Look out for this fantastic finch in a tree near you...
PUBLISHED: 12:50 20 November 2017
You’d normally be very lucky to see a hawfinch. But this winter something rather special is happening, as Emily Kench of the RSPB reports.
Nutcrackers really are coming to life this winter, and in their masses. An ‘irruption’ of avian nutcrackers if you like. Huge finches, with massive parrot-like bills, cracking even the hardest nuts. Taking over.
Taking over might be a bit of an exaggeration, but this influx is a real treat; seeing hawfinches is special, a rare opportunity. Despite being the UK’s largest finch, at 18cm from beak to tail, hawfinches are shy and secretive; they’re not showy like our chaffinches or goldfinches. If trying to find a bird with stage fright wasn’t challenging enough; numbers won’t help, with less than 1,000 pairs left in the UK.
But this winter, numbers seen have been much higher than normal, with hundreds of sightings recorded. Irruptions (the word for unusually high numbers in birding terms) are typically associated with failing food supplies: too many birds, or not enough food for them to survive the winter. The weather also plays a part. Traditionally, hawfinches migrate south from their breeding grounds in central Europe towards the Mediterranean. This year their migration coincided with the arrival of Storm Ophelia which headed eastwards from the Atlantic swirling anti-clockwise, with the strong winds pushing many of the migrating hawfinches into the UK.
An off-course hawfinch is easy to identify. On the ground, they are unmistakable. A disproportionately little body supports a large head and chunky bill giving the hawfinch a top-heavy figure. The power of the bill enables the hawfinch to chomp through almost any nut, from hornbeam seeds, beech seeds, to cherry stones – a skill reflected in its Latin name which translates to ‘I break in pieces’. It makes the skull of the hawfinch four times heavier than the more familiar chaffinch.
The bill isn’t simply a tool, it’s also beautiful. Natural slate in colour, with an eggshell sheen, complementing the autumnal shades of plumage. Sharp splashes of black, deep chestnut coverage, and soft pink and grey finishes. Males and females are similar but colours of females are painted in pastel.
Winter is one of the best times to spot these colours through bare trees, particularly in ancient deciduous woodland. Birds gather together during the day to look for food, and at night they huddle together at dusk to roost in trees. As they bound between trees with heavy flight, white flashes of wing patches, appear transparent from below.
Whilst this winter is proving fantastic for finch fanatics, the number of hawfinches that nest here has declined in recent years. It is thought that this loss is partly down to declining broadleaved woodland cover and modern woodland management practices. RSPB scientists, in collaboration with Cardiff University are investigating the reasons why hawfinches don’t nest in the UK as widely as they used to.
In the meantime, we suggest getting outside and going in search of the hawfinches, whether you’re in a town or a village you’ve got a good chance of spotting them.
For more information visit rspb.org.uk
Event Listing: Beaks and bills at RSPB Titchwell Marsh
Saturday December 2, 1pm
Price: £7 per adult (£6 RSPB members), £5 per child (£4 RSPB members)
Booking essential, call 01485 210779
Take a stroll through Titchwell Marsh reserve in the company of our expert guide to find and identify up to 50 or more species of birds. This two- to three-hour walk will cover around two kilometres of varied habitat and is an ideal weekend activity for any keen birder. Bring your binoculars and your ‘year list’ or use ours and at the end of the walk you will have the chance to recap your sightings with our guide in the relaxed atmosphere of the Feeding Station.