Hawfinches from the continent sometimes visit the UK during winter © CuorerouC / iStock
Hawfinches have massive bills powerful enough to split even cherry stones, and enjoy a near-mythical status among birdwatchers, being among the hardest of all British birds to spot.
“They’re uncommon, spend a lot of time hidden in the forest canopy and their song is exceptionally weak and quiet,” explains Jerry Lewis, one of the country’s leading experts on these gorgeous, thick-set finches.
“But after several years of ringing hawfinches in the Forest of Dean, I realised that they visit the ground far more frequently between March and early May. At this time, I can see flocks 20-strong and my ringing success rate is higher.
I suspect it is because the previous autumn’s seed crop has run out in the treetops, forcing birds to forage among the leaf litter for fallen seeds until fresh buds and elm seeds – which fruit in spring – become available again.
“My research site is among lovely old hornbeams on land belonging to the Forestry Commission, which kindly provides the sunflower seeds that I scatter in front of my ringing nets. Hawfinches ringed by me have turned up in North Wales, Hertfordshire and Somerset, which is good news – it proves that there is movement between the species’ few remaining isolated UK populations.”
6 things you need to know about the hawfinch:
1 Hawfinches are tied to large stretches of mature woodland that – crucially – have a good mix of tree species. The birds love to feed on cherry, holly and plum stones, beechmast, ash ‘keys’, and seeds of hornbeam, elm, yew and hawthorn.
2 Like a miniature parrot, the hawfinch can exert tremendous pressure with its jaw muscles and conical bill – equivalent to 150 pounds per square inch.
3 RSPB researchers are radio-tagging 20 female hawfinches a year in the Wye Valley and North Wales. The tags, which last about six weeks, show that the birds forage up to 5km from their nests during the breeding season – a huge area for birds of this size. One female whose nest failed nested again that summer several kilometres away.
4 This shy species is hard to survey so may be under-recorded, but in 2011 its British population was estimated at just 800 pairs. Its four main strongholds are the Forest of Dean/Wye Valley, New Forest, North Wales and Cumbria.
5 The hawfinch flight call is a staccato ‘tick’, like a song thrush or robin. It’s a good way to locate these elusive birds, so is worth learning: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03dx6vq.
6 The wooded grounds of the National Trust’s Sizergh Castle in Cumbria are a reliable site. Spring walks are popular: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sizergh