Five years ago, to this very day, I was knee-deep in Hawfinches, scouring the wooded valleys of the Surrey North Downs and enjoying numbers that had never been recorded before in the UK. I doubted that such experiences would be repeated again in my lifetime, and although this has been the case so far, events of the past week has questioned such an assumption.
It started on March 5th, when Sussex-birder Mark Mallalieu found at least 70 Hawfinches at Fairmile Bottom near Arundel (in West Sussex). He wondered whether the Surrey sites that had hosted good numbers during the 2017-18 eruption might be worth checking. I took the hint! On March 10th I spent the afternoon on Headley Heath, taking a slight detour to check a small part of Bramblehall Wood. Apart from a single bird at Headley Warren, plus three over the heath, I had to wait until 15.30hrs when a flock of 33 arrived from the south (Box Hill) and flew along the line of the western valley until veering off westwards towards High Ashurst. The following day saw me walking the length of Bramblehall Wood (late-morning), trawling through the woodland on Ashurst Roughs, and spending time skywatching from Juniper Top - unfortunately, a Hawfinch blank, although two Goshawk and a singing Crossbill were some compensation. I was aware that during the irruption, Bramblehall Wood and surrounding area could be heaving with Hawfinches in the early morning, but deserted later, so my lack of success was not surprising.
On March 12th, a dawn visit to Bramblehall Wood and Ashurst Roughs by Andy Holden provided what I had expected and hoped - Hawfinches were present in good number, with 60 being present. I followed in Andy's footsteps on March 16th and was delighted to find a minimum of 70 birds present. They were there from first light, with much calling (lisping sips and ticks) mostly in tree tops on a wooded slope that lead up from the lower footpath (opposite Bramblehall) onto Ashurst Roughs. They allowed me to walk under the trees and stare up at them, but always just far enough away to stop any decent picture being obtained (hence the poor effort used here as illustration). I was with them for an hour, before they slowly slipped away towards Box Hill. Few flew across the horse gallops and into Bramblehall. The number of unseen callers would suggest that there were many more present.
Now. This area is not well bird watched. It takes an effort to park the car in a small lonely spot; walk a mile along slippery, undulating and in places steep footpaths; and clamber down (or up) treacherous, moss carpeted slopes that are covered in fallen trees, just to get a decent view of the woodland edge. Without doubt the numbers of five years ago were a freak, but this very area hosted 130 in 2013 and now, in 2023, a minimum of 70. Question is, are such numbers, at least in the 70-130 range, of annual occurrence? Have they been missed because birders do not tend to cover the area? And do they only gather in such numbers towards the end of the winter?
I think it fair to say that if Mark had not had his Sussex success then I would have not gone searching and neither would Andy. They could so easily have been missed. Maybe those of us who are drawn to this big-billed finch will now go and check those 'paths less trodden' during the month of March.