Maybe it’s because I’m a native of an island nation, or because the blood of boat-building ancestors flows through my veins, but I get a little morose if I go too long without seeing the sea. I’m no waterman, you understand; I’m useless at dealing with sea-sickness and nearly as bad at handling a boat. But I do like to look at the sea, and most of all to hear the breakers hitting the shore whilst I rummage through a strandline and dodge the incoming surf. The overwhelmingly vast power of the distant moon’s gravity made audible and tangible. There also happen to be a lot of good birds which are fond of the sea, fond enough that seeing many of them in land-locked Berkshire is quite a feat, one requiring many a visit to the expansive, fly-ridden reservoirs in the east of the county. They’re about the closest thing we have to a surrogate sea here in the Royal County.
So usually I’d have made a bee-line* for the coast on such a day, maximising our time and the chance of a bumper crop of waders and waterfowl without dilly-dallying on the way. But on this particular morning I couldn’t resist the temptations of a small park in Romsey, Hampshire (a town close to my heart for many reasons), where for reasons know only to them (though they certainly seemed to be enjoying the shelter of the park’s dense blackthorn thickets, now in full bloom) a flock of 20-30 hawfinches has been spending the winter.
The park was incredible. In some ways just your average small, grassy, tree-ringed suburban park; but on Saturday incredible, for it was absolutely jumping with birds, most of which did indeed seem to be hawfinches. One of the most enigmatic birds in the country could be heard calling from every direction, popping up at the top of every tree, flying back and forth overhead all the time and even feeding openly on the ground. The most numerous bird in the park. And that wasn’t all.
Whilst tracking my scope from hawfinch to hawfinch, I noticed something smaller at the top of a tree. To my delight it turned out to be a female brambling, one of our most smartly dressed winter visitors and not always easy to catch up with. She was joined later by an even smarter male brambling; singles of redwing and siskin added to the fun, whilst plentiful robins and blackbirds sang and squabbled all around. Best of all, a party of about 20 waxwings appeared as if from nowhere about halfway through our stay, approaching from the west and then moving rapidly from tree to tree throughout the park. They appeared to be feeding on the same buds which were the focus of the hawfinches’ attention, with none of their usual berries in sight.
I should mention at this stage that the day constituted the first ‘official Chris’ Tours’ outing for my new car, Hatmobile III, and the first time in some months that I had taken a full vehicle’s worth of people birding. As we left the park, still un-rained on, a lifer secured for three-fifths of our party and a splendid hour’s birding enjoyed by all, I reflected that things were turning out nicely so far. There was even the bonus of a bit of violet sniffing on the way out (yum!), and of course communal delving into a giant tin of Poisson distribution flapjacks. I would almost have been content if we’d just called it a day upon leaving Romsey: but the salt spray of the sea still called.
Below: 15 seconds of footage shot before my camera tragically ran out of battery, all too early in the day. But it gives you a taste of how much bird activity was going on in the park, with brief glimpses of hawfinch right at the start and their ticking calls – ‘tuc’ to my ears – heard throughout as a backdrop to our gentle day-listing conversation and shots of the back of John’s head!
*I’ve been watching a few bees in the last week, recently awakened from their winter slumbers. Fair enough: one or two buzzed rapidly past in a fairly non-wandering fashion that you might call a ‘bee-line’. But most seemed to be going round in circles, or back and forth, back and forth as if tied to a plant by a piece of elastic. I’m beginning to wonder if the bee’s reputation for purposeful, direct lines of travel is unearned.