Friday, 15 November 2019


My most enjoyable natural history events of the past five years continues:

9. A swarm of Goldfinches 
It dawned overcast, dry and mild at Dungeness on 19th October 2017. The wind was a gentle south-easterly and, on stepping out from the observatory back door and into the half-light, there were already birds calling high overhead. It seemed to me a morning to be watching the skies for visible migration! I took myself off towards the point, away from the background noise of the power station. Watching diurnal passerine movement at Dungeness is an imprecise art, although most birds during the autumn appear to hug the beach (either heading east or west) or straight down (or up) the peninsula. Any vantage point between the observatory and the fishing boats will normally do.

I initially stood close to the old lighthouse to get a feel for where the birds were moving - it was soon obvious that Goldfinches were on the move, and coming down the west side of the promontory. After ten minutes I then took up position by the Britannia Public House, to shield myself from the strengthening wind and to be able to hear any calls all the better. The Goldfinches still were coming through, in little spurts, but as time wore on their numbers slowly increased.

A phone call from Mark Hollingworth lead to us joining forces on the 'concrete road', very close to the actual point itself, where we were soon joined by Martin Casemore. Our position here was even better, as there were flocks of birds moving just offshore and parallel to the beach, birds that I was missing from my earlier watchpoint close to the Britannia. Although the wind had freshened to a southerly force 3-4 we were all good. The finches continued to pass through - the vast majority of them being Goldfinches. My notebook was being scrawled into with some frequency, and after 90 minutes we had recorded at least a couple of thousand. And then somebody turned the Goldfinch tap up to 'fully open'.

For the next couple of hours we were hit by waves of them. Great tight flocks, clots of jangling buffs, creams, apricots, golds and red. They kept close to each other, with frantic calling, all seemingly in a terrible hurry. We had to keep our wits about us as flocks were passing (largely east to south-eastwards) in front, behind and above us. Most of these flocks were pure Goldfinch, although some did carry imposters, with Siskins trying to sneak past hidden amongst their congeners. There was one unforgettable moment when a veritable ball of c400 birds headed straight at us, just above ground level. On reaching us the ball shattered, immersing us in a cacophony of shrillness, torn ribbons of golden yellow fleeing past, shards of noise almost physical in form. For a short while the passage was relentless, a veritable layered conveyer belt of migration in action. Birding does not come in many purer and wilder forms. To watch birds moving out of instinct and sheer need is exhilarating.

By the time the movement had finished we had logged 6,175 of the little beauties. There was not a lot else moving - just 94 Meadow Pipit, 8 alba Wagtail, 2 Skylark, 11 Swallow, a Brambling, 34 Chaffinch, 6 Greenfinch, 2 Redpoll, 50 Siskin and 200 Linnet. Oh, and one other species - a single Hawfinch - one of the early irrupters that were going to delight and astound me over the coming winter. But that's another story...

Taking time out from a frenzied flight

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