Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Headley Hawfinches

Yes, I know it's pants....
Seeing that there are so many Hawfinches zapping about all over the place, I thought that I would try and find some locally that were not just moving through, but using 'my' fair part of Surrey to feed and roost. The place of choice was the steep wooded valleys to be found on the western side of Headley Heath. This area has plenty of 'Hawfinch pedigree', where I have, in the past, seen this species shortly after dawn and considered it a possible roost site.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s I would regularly visit the Bedgebury Pinetum Hawfinch roost in Kent, and remembered that they often came in early, sometimes a good hour and a half before sunset. So, armed with a thermos flask and plenty of hope, I took up my position (at 12.30hrs) on a grassy hill between the two westernmost valleys, with good visibility up to the tree-line on the neighbouring hills. The first hour was slow, save for the odd flock of Redwings that swept on through. Then at 13.30hrs the first Hawfinch showed - calling in the canopy on the western flank. It sat there for 20 minutes before flying off southwards along the valley towards Box Hill. There then began a sustained arrival of birds from the east (where the open space of Headley Heath is found), many of which alighted in the distant tree tops on the eastern hill. They would spend between 5-10 minutes here before flying across the two valleys (and over my observation point) before melting into the canopy or flying up the valley south towards Box Hill. At no time did any bird cross back eastwards. My notebook reveals the number of observations and how many Hawfinches were involved: 1, 2, 2, 1, 4, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 5, 2, 2, 1 - a total of 32 birds. A small number did not cross the valleys but headed along the ridge northwards, towards Headley Warren. The last bird appeared at 15.40 hrs with the majority being seen between 14.00 - 14.45hrs. There was little calling, good flight views and distant perched views. There behaviour did not suggested overhead migration, but preparation for a more distant roost. Maybe the scenes experienced at Juniper Bottom in 2013 are going to be repeated.

It was a magical afternoon. There was scarcely a breeze, the air temperature was mild and these valleys are far enough away from the car parks to discourage all but the most earnest of walkers. If you want to have a look yourself, park in the NT car park opposite the cricket pitch and head SW until reaching the steep valleys (adjacent to High Ashurst on an OS map). Anywhere with a clear view across the valleys will do. You won't regret it. Oh, and take a scope...

8 comments:

DorsetDipper said...

Great observations Steve.

Likewise thought that the Hawfinches may be settling into winter quarters so tried a former local stronghold today - Hatfield Forest in Essex. We got 23, possibly 25, but who knows how many there are. Chasing these magical creatures is exhilarating birding!

Steve Gale said...

Good work DD! That's our winter birding sorted!

Gibster said...

Just back from a week on Scillies. Anything up to around 70 birds were mooted to be present the week before, but there were enough still around ;ast week to keep us entertained. Several singletons and a flock of 4 were all I managed, maybe 10 "contacts" in total. Mind you, the several thousand Chaffinches that arrived midmorning of the 26th whilst I was at the top of St Martins was an eye-opener! Plenty of Brambling calls heard from the flocks too. My notebook starts 130, 80, 25, 65, 40, 150, 70, 200...then I figured I'd watch not write. One fella counted 4500 departing out from Porthellick Downs with maybe 1000 in the fields there. All in a few short hours. I'm a birder reborn!!!

Steve Gale said...

I'm a sucker for spectacle Seth, it beats rarity!

Factor said...

You little beauty! Wonderful stuff Steve - your are the flock and the Hawfinch king! If I get a chance I may go up there on Thursday. Aren't they just simply fantastic birds.

Steve Gale said...

They are one of my favourites Neil. Let's hope that these birds do stay to winter.

Unknown said...

I was walking a section of the North Downs Way today and thought I saw a single Hawfinch about thirty feet up in the trees, flying away from me. It was the size (between Greenfinch and Redwing) and the stubby tail that alerted me. There was also a repeated 'ting' call, distinct from the 'seep' of the redwings also nearby. The location was very close to Brockham Lime Kilns. I've never seen a Hawfinch before, hence my caution about the identification.

Steve Gale said...

Hello Ian, you describe the call well - to me a quiet, clipped Redwing - and they also tick like a Robin. In flight they look like fat cigars with triangular wings and short tails. The wing bar is most obvious, as is the large bill that gives the front end of the bird a distinct, blunt profile.