To Spy a Hawfinch

After our great grey shrike stood us up last week, I was determined to tick a bird off my wishlist. I did some digging and found there were a few good spots for hawfinches down in Kendal. Zahrah and I picked the best day of the week and headed down, this time with Kacper. As usual, when the alarm sounded I was struck by an overwhelming urge to leave the hawfinches to their business and dive back under the covers, but when I snuck a glimpse out the window and saw the bright promise of a beautiful day, I knew we had to go for it.

Despite the rather vibrant sun, a sharp chill met us as we left the warmth of the car, reminding us it was still February. Clutching my fists together in my Sealskinz gloves, we made our way up the track, away from people and towards wilderness. The path wound through a small wood, dappled by sunlight filtering through overhead. What had been squelchy mud was now frozen hard as concrete, and crunched under our footsteps. We were initially prevented from entering the open field due to a very restrictive swing gate. My bulging rucksack got wedged and I had to hold my tripod flush to my chest and reverse through – far from a sophisticated entrance.

The frozen ground stretched further, blades of grass as solid as real blades, and it was strange not to feel the gentle give of soft earth. The sun was trying to warm the landscape, taking every opportunity the clouds allowed it to reach us. Once back in the woods, it was shadier. Muffled conversations sounded in every direction; the proud song of a robin and the chatterings of crows all mingling together. We tried to ignore all of these and listen solely for a piercing whistle. This was the call of our target: the hawfinch.

Hawfinches are beautiful and unmistakable birds with striking colouring and formidable conical bills. Usually secretive and shy, they spend most of their time in the topmost branches, making the UK’s largest finch difficult to spot. Typically found in mature deciduous and mixed woodland, hawfinches regularly frequent hornbeam trees. The bill of a hawfinch is highly specialised to cope with the hard seeds and cherry stones that form much of its diet. Once a bird reaches maturity, its skull ossifies and two hard knobs form within each mandible, which are essential for holding a seed still while it is cracked. Findings from an experiment showed that hawfinches can exert a pressure of 60-90 pounds of force, which isn’t bad for a bird smaller than a blackbird.

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Hawfinch (RSPB)

As hawfinches frequent the tops of trees, spotting them can be a challenge, not to mention their timid calls are often lost among those of the more plucky birds. Although I never want to criticise the sun, it was shining at a rather inconvenient angle, so gazing up meant we could barely see the treetops, let alone brown birds. So, we tried to climb as high as possible to get a better vantage point. Soon we found a large clearing that gave us a 360° perspective of the forest. Seeming like a good place to set up shop for a while, we perched on a fallen tree and scanned with our binoculars.

There’s nothing quite like sitting in silence, listening to wildlife. Upon arrival you think the forest is a quiet and secluded place, and it would be to a person used to the thrum of cities and traffic. But to sit still and listen in a wild place is to hear a whole new language. I don’t understand it yet – something I’m hoping to soon rectify – but I could listen to its lyrical beats and rhythms all day. Understanding birdsong brings a whole new dimension to bird watching. Cain Scrimgeour, someone I consider a bird connoisseur, can hear the slightest chirrup up in the trees and tell you who made the sound. Sure enough, moments later that bird emerges. To me it’s magic. I consider my knowledge of British birds to be competent, but to know their sounds as well as their appearances is a truly incredible skill.

I heard a soft crunching of leaves as Kacper made his way towards me.

“What’s this?” He whispered, holding his camera up for me to look at the image on the screen.

My eyes popped and I bit back a loud gasp, “That’s a hawfinch! Where is it?”

He led me back to where he’d been standing and pointed up. Now began the near-impossible task of explaining to a person which tree in a hundred trees you are looking at. After a painfully long-winded ordeal I found where he was pointing, and with binoculars trained I saw my first hawfinch. Females are only slightly less brightly coloured than males, so to my eye I couldn’t tell which this one was. The bird was perched looking straight towards us, feathers hunched up. It was foraging, and I saw it pick a seed from its branch and arrange it in its bill to crunch down with that extraordinary force. The bill almost seemed too big for the bird’s body. It was like a person with a party hat positioned over their nose and mouth, almost comical.

Zahrah was a way off, so I was incredibly patronising (though I believed it was necessary in this occasion) and made several hasty finger clicks to get her attention. Once she’d arrived Kacper explained the bird’s location again and we all watched. I made the mistake of retrieving my camera from its resting place by the log, and when I returned the bird had retreated to a tree further off. It was joined by three more, and although I tried they were too far off to photograph. This, to my shame, was the result.

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Not exactly Bird Photographer of the Year

There was another rustling of leaves and we turned to see an elderly man making his way down the bank.

“Seen any?” He asked, knowing exactly why we were gathered there.

“A few!” I replied excitedly, and once again Kacper directed the man’s view to the right tree.

“There were 43 here yesterday, so I’m told,” the man said, “The reserve ranger and volunteers saw them, couldn’t believe their eyes.”

Forty-three hawfinches. For a moment I cursed myself for not thinking to come a day earlier, but as I watched a pair perched way up in the topmost branches I was grateful we’d seen any at all, even if the photos were incredibly dodgy.

After a while the finches flew off. I glanced up in our immediate surroundings, wondering if the elusive birds had gathered directly over our heads – it’s something I would do to birdwatchers if I were a pretty finch – but the branches were bare.

“There’s another good spot back the way you came,” the man told us, “In the clearing. I’m walking back home that way I’ll show you.”

So we headed up the track, which by now had begun to thaw, the mud regaining its sticking power. Back in the open field, we were reminded again of the chilly February breeze, and willed the sun to make a reappearance.

We thanked the man as he went on his way, then we settled down to eat our lunch overlooking the open fields. Every time one of us spotted a dark patch in the treetops, we hastily studied it through the bins. But the hawfinches had headed off, submerged once again in their woodland domain.

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