The Hawfinch Irruption
A natural event is currently taking place across Britain that is genuinely exceptional, and rather exciting for anyone with an interest in birds. Every birder 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. Which is a shame as they are also 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.
They may be finches, but they aren’t actually very closely related to any of our other native finches, being more closely allied genetically to several Grosbeak species found in North and Central America. This separation from other finch species is reflected in the unique scientific name Coccothraustes coccothraustes which translates as ‘seed-breaker’, a reference to the incredible strength of the Hawfinch’s bill, which is capable of exerting up to 48 kg of force and cracking open cherry stones.
Although Hawfinches are no doubt under-recorded due to their habits of spending a lot of time high in the woodland canopy, and being quite flighty, not to mention very quiet – with barely a song to speak of and unassuming calls. Yet they are certainly a scarce species, with perhaps only a maximum of around 1000 pairs in all, having suffered a noticeable decline in recent decades. They have never been very common in Britain, being at the northern edge of their range here, in fact they were only first recorded breeding in this country in the early 1800’s – having been just winter visitors up to then.
So, the uncertain status of this bird in the UK, and it’s shy habits, has meant that under normal circumstances most birders consider themselves fortunate to see a couple each year – usually needing to make special strips to see them. This autumn however, exceptional numbers of this special finch have been recorded across Britain, many of them passing overhead at migration watchpoints, or discovered in large flocks in suitable feeding habitat. The largest flock recorded so far (to my knowledge) was a remarkable 60 on the Isles of Scilly.
The phrase ‘a flock of Hawfinches’ is one that is very rarely used in birding, and when it is, usually only refers to a sighting of more than two birds. So, it was very exciting for me to actually witness a genuine flock of this gorgeous species at a wood in West Sussex just last week. I travelled down to a large wood on the southern slope of the South Downs near Arundel, where a flock had been reported for the last few days. Based on my previous experience of this species (just two previous brief sightings in this country) I was not hugely optimistic of actually seeing anything.
But when we got there it did not take very long before I (and a few other birders) had eyes on a rather mobile and scattered flock of Hawfinches flying about and perching at the tops of Beech trees on the far side of a large clearing. The views were distant, but unmistakable, and at one point the true size of the flock was revealed when they all flew up together into a large tree – it was too quick to count, but there must have been close to 20 or more. After a while it quietened down, so I went for a stroll around the woods, during which a few smaller groups of Hawfinches flew overhead, teasing us. Then I found another sizable clearing offering good views of the surrounding tree-tops. After a relatively short wait a small (!!) group of Hawfinches flew in and three perched at the top of a fur tree giving the closest and clearest views I had had so far.
It was a very special experience, and one not likely to be repeated any time soon. But what is the cause of this considerable influx of this otherwise scarce finch? Well, although the exact reasons may never be completely understood, it would seem that the much larger populations of this species that exist in Eastern Europe (Germany, Poland, Latvia etc.) have either had a very good breeding season, prompting a mass dispersal, or their food crops have failed (seeds like beech mast and hornbeam, and fruits like hips and haws) causing them to irrupt in search of food sources elsewhere – or a combination of the two. It is a similar situation to what happens in good Waxwing years, when wild berry crops are poor in their breeding countries, and it would appear that the Hawfinches are taking advantage of what seems to be a very productive year for tree seeds and fruit in this country.
The last time such significant numbers of Hawfinch irrupted into Britain was at least over a decade ago, if not longer, so this is far from a regular occurrence. Which is why I would strongly suggest getting out and making the most of this rare and remarkable opportunity to see large numbers of what is usually a very difficult bird. There have been records of small flocks flying over from all across the country, especially wooded areas and from high places, so Hawfinches could potentially turn up anywhere at the moment, it’s worth keeping an eye on the sky. Let’s hope that these flocks decide to spend the winter with us too!
Image from Wikimedia Commons by Martin Mecnarowski.
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