Monday 29 January 2018

Hawfinches in the Forest of Dean 25th January 2018

This is undoubtedly the year of the Hawfinch. A huge influx of these magnificent birds has arrived in Britain and although my home county of Oxfordshire has shared in this bounty I knew of another place, in an adjacent county, Gloucestershire, where I could get much closer to these elusive and self effacing birds than any I had seen in Oxfordshire.

Male and Female Hawfinches 
I had to be there early, before dawn, just in case the spot I had in mind would be taken. I was going to see Hawfinches at Parkend in the Forest of Dean but to do so meant remaining in the car and the parking places at the particular place I had in mind are very limited.

It was dark when I got to Parkend and, as usual my anxious temperament had meant I was at least half an hour earlier than I needed to be. Not surprisingly I had a free choice of the limited parking places on the unsurfaced lane, as not another soul, let alone a birder had yet ventured out.

The Yews surrounding The Green at Parkend were a dark and inscrutable presence as the dawn rose over the hill. I took the opportunity to scatter some black sunflower seeds under the Yews and get everything I would need for the coming vigil ready; camera, binoculars, gloves and hat. With the car window, of necessity being wide open, it would be a cold start to the day.

It was now a question of waiting. I sat back and relaxed, closed my eyes and drifted along with a multitude of thoughts. The first movement under the Yews, barely discernible in the half light, was a tiny Wood Mouse, taking advantage of the sunflower seed which it ate whilst hiding under a log that had been strategically placed,  by an unknown photographer, to entice the Hawfinches into perching on it as they came to feed. I noticed that there were other deliberately placed perches such as a branch and a large rock, doubtless with similar intent. 

The first bird to appear below the Yew nearest to me was a male Blackbird, followed in succession by a Robin and a Dunnock. Hardly exciting. Two Grey Squirrels were next to arrive, making the most of my scattered sunflower seeds. I sighed and watched as they boldly ignored my frantic and silent gestures from within the car, to go away. Two Nuthatches and a Coal Tit flew on endless sorties, back and fore, to secrete individual seeds in the bark of some distant trees as an insurance for future hard times,.

It was eight thirty and morning had properly arrived bringing the welcome promise of sunshine. Chaffinches had by now descended from the Yew, even a male Greenfinch, and were feeding on the seed. From previous experience I knew that when the Chaffinches were happily feeding on the ground, then the ultra cautious Hawfinches would descend to join them. I already knew the Hawfinches were here as I could hear them, through the open car window, making their tzzik contact call in the depths of the Yew that was just a few metres from me, but they had yet to appear.

A few minutes later a familiar thrill coursed through me as a female Hawfinch suddenly dropped down from the Yew to land amongst the Chaffinches and, after a few seconds where she stood tense and alert, commenced feeding on the sunflower seed, manipulating the black casing with much dexterity between her mandibles and extracting the kernel while at the same time eyeing up the next seed to be tackled. Their eye makes them look so intimidating as it glares out, expressionless. Well it does to me! They hop on sturdy, short, bright pink legs and feet that seem too small for the body they support.

Female Hawfinches
Hawfinches can hardly be described as perfectly proportioned, for the overall impression is of an almost top heavy bird due to the huge head and bill. Both are supported by a massive neck which contains muscles that enable the Hawfinch to generate enormous pressures with its bill, up to 48 kilos, which is over a thousand times the finch's weight, to crack such obstinate things as cherry and plum stones. Black sunflower seeds in comparison must be a doddle to them. The general lack of proportion is accentuated by the comparatively small body and short tail but yet the overall impression is still pleasing in some capricious way. This is a bird perfectly adapted to its modus operandi and from that I gain some sort of aesthetic satisfaction.

Head of male Hawfinch
The female turned its back to me as she searched for the sunflower seeds and the huge head and bull neck became even more apparent.

Hawfinches are sociable birds in winter and as the one Hawfinch had already descended, so it emboldened others to join it and soon there were up to ten hopping around, feeding on the seed below the Yew. There was a preponderance of females which always seems to be the case here but for once two males were amongst them. With such a number of birds viewable, no doubt swollen by this autumn and winter's influx from Europe, I was able to note some  subtle plumage differences between individual birds.

One female was particularly richly coloured, its colour tones appearing more saturated than those of the other females present, having a more strongly coloured head and richer chocolate brown mantle but the pale grey panel on her secondaries betrayed her sex. She was also markedly aggressive towards the other females which looked paler in comparison to her richer plumage. 

On a number of occasions she would flatten herself to the ground and strike a threatening horizontal pose with her head and body crouched low to the ground with feathers sleeked, bill partially open and directed towards whatever unfortunate female had strayed too close and was the subject of her displeasure.  The threatened bird always meekly gave way. I assumed the paler females were maybe younger birds possibly hatched last year.

The variation in plumage colour also applied to the two males present with one slightly the paler. The other I had to assume was an older male. It is not until the male is seen at close quarters that the  beauty of its plumage can truly be admired. Its colours seen against the dark background of the mossy log were magnificent, a gorgeous and colourful combination of orange, brown and pinkish buff with a midnight blue iridescence on its curiously frilled inner flight feathers. It was an absolute beauty and because of their comparative scarcity compared to the females here, I made the most of this rare opportunity to watch it at such close proximity. It does not happen that often believe me, this being only the second time I have managed to see a male so close at this location or anywhere else for that matter.

Male Hawfinch - the paler of the two present. The more colourful and
presumably older male is shown in the images below

The male Hawfinch remained feeding on the ground for some time, only a few feet opposite me, crunching the black sunflower seed casings and swallowing the white kernels, staring inscrutably as it consumed the  seeds, its pale eye at the apex of a black band extending from the bill, appearing even more fierce than that of the female, if that were possible.

The Yews and the lane I was parked in are adjacent to a busy road so there were, inevitably, many alarms as far as the birds were concerned. Any loud noise such as a heavy truck passing on the road would send the birds fleeing  up into the Yews and it would often require quite a wait until they descended again. No sooner had they done so, than often and very frustratingly, another perceived disturbance would send them back into the Yew after just a few seconds on the ground. The location of the Yews is unfortunate but there is nothing that can be done about it and I suppose the fact that the Hawfinches presence on the ground is so uncertain and erratic adds to the sense of achievement when I finally get to see them.

It was impossible to assess just how many birds were here but there must have been getting on for thirty. A flock of twenty flew from the Yews and across the village cricket field to the church on the hill beyond and yet there were still at least six or more Hawfinches remaining around the Yews.

Having had the place very much to myself for the first couple of hours, by nine thirty other birders had arrived but they had missed the best as, inevitably the incidences of disturbance increased as the morning progressed. Pedestrians, cyclists, dog walkers, delivery vehicles, all contributed their share of disruption. Sadly, so also did a minority of birders, who seemed unaware that it is essential to remain in their cars, as to get out causes the finches to flee,  but inevitably there are those who just must walk under the Yews. By doing this they will only get fleeting views of the Hawfinches high in the trees, if they are lucky. 

Remain patiently in your car and you will see them on the ground literally feet away.