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Why now is a great time to observe the little-seen hawfinch

PUBLISHED: 10:18 02 December 2017

Hawfinch: this striking finch is in Norfolk in big numbers at the moment.

Hawfinch: this striking finch is in Norfolk in big numbers at the moment.

© 2015 Steve Plume, all rights reserved

In the countryside: Mike Toms profiles the hawfinch, and wonders why there has been a mass influx of them this autumn.

There are few finches as impressive as a hawfinch. With its stout, almost cone-shaped bill, its thick neck, large head and disproportionately short tail, this robust bird is a scarce but distinctive component of our breeding bird community. During the summer months it is easily overlooked, its secretive habits and soft call providing little indication of its presence in favoured areas of mature, broad-leaved woodland.

It is only during the winter months, when small numbers of hawfinches appear at traditional sites, that birdwatchers tend to spot them.

This year, however, we have had an extremely unusual mass autumn arrival. Records of individual hawfinches have come from across much of England, though with a strong suggestion that greater numbers are being seen in East Anglia, including Norfolk. The scale of the influx can be seen on the BirdTrack website (www.birdtrack.net) - type in ‘Hawfinch’ to the graph on the front page and you’ll see that the species has been reported from just under 4% of the birdwatching lists submitted by birdwatchers over the last few weeks. Many of these records have been of individual birds, with their characteristic flight call and distinctive silhouette.

Some of the best-known traditional sites for the species within Norfolk are within the Brecks, with Lynford Arboretum the most reliable. Currently there are half a dozen or more hawfinches visiting the site, favouring the hornbeams that grow around the ‘paddocks.’ I wonder if any nearby householders receive them as visitors to their garden feeding stations.

I’ve yet to see a hawfinch on mine but they must make an impressive sight, with close-quarters views likely to reveal the rich chestnut plumage, the white tail tip and the striking blue inner wing feathers reminiscent of the pots of Quink ink that was used to fill my fountain pen and stain my fingers. I know of bird ringers who have been fortunate enough to have handled hawfinches, and I suspect that there will be a few more of these over the coming weeks. Their efforts might even reveal the origins of this winter’s influx.

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