The bird that just keeps giving

Juniper Top eastern slope - home to Hawfinches
The morning started well, as only a few minutes after leaving the car I looked up at the steep wooded slopes of White Hill to see a flock of 15 Hawfinches fly through and alight upon Silver Birches. A good omen! I took my usual route, picking up the lower Juniper Top - Ashurst Rough path, keeping a firm eye on the edge of Bramblehall Wood across the narrow field. It was quiet at first, but soon enough I started to hear Hawfinches, most of them on 'my' side of the field. Stealth was not necessary as the birds made their way towards me, and I was soon looking directly up into a dazzling blue sky through a crazy-paving pattern of twigs and branches. The birds were very difficult to see, but vague shapes then morphed into Hawfinches and small groups flew through the lower reaches of the canopy and dived deep into Yews. I was but yards from them, teased by the incessant calling and able to witness the Yew branches being bent and shaken by the birds within. Views were good, but fleeting. Walking up the slope brought me in line with some of the tree tops and the odd bird gave itself up at my level. At least 30 birds were strewn across the immediate area. I reached the top footpath and turned south.

This footpath, when it reaches Upper Farm Leisure Park, comes to a fork. I took the left hand (eastern) turn that took me down the slope and back onto the lower Ashurst Rough - Juniper Top track. After 100m the southern end of Bramblehall Wood is clearly in view, so I scanned along in perfect sunny light and immediately found at least 30 Hawfinches perched on tree tops. After edging down to the fence to get the clearest view possible and watching them for several minutes, these birds took off and started flying along the woodland edge towards me, and as they did so birds began to peel off from the nearby Yews and joined them. This swollen flock was augmented by further birds that had been out of view, and then a final burst as a flock of 60 strong came from behind them. A minimum of 140 Hawfinches were in the air together, directly in front of me and all in bright sunshine - a blizzard of white wing bars and tails, caramels buffs and greys. It was one of the most exhilarating moments in over 44 years of birding. They carried on heading southwards, the birds dispersing between 'The Birches' and the southern end of Ashurst Rough.

I walked back along the lower footpath in a beatific daze. Frequent scanning revealed a further five Hawfinches in Bramblehall Wood, remnants of a force that had departed (hopefully momentarily) southwards. The slope up to Juniper Top still held Hawfinches though. The 'ticks', 'sips' and 'squeaks' built up, and, just like earlier in the morning I found myself surrounded by a loose flock of c35 birds. There were a further c15 birds at the northern end of the wood at the start of the open hill top.

The last site to check, in a very lazy fashion, was Mickleham Downs, which I did from the footpath that runs between Juniper Bottom and Cockshot Cottage. Seven were found. What a morning...

I have now been fortunate in seeing big numbers on three occasions - 200 on Jan 30th (Juniper Top - Ashurst Rough), 170 on February 10th (Bramblehall Wood) and 140 today. This has taken many hours of slogging the footpaths. What seems to be happening is that the general area is holding at least 200 birds, which normally spread out across the Bramblehall - Ashurst - Juniper Top sites, and at times come together. The fact that I'm the lucky so-and-so who is seeing these amalgamations is just because I'm there a lot of the time. I reckon for the greatest chance of numerical success it's best to find a clear view across to Bramblehall Wood (maybe halfway along) and wait. It took me over two hours this morning to see the large numbers, and they were at the very south of the wood that I don't usually check.

These are exciting times.


Arjun Dutta said…
Exciting times which I'm missing. I doubt I'm going to be able to reach that area now.
Ric said…
Steve, your efforts are making news. Yesterday I met birders out looking for Hawfinch and you were mentioned.
The numbers I'm dealing with are smaller though I suspect the walk needed to obtain them, a lot shorter.
To help those who fancied a short walk, I placed a map on the London Birders site.
I won't be surprised if there are some takers. And who can blame them? fantastic birds.
Steve Gale said…
If you can get there Arjun you won't regret it - plenty of Marsh Tits as well.
Steve Gale said…
Good work on the map Ric, that will be very helpful to plenty of birders. I saw a few birders out today, but the area is quite large and the footpaths are many - most got onto birds, but the largest numbers were tucked away which was a shame. I would have loved to have shared the 'big reveal' with them.
I'm missing them too. How come so many people can just go birding all the time? What am I doing wrong?
Steve Gale said…
Get older and retire Jono! Does come with loss of youthful vigour though...

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