Saw-finches

Unusual influxes of a particular bird species are known as irruptions, an interesting word that sounds like a cross between an irregular eruption and a disruption of normal experience. They’re certainly a sign that all is not normal, but it’s difficult to say whether that’s always in a negative way. It might be that a bird’s regular food source has failed, driving flocks to seek their fortunes elsewhere. More positively, that food shortage might be the result of a successful breeding season having generated unusually large numbers of hungry overwintering birds

I have a poor track record when it comes to catching up with irruption events. Indeed, I am sure that some are merely cruel conspiracies designed to sink the spirits of unwatchful or merely unlucky birders.  In waxwing winters I spend plenty of time chasing after flocks found by other people but rarely find my ‘own’ birds.  My failures are intercontinental – we happened to be over for Christmas when snowy owls started turning up all over the eastern United States in December 2013. I didn’t see one, of course, despite much craning of necks as our car crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge ,where a lone owl had been seen hanging out on the girders.

This year it is the turn of hawfinches, moving through the British Isles in numbers not seen for many years. Hawfinches are usually elusive, partly because they tend to be quietly unobtrusive as they feed in the treetops but also because they are genuinely scarce. Quite why this should be is not entirely known, but ongoing research by the RSPB science department is helping to unlock their secrets. It seems that as a breeding bird they favour expansive, well-wooded landscapes with a good variety of tree species and therefore a diversity of nut crops. That may explain why two places I’ve seen hawfinches in the breeding season – the only two, I should say – are the New Forest and another large expanse of woodland straddling the Hampshire–Wiltshire border.

In the winter hawfinches tend to be a little easier to find, turning up at a few ‘traditional’ sites each year. Those remain among the best places to see hawfinches during the current invasion, but the closest is at least an hour’s drive away, so I was going to need to get lucky closer to home. Through October and early November it seemed my bad luck was holding. Despite genning up on their flight call and lodging a search image in my mind – a large finch flying over with white wing-bar and noticeably chunky bill – I didn’t chance on any and a first local attempt to twitch them (on a golf course in Newbury) was unsuccessful.

My luck turned when on MSc field trip duty at Basildon Park, a National Trust house and estate near Reading. In the afternoon I managed to squeeze in a hawfinch expedition as a semi-official part of the programme, tearing eight or nine of our MSc students away from more important matters for a spot of twitching. I should have thought of borrowing students before – beginner’s luck always works and several extra pairs of eyes and ears often pay dividends too, provided everybody is sufficiently quiet. We found a small flock, four or five strong, perched in just the part of the park where recent sightings had suggested. A few students managed to fight against the dim November light to capture suitably grainy record shots to prove our success*. At the time we suspected some of the other distant flocks of birds bouncing around were also hawfinches and Basildon Park certainly continues to appeal to them this winter, with possibly around 100 birds now present.

I don’t really advocate twitching as hobby, certainly not the big-listing long-distance version, but I am reminded by events like this year’s hawfinch influx of the delicious power of rare or otherwise unusual birds to draw us outside and help us see with fresh eyes. Ordinary skies and everyday places are once more sites where anything might happen: surely the faith that lies at the heart of birding’s appeal.

IMG_0813 2 (3)

Hawfinch at Basildon Park. Photo by Kojo Acquaah-Harrison.

Here’s a short snippet of video in which I *think* hawfinches are briefly visible and audible. The small park at the end of Mercer Way in Romsey, Hampshire is an improbably good winter birding destination.

Mercer Way from Chris Foster on Vimeo.

*Sharp, full-frame true colour images absolutely do not count as record shots. They’re too good!

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