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.

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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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Mist

In retrospect, the sunlit photographs I posted of a previous visit to Leith Hill were cruelly misleading. This week we found the hilltop shrouded in cloud, though as consolation the small refreshment hatch in the tower was open for business (I reckon they should rename it ‘The Cakehole’). Nothing could be seen of the usually far-reaching views north to London and south over the Weald and Downs towards the distant English Channel. If any stray birds from a recent influx of hawfinches were crossing overhead we wouldn’t have seen them, but their call would have penetrated the murk, as did the sharp tseeps of a flock of dimly visible redwings moving through trees on either side of the summit.

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Our happy field trip group in 2015, see tweet below for 2017 comparison.

Clouds or fog change the property of sound. Distances are harder to judge, the crack of a stick or call of a bird sounds closer. The world is limited, enclosed in a way that is at once disorienting and intimate. Robbed of the ability to see very far, you pay more attention to the things close at hand, observing each moss-covered stone or mushroom carefully, much as a fine coating of water droplets covers everything. I wonder how wildlife is affected; I can’t honestly say I know for sure. I can imagine ground-based predators with a keen sense of smell and excellent hearing—like foxes—using fog for cover, whilst a falcon, relying on vision, may struggle. Insects will be grounded by the dense, damp air.

While I enjoy the otherworldly effects, too many foggy days can be wearisome. We noticed many last winter, our first in the Kennet valley just west of Newbury. Perhaps it was a particularly misty season, though the relatively low-lying river valley will also be more prone to fog formation than other places we’ve lived.  Other local fog hotspots include the gravel pits at Theale. When cool air blows across the artificial lakes dense fog patches can form and drift across the nearby M4, an ironic source of danger considering that some of the pits probably contributed material to the motorway’s construction.

What’s the difference between mist and fog? Or fog and a cloud at ground level? Lots of fascinating fog facts and other weather lore on the Met Office website.

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The Leith Hill views, unfogged

Harvest

Come, ye thankful people, come, 
raise the song of harvest home; 

Churches and schools may be the last bastions of the harvest festival, lingering elsewhere as a kind of contemporary folk memory or an image to sell products in supermarkets*. But I think there is still a general understanding that it is farming that feeds us, whether it is done at home in the British countryside or elsewhere in the world, that farmers harvest crops and that the success of that harvest is variable. So despite our general detachment from the food chain, we are perhaps still residually grateful for another year’s bounty of wheat, corn or perhaps even rapeseed**.

All is safely gathered in,

Ere the winter storms begin.

So we sang as the good folk of South Newbury and Wash Common processed up the aisle with their harvest offerings. Among them were six cartons of pineapple juice, a box of after dinner mints and a first aid kit, all shrink-wrapped for protection from the travails of supermarket logistics. But then it has been the case for years – at least since my childhood in the 1980s and 90s – that most of what is ‘safely gathered’ at a harvest festival is tins and other similarly less-perishable foodstuffs. All the more practical for distribution by foodbanks and other agents of local charity, if lacking the symbolism and romance of the season. The work of human hands, but less obviously the fruit of the earth.

First the blade and then the ear,

Then the full corn shall appear

The production of an After Eight in its paper sleeve must be a long way removed from this simple image of the earth giving up her bounty, but then so is the more contemporary version of progression from seed to ‘full corn’. Farming seems to me a bewilderingly complex business, whether considered scientifically, economically, culturally or politically. Over the millennia agriculture has produced the patchwork British countryside that is apparently well used for recreation by a wide cross section of society, but has also periodically robbed it of wildlife, especially in the latter part of the 20th century. Today we know how to produce twin harvests of food and wildlife from the same land, but these techniques must compete amid a frenzy of studies and debates, Brexit and buzzwords, tradeoffs and ‘consumer choices’, while there is some dispute about whether the word ‘wild’ can be applied to farmed land at all.

Giving angels charge at last

In the fire the tares to cast;

But the fruitful ears to store

In the garner evermore.

So what, if any, are the tares in today’s farmed landscape that should be cast into the fire? What fruitful ears do we wish to preserve for the future? What sort of harvest do we ask of the land?

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The Harvest by Vincent van Gogh (Arles, June 1888). Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

*See the current Harvest campaign by Waitrose, for example.

**Better intensively home-grown rapeseed oil than rainforest-felling imported palm oil in your processed foods? Just one of many choices facing the eco-conscious shopper.