Like a gift from the east, Ashridge has seen avian fireworks over the Chiltern Hills during the past week or so – an irruption of Hawfinches. According to Lawrence T hawfinches nested in Sallow Copse until a decade ago, before the squirrels plundered their nests. Hawfinches are now a rare and threatened species in this country and are on the Red List of birds of maximum conservation concern, because of a seventy six per cent fall in the population between 1968 and 2011. This contrasts with the rest of Europe where the population is relatively stable and with large numbers in Romania, Croatia, Poland, Germany and Russia.
Local birders have been falling over themselves in the early morning to witness the migration of hundred of birds every day flying west over Steps Hill, courtesy of ex-hurricane Ophelia. While this huge storm was spinning anti-clockwise off the west coast of Europe, it was sucking a stream of warm air northwards towards Britain, and presumably, bringing in the birds. They are likely to be birds heading from breeding woodlands in Eastern Europe travelling to the Mediterranean, but were then pushed towards our shores.
This natural event is currently taking place across much of Britain and is genuinely exceptional, and rather exciting for anyone with an interest in birds. Every birder or “Twitcher” is well aware of the difficulty of finding and seeing a Hawfinch – they are infamously one of the shyest and scarcest of British breeding birds and even a fleeting glimpse of one is noteworthy. This is a shame as they are one of the most beautiful birds to live in these isles; with a soft plumage consisting of various shades of orange, grey, peach, black, white and even a hint of metallic blue. They look like no other British bird, being large finches with enormous metal-grey bills set on big heads that makes them look very front-heavy, a feature accentuated by their short, stubby tails. This iruption is a very special experience, and one not likely to be repeated any time soon.
Hawfinches are birds of the tall tree-tops, or found at the base of trees where windfall fruit seeds collect. They are particularly attracted to the seeds of the hornbeam and their hefty beaks powered by strong jaw muscles can exert pressures that make the cracking of seed cases or even cherry pips a cinch.
Thanks to Stuart Winter for his contribution.