Carpinus & Coccothraustes

In most of Europe Hawfinches are a typical woodland species, in E Poland for example hardly worth a mention, but on this side of the water they are scarce, shy, treetop birds, detectable only by their sharp, metallic ticking contact note and for the most part visible only as fat little silhouettes moving rapidly through the twiggery.

Equipped with massive bills adapted for cracking seeds as hard as cherry stones and taking chunks out of bird-ringers’ fingers, they are attracted to Hornbeams so flocks have been seen locally, attracting even rarer birdwatchers into the jungles of the High Weald.

In the last month, however, here has been an extraordinary southerly movement on the continent and an unprecedented influx into Britain with large flocks noted in many places where one would normally struggle to see them. Most of those I’ve seen have been singletons, appearing out of the blue, but I saw a couple of flocks of about 30 way back in the 70s. One was at Lullingstone Park near my home in SE London, where they gathered around ancient knotty Hornbeam pollards such as those drawn by Samuel Palmer.

The other was at Parham Wood, a square island of trees in an ocean of arable farmland. I could often hear the clicking there but it was tantalisingly hard to get a glimpse. It was at the time that East Anglia was blighted by the presence of the USAF but on that one occasion we had reason to be grateful to them for were standing in a ride when suddenly a huge transport plane roared low overhead, flushing a stream of Hawfinches across the gap.

Killingan Wood by Martyn Comley

For various reasons I’ve been unable to get to those sites where they’ve been most reliably seen but there’s so much Hornbeam around that many smaller woods might hold a few so I’ve been looking at places they’ve turned up before. Foremost among  these is a small area to the north of Sedlescombe where they also appear to have bred in recent years, so last Saturday’s RXbirdwalk convened there in the hope of tracking them down.

No luck, unfortunately though the woods look fabulous, with golden leaves backed still by green even at this late point in the year, many intriguing historical features, frequently varied leaf litter according to the dominant tree species (Hornbeam for charcoal, Sweet Chestnut for hop poles) and plentiful woodland birds such as Marsh Tits. Early in the walk we had seen great flocks of Woodpigeons either heading on glittering wings out to the coast or swirling around in search of a crop to ravage. Down at the reservoir there were Tufted Ducks, GC Grebes, Gadwall, rather fleeting views of Teal & Mandarin and even a glowing Kingfisher, while the walk back along narrow lanes included 4 Buzzards overhead and a brilliant Grey Wagtail strutting about on a cottage roof.

On Monday, in  I headed for another potential site at Ashes Wood,but even as I came out of my house a huge crowd of Woodpigeons swept overhead, then during the drive westward I was dangerously distracted by the spectacle of long ribbons of birds coming in from the Weald and taking a left at the Ridge to exit over the sea. Though this spectacle is typical of bright frosty mornings in early November it’s a few years since I’ve seen it and was tempted to give up on the Weald and stop instead at Hastings Country Park to savour its splendour. Instead, however, I crept along in morning traffic, keeping one eye on the car ahead and the other and the other on clouds of pigeons arriving over the rush-hour.

Although the coast had remained green, a mile inland car windscreens were frosted and the further I went inland, the whiter the fields. Beyond the colourful foliage of Ashes Wood (most of which was very cold & silent) the tiny boxed-in meadows shone silver, with long wriggling blue shadows stretched across them from outgrown Hornbeam hedges. At last, as I stared into Western Hemlocks for a glimpse of a Goldcrest, I heard Hawfinches clicking behind me where at least four were moving around in the tops of Birches (where two were feeding in the open) and Hazels (where more were shifting among the big yellow leaves).

Down by the mill pond, I’d just admired a smart new stile replacing its challengingly rickety predecessor when I met the new owner of the site who’d installed it. Unlike the previous incumbent whose management resembled that of an urban park, this lady hopes to make more of the property’s wildlife potential and to that end has already sought advice from SWT. shortly after her patient dogs had pleaded with their eyes to move on, a couple of Hawfinches appeared out in the open, perching in the tops of the Field Maple (for food) and Swamp Cypress (for surveying the scene) in the photo above. After that, however, no more sign and what’s more the footpaths to the west have fallen out of use and are overgrown with brambles, obstructing access to more interesting Hornbeam woodland up a once-dammed ghyll.

Yesterday I was carrying out a Sussex Winter Bird Survey near Beckley Woods, another occasional site for Hawfinches and about a mile away, several had been seen in an old abandoned orchard in Beckley itself. When 2 flew over me near Starvecrow Lane it wasn’t the best of views since I’d got my binoculars over my shoulder, had a notebook in one hand and had just got something in my eye, but had evidence at least of their presence.

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