The bird that can generate 50kg of power
PUBLISHED: 12:50 20 February 2018
Nature: Now is a good time to spot wintering flocks of hawfinch, says Mike Toms.
The churchyard is a place of stillness. Sheltered from the wind by the line of yews along its northern boundary, and with the late winter sunshine warming us, it is a pleasant place to spend some time. We have been drawn here by the presence of a wintering flock of hawfinches, which have been feeding in and around the churchyard yews. This handsome bird, with its warm plumage tones, has a large and very powerful bill. The large-headed, bull-necked appearance hides musculature that is used to generate the 50 kg of force needed to crack open the kernels of cherries and other fruits. Such fruits and seeds form an important part of the autumn and winter diet.
Hawfinch is a scarce breeding bird in East Anglia and is most often encountered when individuals gather at traditional wintering sites – Lynford Arboretum being one of the most well-known of these. This year, however, a large influx of continental birds has seen small groups of hawfinches reported from many other sites, including from here at the churchyard in Great Massingham. Hawfinches are quiet and rather secretive birds and are easily overlooked. Breeding pairs are present within the Brecks but most go unreported. Even in winter they can be hard to see; today the birds at Great Massingham are no exception.
While we are warm and sheltered from the wind, there is still enough of a breeze to push the yews around and this seems to have made the finches more reluctant to spend time in the outer branches. We see a couple of birds well but are otherwise restricted to brief glimpses as they drop down to feed before retreating back into the middle of the trees.
While the hawfinches are the focus of our visit, the stillness of the churchyard provides a welcome sense of calm. The soft calls of goldcrest and long-tailed tit can be heard from some of the yews closer to the church, while a lone thrush repeats its notes from a nearby garden. The warmth of the sun has stirred a peacock butterfly from its winter slumber, my first of the year, and the whole scene hints at the approach of spring in a way that lifts our spirits.
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