A weekend in the woods: the 2017 Hawfinch irruption

Like a cherry stone in a Hawfinch’s bill, I cracked on Saturday morning. The second half of October has seen record numbers of Hawfinch arrive in southern England, presumably from the continent. Further north, there is little evidence of large numbers of birds passing through. For example, only small numbers of Hawfinch have been recorded at Spurn this autumn (see Mick Cuningham’s comment below for clarification). But for landlocked, migration-deprived counties such as Oxfordshire, this is a huge event. Seeing Hawfinch in Oxfordshire has always been difficult and usually required a number of visits to the miniature railway shed at Blenhiem Palace in early spring. Every time I went it was absolutely freezing. Once in a while, often after quite a long while, very small numbers of Hawfinch could be glimpsed distantly in the tree tops, before inevitably disappearing. 2011 was a good Hawfinch year in Oxfordshire: there were 11 records. By 2012, numbers had reduced to a single record.

The autumn of 2017 has changed everything. From mid-October onwards Hawfinch began being reported from all over the county, often fly-over birds migrating with Redwing. In the last 15 days of October 2017 there were 152 records from Oxfordshire (full details in the Oxon Bird Log monthly report here). Unfortunately October 2017 also proved to be the month that my business purchased new commercial premises and moved location. I had been fully committed to work issues all month, had done absolutely no birding and had barely even been outside. Thank goodness the Siberian Accentor irruption did not occur in 2017.

Friday night drinks with a few local birders began stiring my interest, a few of the guys had already added Hawfinch to their local patch lists or had sought out birds feeding in the woods in the Chilterns. When Andy Last popped into Standlake and recorded a fly-over bird with Redwings on the Saturday morning, I knew I had to get out and find my own. A quick negotiation for a couple of hours off childcare on Saturday afternoon and I headed south to the Highmoor area, near Nettlebed. Unsure of whether I should find a vantage point and hope for a fly-over bird, or go into the woods themselves, I decided to try both.  Almost immediately I picked up a distant flock of 5 finches flying in from the north. In binoculars they were unidentifiable at such range. I quickly took a few pictures, but even on the back of the camera, could make out virtually no detail. However, when I got home and processed the pictures, enlarging the birds to the point of pixelation, they did prove to be Hawfinches, not that I knew that at the time:

A few Siskins were moving around, 2 Lesser Redpolls flew south calling but there were no further Hawfinch candidates. I moved south into the woods and saw nothing but Redwings for an hour. They appeared to be feeding on the yew trees here. Then suddenly, where there had been nothing for an hour, there was a flock of 5 birds perched up in a nearby dead tree: 5 Hawfinches! A Waxwing-esque appearing trick. As I raised my camera, they flew deeper into the wood, taking a further 2 Hawfinch that I had not initially seen, with them. I stayed for another half hour or so and got further glimpses of a single Hawfinch in a treetop, but there was no further sign of the Hawfinch flock. The walk back was something of a finch-frenzy with Chaffinches, Bullfinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches, the icing on the cake being a fine male Brambling:

Sunday morning involved an early morning run over my local Shotover Hill. Even here the woodland bird theme continued as I flush a close Woodcock from a secluded track. Now that local birders have migrating Hawfinch firmly on their radar, it will be interesting to see how many autumn records Oxfordshire will get in future years. Have we been missing something all along and it has taken an irruption of birds at a national level to increase our awareness of these fabulous flying finches?

2 Comments

  1. Very enjoyable write up. Small correction, there have been a few Hawfinches at Spurn this autumn; saw one myself. V low numbers and – from memory – all singletons. Ditto at Flamborough head where my brother lives and birds. But the numbers have been nothing compared to inland places . My old 90s Pennine vis watch point Oxenhope yorks had one ahead of the deluge, little did they know what was to come (they had an unprecedented 4 GW Egrets t’other day,; a different sign of the times). Other Pennine sites have had many more Hawfinches since, and birds have been seen going over the open moorland even today. Plus a couple of friends have even had some on their nocturnal recording sessions.. Fabulous birds and, to me, as an event, it’s almost as good as 2016 (well – almost?). Anyone interested in movement through UK can google http://www.trektellen.org and click on the ‘counts for GB’ button and get info for vismig sites from Scotland to SW England. Plus you can do the same for many sites across Europe where there have been huge numbers of Hawfinches moving .

    ATB

    Mick

    1. Many thanks Mick, I will amend the post accordingly. Thanks also for the link to the vis mig sites, modern technology being put to a good use! Cheers, Tom

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