As anyone with an interest in birds is now aware, England and the south in particular is currently experiencing a remarkable irruption of migratory Hawfinch. The continued westerly weather pattern might have scuppered my national birding plans as October played itself out. But from the middle of the month what the overall picture lacked in terms of scarcities became offset in part by the opportunity to experience these charismatic but elusive finches in places where they are not usually seen.
The downside is the vast majority of the plethora of sightings on RBA have been fly overs, qualified by annotations such as “over to S” or “low SW”. Locating and viewing settled birds has been quite a different proposition. Surely they are out there somewhere since so many birds cannot be merely passing through. In Oxfordshire an initial trickle of records really took off on Saturday 28th. These were all from what I would term meticulous bird finders, dedicated patch workers realising the opportunity to record Hawfinch passing through their home villages, and those with the ability to identify specks in the sky on call.
A very informative article has appeared on Oxon Birding (see here) explaining the practice of “vis-migging”, devotees of which scan the skies from one point for long periods to record over-flying migration. This is not a style of birding that has any appeal to myself but is clearly how most current observations nationally and in the county are being made. So when records began to snowball eight days ago I saw little point in chasing after other people’s sightings and set out to look for Hawfinch in my own village.
The old part of Garsington (SP581025) atop a geological ridge east of Oxford, seems made for Hawfinches. In particular there are good numbers of Yew trees around the place, especially in St Mary’s church yard (pictured below). I first made my way uphill from the shanty town at first light on Sunday 29th, my collar turned up and cap pulled down to avoid recognition as a “Parky”, and have ventured back twice since. But to date success has eluded me. The church yard is nonetheless quite a birdy place and always a relaxing spot to while away some time.
After drawing blank a second time on the misty morning of Thursday 1st I received a call from Tom, “The Wickster” who fancied an afternoon off work to search for Hawfinch in the Chilterns. This was the arrangement we enjoyed in the halcyon days of 2012 and 2013, me as driver and he as guide, that was in no small part responsible for my best ever county totals of those years. More recently Tom has preferred to do most of his county birding on foot, but had already added a flyover to his famed “walking list”. Hence it was game on and I knew this would be my best opportunity to find Hawfinch in Oxfordshire this autumn.
I had experienced the species previously at classic sites in the Weald, New Forest and Forest of Dean, as well as in Spain. Hawfinch was also on my Oxon life list, but one sighting at Stonesfield Common had been distant and the second at Blenheim Park fleeting. So this was the last county bird over which all doubt in my mind needed to be removed. There are large tracts of under-watched woodland in south-east Oxfordshire that I had already decided to make the prime focus of my local birding this coming winter, and this was also where Tom felt there must be settled Hawfinch flocks at present.
At the first selected site we found nothing. Tom kept saying we needed to find vantage points to scan over the surrounding woodland and I took the opportunity to enquire what an aerial specialist describes as flying “low”. The answer is apparently tree top height … hmmm! So we moved on and I headed up an unmade road towards a location with the intriguing name of Lower Highmoor (SU704850). When my passenger said this route would probably fizzle out I replied we could turn around if it did. Then he announced: “That would be a good point to scan from just over there.” And without those two inputs we would not have been successful.
First we saw a finch-like flock alighting into a conifer at around 300 metres distance. Tom hoped they might be Crossbill but careful inspection confirmed they were Greenfinch. My expectations having been thus raised then dashed I went for a comfort break, that after all can be one way of making something happen. Just as I was making the personal re-adjustment Tom called excitedly: “Hawfinch!”, and in his words I “almost ran” back to where he was standing. There in my scope, a little nearer than the conifers were three perched birds in a tree above the garden of an isolated house. Mission was thus accomplished in no uncertain terms.
When these birds disappeared from view we walked up to the house but there was no further sign of them. Tom then got back into his element scanning the tree line of Nettlebed Woods on the horizon where he picked out eight more Hawfinch in flight. But I was more than pleased, elated even with what we had already seen. On the way home we stopped at a site Tom knows to observe Grey Partridge that has been a bogey local bird for me this year. Hence, if I were to be Oxon year listing in 2017 I would have moved one ahead of last year’s total, and eight short of those 2012/13 figures. A Water Pipit at Farmoor Reservoir on Saturday 4th, by no means an annual county bird, reduced that deficit further.
We appear to have put Lower Highmoor on the local birding map, because a number of other Oxon birders visited over the next three days. But their sightings were mostly of distant, tree-top Hawfinch or more fly overs. For myself I preferred to go in search of further perched birds and so yesterday (5th) made a covert crossing of the county border into the murky reaches of neighbouring Bucks. Near Great Hampden, a little east of the Chilterns escarpment above Princes Risborough, a roving flock of up to 30 birds had been reported in the interval. These were said at times to be offering good views and so it turned out.
This was not an easy location to find. From a corner of a minor road a bridleway leads through the private estate of Hampden House and past a church, on the far side of which lies a kale field (SP843025) containing clumps of mature Hornbeam that the Hawfinch were frequenting. When I arrived on site other people were leaving, the birds they were watching having just flown off. That left me and one other birder to await their next circuit, then after around 15 minutes my companion pointed to the tree tops above where I was standing. There was the perched male that appears at the beginning of this post (thanks to Ewan for gender ID).
More self-found Hawfinch then flew into the tall Hornbeams in the top left picture (above) and a pleasant 20 minutes or so ensued as, now alone I observed them feeding. This second good experience in four days was an unusual opportunity to view what are generally known as shy and difficult birds going about their infrequently seen business just 20 miles from home. When several more birders arrived things at once became less enjoyable and in any case it was time to leave.
Hawfinch records from southern England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, 25-31 October 2017. © BirdGuides.com
If Hawfinch are to be a continuing feature of local birding this winter I will hope for more encounters such as those described here, and not least right here in Garsington. In the short hours of daylight I will be out there looking, though not too high in the sky.