Sunday 21 January 2018

The Hawfinches of Northmoor 18th January 2018

This autumn and winter has seen an unprecedented invasion of Hawfinches, principally into England. These birds are assumed to have come from northern Europe where their normal winter food crop has failed. Oxfordshire has had its fair share of these visitors, the majority in places they have not been seen before or if they have, only irregularly, and now in mid winter, the birds seem to be settling down in particular areas where they have found a regular food supply.

Many have found churchyard Yews (a form of conifer) to be ideal and the 13th century Church of St Denys at Northmoor, in my home county of Oxfordshire, has been hosting in excess of twenty Hawfinches which are finding the Yews in the churchyard and nearby very much to their liking. Some excellent photos of these Hawfinches on the Oxon Birding web site  persuaded me that it would definitely be worth a look.

The Church of St Denys Northmoor Oxfordshire
Today I had a morning meeting in Oxford but was free by noon. It was but a short car journey to Northmoor where I intended to see if I  too could could see the Hawfinches in the churchyard Yews and maybe get a photo or two.

Northmoor is the quintessential, small, picture postcard rural village located down a winding narrow country lane near the River Thames, with the focal point being the ancient church and suitably venerable houses around about it. I parked my car carefully so as not to upset any of the residents and made my way into the churchyard. It was a cold and somewhat windy day but the sun mostly shone as I wandered around the small churchyard carefully avoiding the ancient gravestones and checking the Yew trees. I was not alone as four or five other birders were also looking but there was little sign of  any Hawfinches, in fact there were none and eventually I graduated towards one side of the churchyard where there was a boundary hedge and joined another birder standing there looking at a tall Yew, the tallest in the churchyard and growing next to an even taller bare branched tree. He told me that he had seen  some Hawfinches in the Yew about thirty minutes ago but he was unsure if any were there at the moment.

Views of The Churchyard
Hawfinches are Britain's largest native finch. A substantial, almost hulking brute of a finch, this impression imparted by their huge head and bill, short tail and legs which gives them a compact, stout bodied, almost top heavy appearance. Naturally you would assume such a robust looking bird to be bold and assertive but quite the opposite is the reality. They are shy and retiring, secreting themselves, in this case, out of sight in the evergreen foliage where they silently feed on the Yew berries and seeds. The dark, evergreen density of a Yew tree's branches are heaven sent to a Hawfinch as they can disappear into the security of the dark depths and invariably they remain totally silent whilst they feed. If you did not know they were around you would never know by just casually looking at the Yew.

But stand for a while, often quite a while, and eventually they give themselves away as they pop up every so often to check on their surroundings and that all is secure, and then their head and part of their body will become briefly visible before, re-assured, they retreat back into cover and invisibility. Alternatively you can wait, again often for some time, for them to fly in from wherever they have been feeding elsewhere, when they will usually land at the highest point available, in the tallest tree, and sit for some time checking that all is safe before descending to their favourite Yew to feed.

I stood with  the other birder for some time and finally we got lucky and three Hawfinches briefly showed themselves at the top of the Yew but always partially concealed in the cover of the branches. Then, as if by magic, they just melted into invisibility although we did not see them fly off. I walked to the other side of the tree and across the narrow lane to check that side of the tree. Some movements in the top of the tree got my pulse racing but they were not Hawfinches but four or five Greenfinches which themselves are now rapidly becoming scarce, so decimated has their population become by the awful parasitic disease Trichomonosis  that they are so susceptible to. They used to be a common and very welcome visitor to my bird feeders but now I never see them.

As I carried on looking into the deepest and the densest foliage a beautiful, pale orange brown head  and huge bill bordered by a dove grey neck, materialised above the green foliage. It was a male Hawfinch. The gusting wind was moving the branches so much that he regularly appeared and disappeared as the branch he was feeding on swayed up and down and was concealed by the movements of other branches in front of it. One glorious, brief, seconds only view revealed his whole head and upper body and then he was gone and I saw him no more.

I walked back into the churchyard and found I was now alone. I commenced a vigil by the bordering hedgerow as a succession of little old ladies, each being towed along  by a small  dog passed by me on the narrow path. One stopped to chat to me asking 'Are they still here?' I answered in  the affirmative and she went on to tell me that she had seen one in her garden the other day. 'It looked like a giant budgie' she told me.
Great Tits, Blue Tits, Long tailed Tits came  and went along the hedge as did another party of four Greenfinches in the tall, bare branched tree but of Hawfinches there was not a sign. I stood now in the lee of the ancient church's wall to get out of the cold wind and surveyed the bare tree next to the Yew. Nothing. Fifteen minutes later and about to leave I saw three birds fly in and land at the very top of the tree. Bulky and pale, their profile was utterly distinctive. Hawfinches! They flew down to the adjacent Yew, flashing white wing bars and a broad white band at the tip of their tail and clung briefly on the very tips of the Yew's branches. This was my moment and I managed a few shots of a male before he hid inside the Yew's encompassing thick foliage. More Hawfinches flew in, another five, and I moved back to my original position by the hedge in anticipation of seeing them in the Yew.

Five minutes passed but all I saw were brief silhouetted movements inside the top of the Yew and then a sudden loud noise caused the Hawfinches to explode from the tree and at least twenty flew out, flashing pale undersides and wing bars in the sunlight,  hurtling in a loose flock out and away over the surrounding fields. At a maximum I had seen eight, maybe nine Hawfinches arrive but here were many more. Enigmatic is the only word to describe this finch. How did the others get there? Were they already in the tree and had I missed them despite looking intently countless times? I will never know but it certainly was a thrill to see so many of this elusive finch, even if so briefly

I waited another forty minutes but they never returned and at four o clock I left the quiet churchyard to head for home.

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