The hawfinch are back!
It is at this time of year, when birds start to make their move to the UK for their winter migration, that the birding world gets excited about one of the rarest and most shy finches: the hawfinch. Although there is a resident population in the UK estimated at just 500-1,000 birds, it’s the winter influx from the continent which swells numbers, particularly if there has been a tree seed failure in Europe as happened in winter 2017/18. Indeed, for at least the past 10 years, we have been lucky enough at Bedgebury to see a regular flock of migrant hawfinch that make the Pinetum their home from October to March, much to the excitement of our visitors!
Now that the first sightings of hawfinch have been recorded this month coming to roost at the very tops of our Thuja Collection, it’s the perfect time to put our questions to Bedgebury’s bird expert Christine George, (pictured here at a bird-ringing session) to get under the feathers of this specialist seed-loving finch.
Q. How do hawfinch differ from other finches?
A. Hawfinch have a tremendously strong bill that produces more force than the average human jaw! It is strong enough to crack cherry stones, which no other finch can do. They are also much bigger than any other finch found in Britain – almost the same size as a starling. Hawfinch are much shyer than other finches and have very specific habitat requirements. They are not closely related to any of our native finches; genetically their closest relative is the grosbeak in the USA.
Q. Why are hawfinch particularly hard to spot?
A. They are very rare and are getting rarer sadly, particularly as a breeding bird. It is unlikely that any will breed at Bedgebury as the habitat is unsuitable. Due to migration from the continent, UK numbers are usually higher in winter and they use ‘safe’ traditional roost sites making winter the easiest time to find them. They are remarkably shy and easily disturbed birds that will disperse before you find them. They prefer feeding at the tops of trees and, despite their fairly bright colours, can be very difficult to spot. They are also very quiet with a weak song and ‘tic’ call, which is mainly heard in flight.
Q. What is it that attracts them to Bedgebury and in particular our Thuja Collection?
A. Hawfinch prefer to roost in tall dense trees where they feel safe – the denseness of trees gives them shelter from bad weather. There are very few sites in the south of England that meet their specific requirements. Roost sites tend to be used continuously for a number of years; Bedgebury is one of these, but in general (apart from last year when conditions in Europe were unusually poor) hawfinch numbers have decreased over the years.
Q. Why do they choose to roost at the very tops of these trees?
A. Their priority is safety and shelter which tree tops provide. Hawfinch also like to look around, have a place to relax and absorb some winter sun before roosting. I know we all like to go and have a look at these elusive birds, but the regular presence of people and noise in the vicinity of an important roost site could be detrimental and could lead to its demise, so we must be careful not to disturb them. There are not many suitable alternative roost sites around and these birds may not survive the winter if they are scared away.
Q. Have you regularly seen hawfinch during the winter months roosting here and has there been a better year than others?
A. Most years I’ve seen hawfinch at Bedgebury, usually at least one or two birds. Last winter (2017/18) was exceptional and by far the best due to an influx of birds from Eastern Europe. The exact cause isn’t known for certain, but insufficient food for the number of birds present would have been the driving force. While they may have had an exceptional breeding season, the main migration was thought to have been the result of a grand scale failure of beech mast, hornbeam seed, hips and haws in parts of the continent. The hawfinch basically had to move or starve.
Q. Have you ever caught a hawfinch in one of the mist nets during a bird ringing session at Bedgebury?
A. No, and I think the chances of doing so are very unlikely. They stay high in the trees, at least in the UK. I would also be very apprehensive if I did catch one – the force their bill exerts has been known to fracture fingers if they get hold of you!