‘Bleak’ Midwinter?

This year it feels like we’ve galloped towards winter without pausing for breath. Maybe I’ve just been too distracted to pay attention to autumn. It can’t be the weather, though November temperatures in the southeast were only slightly above the long-term average, which probably counts as a cold month by recent standards. December followed with plenty of sharply cold days and a breeze that set my face glowing as I cycled to and from the station in Newbury. On most of those journeys it was also pitch dark, or nearly so. Despite its proximity to the town centre, the canal path past our back garden can be particularly gloomy, especially on moonless but clear nights when light dissipates quickly towards the star-speckled depths of space. A little cloud or mist reflects enough light from nearby streets and houses to find my way home by; otherwise, the best guides are the snowberries that grow profusely either side of our gate and seem to retain light after dusk as though solar charged.


Snowberries by our garden gate

This past weekend we made a surreal escape back to summer. The coast path above Torbay was far from any visions of bleak midwinter, aside from the sun’s failure to rise very far at all. Valerian and hogweed in flower; ornamental palm trees poking above garden walls—a lush green hybrid flora of exotic garden escapes and unseasonal natives to match the contrasting cliffscape of Devon red rocks and brutalist apartment blocks. On this coast winter is more about wind and rain than snow and ice. In recent years the landscape has been lashed by storms repeatedly until the less-sheltered parts give way and pitch objects as significant as major railway lines unceremoniously into the sea.


Torbay, green all year round. 

Back in Newbury on Monday, the paths were once again treacherous with ice. Something about this time of year holds a similar threat of danger. Late December promises the return of light, whatever one’s religious or spiritual tradition; indeed, even the most secular folk cannot deny the slow increase in daylight hours post-solstice. Yet the failure to feel hopeful amid an atmosphere of mandatory good cheer can surely exacerbate depression. It’s tempting to succumb, cry humbug to the season, and skip straight to January blues. But I know that would make a poor start to a year in which there’s much I, well, hope to achieve. Instead I’ll be taking the usual refuge in food, drink and laughter with friends, perhaps some walks with no greater agenda than to be outside and breathe the air. Simple things, but uncomplicated pleasures in good human company remain the greatest source of hope for me. As a naturalist I might be expected to look for hope in the wild world instead, but the self-renewal of nature is surely a given without the interference of its most destructive species. If there’s no hope left in Homo sapiens there’s precious little left at all.


Peaceful scene on the Kennet & Avon canal


Newbury has its own pockets of permanent summer, like this sheltered south-facing wall in the town centre.



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!


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.


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.


The Leith Hill views, unfogged