
Mark was keen to go to nearby Cannop Ponds but I suggested we first visited Parkend Church as here was a chance of crossbills coming down to drink in the puddles by the church. This is a well known spot to wait for them. The morning, although bitterly cold was a wonderful combination of still air and bright sunshine, the blue sky appearing like a shattered jagged blue plate through the boughs and twigs of the venerable and mighty oaks that towered above us.
There was to be no luck with the crossbills, not even the hint of a call from above as they passed over but a huge female Goshawk flew low across the sky above the gravestones to disappear behind a wooded ridge.
We drove to Cannop Pond with one bird in particular on our minds. Mandarin Ducks, which are almost a guaranteed presence there. At first the pond which is more akin to a small lake, looked to be devoid of them, which can happen. The lake was populated by Mallards,Tufted Ducks,some Wigeon and half a dozen Little Grebes.
Eventually Mark thought he could see a Mandarin drake, secreted as they often are, deep amongst the branches that hang down from the banks to touch the water. Some walkers disturbed them and not one but a pair of Mandarins flew out from their hiding place.
On the other side of the lake we found more Mandarins, secreted this time at the edge of a stand of dead reed stems.We walked around the lake to get closer and they slowly swam out from the reeds to linger just offshore.
Some birders are dismissive of Mandarin Ducks, arguing they are not native at all but they are accepted as such by most and whatever the rights or wrongs, let's forget the arguments and celebrate that the drakes are unbelieveably colourful and beautiful. It is as if an artist has taken a pallet of as many colours as possible and daubed them haphazardly over the drake's head and body to create a vision of loveliness. The female cannot compete with her mate's impossibly complex colouring and form, being soft grey and dull brown overall, densely mottled on her breast and flanks with bold white spots and 'spectacles' of white around her eyes.
There were nine Mandarins in all, five drakes and four females and they swam around the periphery of the lake resting in and amongst the branches that hung down into the water, which seems to be their preferred habitat.
We did try looking for crossbills but a long and latterly muddy walk around Woorgreens failed in this final mission, just a pair of stonechats and a female Siskin was all we could find but it had been a rewarding and immensely enjoyable day with two colourful and in their own way spectacular species of bird seen. We could hardly complain.