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!

Simply Birding

It’s one of those birding weeks when anything and everything can happen. The supposedly boring land-locked county of Berkshire has played host to a flurry of superb migrant birds. The first ring ouzel on (what should be*) my local patch at Lavell’s Lake in 25 years as well as a wonderfully elegant little gull; a Slavonian grebe coming into breeding plumage;  wheatears, redstarts and yellow wagtails passing through; the first nightingales, cuckoos and house martins of the year. Two pairs of garganey continue to pop up from time to time in and around the Kennet valley. Yesterday a hoopoe was seen in a suburban garden to the northeast of Reading, though it went cunningly undetected by the local birding community.

Most of this is happening to other people, for I have remained mysteriously unwilling to haul myself any further than the immediate vicinity of my home and workplace. Fortunately, they offer splendours of their own – following on from last week’s minor fall of willow warblers (i.e., one), lunchtime on Tuesday saw a relative deluge descend on campus. At least three sang from low trees near the weather station, mixed in with many chiffchaffs.

We were passing through them on our way to see redstarts, another passage-only species on campus and an even scarcer one than willow warbler. There are surely few finer-looking birds in Britain than a male redstart. The one we saw flitting from low perch to ground and back again was in immaculate breeding plumage, the pale silver on his forehead glinting in the sun like a sliver of diamond. To see one in a place that means as much to me as Whiteknights Park is almost indescribably special: that’s the magic of patch birding.

‘Hardcore’ birders will notice that nothing I’ve mentioned is stonkingly rare, but these birds are all the better for it. Mildly unexpected or even somewhat-expected-but-hard-to-connect-with birds are the best birds. A fleeting encounter with a beautiful species in the company of friends always beats joining the twitching paparazzi for some half-dead mega-vagrant.

It’s times like this I wonder why I don’t spend more time simply birding. There are many other distractions and pleasures in the natural world, for sure. I am proud and mildly amused to frequently find myself labelled an entomologist these days. The more my taste is for small-scale, local discoveries, the more entomology has an edge over ornithology in my affections. But still, there’s nothing quite like plain old birding. To go out with few expectations or cares simply to look at birds, knowing that anything and everything can, and sometimes does, happen.

Redstart song is a lovely, lazy summer afternoon sound. Alas that they’re uncommon as a breeding species hereabouts!

*I’m just too lazy – whyever I don’t visit what is a fantastic inland birding site more often I don’t know. Though of course I do have the many pleasures of Whiteknights Park on my doorstep every day.

Peak Bird

This is it. Over the next twelve months there will never be more free-roaming, independent birds at large in the northern hemisphere. Final, last-minute broods are fledged, post-breeding or post-juvenile moults are just about finishing, and the thoughts of a billion bird brains are turning toward winter. Blue and great tits are forming great mixed-species feeding flocks, joined by other tits, finches, robins, goldcrests, warblers – anything that ekes out some benefit from joining the in-crowd. After the relative lull of late summer, it is exhilarating to be out and surrounded by the life, sound and movement of so many birds.

At a small feeding station this past weekend we caught and ringed almost 100 birds, half of them blue tits, all hurrying into good condition by feasting on peanuts before the weather really closes in. It’s amazing how many hours can go by whilst yet more new arrivals come in. The turnaround at the average bird feeder is astonishing. It’s only through tagging individual birds in this way that you begin to realise just how many there are. That’s not to say that all is well in bird world. We may have reached peak bird for the year, but the peak bird point of history is long since past.

Times are hard for birds right across the world, particularly migratory species, depending as they do on conditions in both summer and winter grounds and all stop-offs in between. As I write they’re still pouring out of these temperate zones by the million, some carefully logged by birders but the bulk of them – despite the jokes about the position of every bird in Britain being constantly logged – simply melt away unseen, the majority never to return. It’s particularly poignant to hold a chiffchaff at this time of year. An eight-gram scrap of feather and bone made of insects and rainwater, quite possibly about to head off for North Africa. Now they’re in peak condition, but will they ever get back into the shape they need to return in spring?