I've been looking at the OS map over the past couple of days, trying to work out where the Mickleham Hawfinches might go when they are not there - which is, if truth be told, most of the day. The facts are these: the birds have been seen between 07.30 - 11.00 (ish), not always on show but a bit of time spent will repay those who wait. After that, nothing (and between myself and others there have been birders present until early evening). That would suggest that they do not roost at Juniper Bottom. However, if 50-60 birds were present by 07.30 last Monday morning, then the roost cannot be that far away either. But is that too much of an assumption to make? It's light not long after six at the moment, so a quick preen and a shake of the wings would see them away with over an hour to spare to get to Juniper Bottom.
I have found Hawfinches on three previous occasions in the area. Firstly at the western end of Headley Heath in October 2005. Eight birds were very active an hour after dawn, haunting the far valley, perching in the tree tops just east of the Bellasis Centre. They then flew across the valley and spent time in scrub only a few metres from me. A magical few moments were had before they melted away and not only that, a Ring Ouzel was close-by too.
Next was a singing bird (plus two others that remained silent) in a wood west of the Mole gap in April 2011. Best to say no more about this sighting.
Later in the same year, and back on Headley Heath, a July wander produced a flock of 10 birds in the same general area as that of October 2005, with another unattached single bird being found south-east of them.
Considering that I do spend quite a bit of time in the general area during the summer months, four sightings over the past eight years might seem a poor return. However, on each occasion I have been looking down rather than up and each time it was the Hawfinches calling that alerted me to their presence. I wouldn't mind betting I've walked past a fair few during this time as they have watched me in silence.
The current flock are intriguing. Have they been there all winter? Is it a regular wintering flock? Are these numbers exceptional? We will, of course, not be able to answer these questions with any certainty, unless there is somebody who has been aware of them but has kept it to themselves. Very few birders haunt this area, certainly not during the winter. My sightings were all during plant/insect forays and not in the winter. I have visited the area this winter already, just the once, in January. I parked the car in the Whitehill Carpark but instead of walking along Juniper Bottom I crossed the road and climbed up onto Mickleham Downs. had I gone the other way, who knows...
This area is worth looking at. There are numerous steep sided valleys. mostly wooded, with open tops giving stunning views (the Victorian's called this area the Surrey Alps). It is well known for its moths, butterflies, plants and fungi. But not for its birds. Maybe that will change if the Hawfinches turn out to be regular.
This Saturday I intend to return to comb the area in the hope that I can locate them away from Juniper Bottom. According to BWP winter flocks of Hawfinches keep intact at least until late March, so they should still be there. I have my hunches as to where they might be...