Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Do you remember the "Hawfinch" Winter of 2017 / 2018?

This winter will long be remembered for the number Hawfinches over-wintering in the UK. But where did they come from and when did they start arriving?
Casting my mind back just a few short months to October/early November during peak visual migration time, I remember how many enjoyable hours I put in on the local cliff headlands making my first unsteady attempts at "vismigging" i.e. counting the migrating birds streaming westwards along the coast here in Charmouth. By he way, I'm a true convert to this form of birding and can't wait to have another go when the conditions are right - some fellow birders say its one of the best if not THE best birding experience. And I'm only just beginning to realise that I'm so lucky living here in Charmouth that it's arguably as good as anywhere else on the south coast to witness this amazing annual spectacle.
Despite being delighted to pick out the migrating parties of finches, skylarks, jackdaws, redpolls and thousand upon thousands of Wood Pigeons try as hard as I could, I failed to find a single Hawfinch on autumn passage.
Looking at my twitter feed at the time, it was tantalising to see so many UK birders reporting the first influxes of Hawfinches from Central and Eastern Europe. Reports from inland sites of regular flocks of 5, 6, 7 or even double-digit counts were so common that each day I would head out to my observation point high above my village here on the SW Coast path sure in the knowledge that today would be the day that the Hawfinches would obligingly fly through! How wrong could I be? Not a sniff. Nil Point. Nothing. No Hawfinches at all. Was it me? As I said earlier vis-migging is pretty new to me and something which with more practice I am keen to get more proficient at. Perhaps I was in the wrong spot for good vismigging? Perhaps I was mis-IDing flight calls or silhouettes? My doubts were allayed however because luckily I also knew that I wasn't the only Birder here in the SW who was similarly disappointed and couldn't buy a single Hawfinch on their respective patches! So perhaps I wasn't missing something after all! The Hawfinch passage seemed to be at more inland sights particularly to the East of the country.
The nearest local sighting was a flock of 14 found on 31st October by James McCarthy @tentims flying NE 5 miles inland from Charmouth at nearby Lambert's Castle plus a few overflying West Bay, Bridport. For my first sighting, I had to wait until 13th November when a call from James M alerted me to the Hawfinches he had located in Shute churchyard, Devon, some 10 miles to the west of Charmouth. These Hawfinches were not migrating birds though, but a group which had settled and was now centred on the village churchyard happily feeding on Field Maple and Yew. I visited the site regularly during late November and throughout December and with patience they afforded some fantastic views for me. My last sighting was on 1st January 2018 when I saw 2 individuals dive into the cover of the churchyard Yew tree.
I've heard it said that this "Hawfinch winter" is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomena for us here in the SW of England so it's been my every intention of improving my field skills by finding my own group of individuals. So for the last couple of months I've kept a regular eye on some likely habitat locations. I've kept a close watch on various churchyards at the nearby villages of Monkton Wylde, Uplyme, Symondsbury, Whitchurch Canonicorum, Marshwood and Chideock and until this week I had had no luck whatsoever. But this changed last Saturday when I visited Uplyme, Devon in the rain and found a male and a female Hawfinch bombing around the churchyard and adjacent field hedgerows. Brilliant! I was delighted to have superb views of both individuals but sadly I didn't have my camera with me that day. Having got the news out I was equally delighted that 2 days later on 22nd January Sue Murphy @SueMurphy60 relocated the pair in exactly the same area of Uplyme churchyard. So far so very good but these Hawfinches were frustratingly 1/2 mile over the Dorset/Devon border on the Devon side. But could I find a local Dorset bird?
However, things got even better today when I visited Symondsbury - a Dorset village 5 miles to the east of Charmouth. I found 4 more Hawfinches and this time I did have my camera with me. Although fairly distant and in very overcast conditions I was pleased with the results from my Nikon P900.
A very handsome male and in excellent condition by the look of him. Take a look at the size of that monster bill!

Amazingly then, this is my first Dorset Hawfinch. And it's another self-find. As Sue Murphy says, "I'm on a roll!" Perhaps I might even be able to find a Hawfinch on patch before time runs out. Now that really would put the icing on the cake!


  1. Lovely account Richard - it has ended been a remarkable avian event.

    1. Thanks Steve. Indeed it has! Don't forget to give me a shout next time you're down this way.