Thursday, 6 December 2018
ND&B 2018 January - February
2018 was, quite simply, the year of the Hawfinch. After an unprecedented autumn passage of this big-billed finch, and the subsequent settling down of modest numbers to winter, I started the year by trawling the yew-filled slopes of the North Downs and along the northerly spurs of high ground. A small flock was soon located on the western side of Mickleham Downs (after several blank returns), with frequent visits revealing that a minimum of 18 birds to be present. In any other year this would have been Hawfinch Nirvana...
January 29th was the start of something special. An early morning wander around the woodland at Juniper Top was enlivened by at least 70 Hawfinches in the bare canopy. I suspected that there might be more, so returned the following day. After relocating the flock with ease,
"the calling became incessant, a white-noise of 'ticks' and 'sips' - it could be described at times as a frenzy. I stood underneath the tall conifers and watched as the birds moved further into the woods. By now I was convinced that there were 'three figures' involved, but needed to be able to get a better viewpoint to make a meaningful count. I lost the flock for maybe 10 minutes, but located it (thanks to the calling) some 200m further on. As I was facing into the sun (and wanted to get on the leading edge of the flock) I skirted round the birds and hid at the edge of a clearing that was lined with beech and yew. My timing was ideal as the leading birds started to appear in front of me, moving through the canopy not unlike a tit-flock (or rainforest bird wave!) This enabled me to get an accurate count - groups of 10-20, singles, one clot of 40 - my mind adding up, careful not to recount any bird that might double-back. After eighty had moved through I became a touch excited, then 90, the magic 100... but still they came. The birds were moving directly over me and to my left, heading deeper into the wood. It was now that a single flock of 35 announced themselves, having been hidden further down the eastern slope and attached themselves to this magnificent mother ship of Hawfinches. By now the noise was at its height. I was experiencing a 360 degree immersion. The flock slowly moved away, melting into the woodland and out of sight. My notebook read 135. I know that I couldn't possibly have seen every bird that went through, even though my viewpoint was quite good - there was too much vegetation in the way to see them all. So that count of 135 is really too low...
But I could still hear the odd bird calling, back where I had started, so quickly made my way there, where a further 30 birds were found. These were certainly not part of the flock. And finally, after leaving these birds happily diving in and out of yew trees, a further flock of 40-50 birds were on the edge of the wood at the very northern end of Juniper Top. These birds, just like the others, were finding Yews to their liking, frequently perching on top of nearby beech and oak allowing for easy observation. So, how many? There could not have been any fewer than 200"
This was the start of what was, quite frankly, some of the most amazing birding that I have had the pleasure to enjoy over the past 45 years. Further searches beyond the Juniper Top - Ashurst Rough - Box Hill area led me to Bramblehall Wood. I'd never heard of it and I doubt that many other birders had either, but that was soon to change. I first stared onto its yew-infested slopes on 4th February and quickly located 20 Hawfinch, with a visit two days later yielding 47 birds. At the same time I checked out a number of sites to the west of the Mole Gap (where I had success with the species several years before) and was delighted to find them present in fair numbers. If it had all stopped there and then I would have been satiated. But it was just the start.
Bramblehall Wood returned a count of 170 on 10th February and, in the company of Peter Alfrey and Kevin Guest on February 14th,
"the birds were flying above and alongside the wood, all fat avian missiles being propelled by white-barred wings, the finches almost collapsing with their front heavy load before another burst of wingbeats kept them in the air. Our counting quickly went beyond 140 and we started to believe that there may well be a couple of hundred before us. When they started to gather in the same area we were able to make a careful and accurate count. Our viewpoint was good. We counted together so as not to over- or under-cook the final total, which was 260."
These counts had started to entice plenty of other birders to visit these woods, and many returned home having feasted their eyes upon them. Timing was, however crucial, as by mid-morning they could largely disappear. On February 17th I broke the 300 barrier:
"I then had one of those spine-tingling moments. A sudden and loud 'whoosh' materialised above my head - not unlike the noise you hear when a Starling murmuration changes direction - and I was aware of a dark blur in front of me. It was a flock of c150 Hawfinch, spooked from the Yews around me. They flew back across to the wood, to be joined by c50 that were perched up there. All alighted out of view. Within five minutes more birds joined the hidden flock from the north. At least 100 flew in making a minimum of 300."
The following day saw another check, west of the Mole Gap, where 115 were at Dorking Wood with a further 50+ near by. February 22nd saw an upping of the ante - Bramblehall Wood (420), Dorking Wood (250), Freehold Wood (18), Polesden Lacey (13) and Ranmore Common (4) which meant that either side of the Mole Gap there were at least 700+ Hawfinches! I was as happy as a Hawfinch in a berry-laden Yew tree. These numbers remained present throughout the rest of the month - I could have been excused for thinking that these numbers must be at their peak - but I was to be proved wrong. You will have to wait for the March-April review to find out just how high the totals reached.
There was another ornithological event that occurred which took away my focus from the Hawfinches for just the one day, that being a hard weather movement in response to the bitter easterly winds courtesy of the weather system that was christened the 'Beast from the East'. I stood in a snowy field at Canons Farm throughout the morning of February 28th and watched a south to south-westerly movement of Lapwing (617) and Golden Plover (170). Sobering but enthralling.