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 Hawfinch - Fact File

Hawfinch

Hawfinch in flight

Coccothraustes coccothraustes
Scarce and local resident, absent from Ireland and most of Scotland. Rather more widespread in winter.
Deciduous and mixed woodland, parkland, orchards and large gardens, especially where hornbeam, poplar or cherry are present.

Huge conical bill, black bib, grey collar and boldly marked black and white wings identify.

18cm
 

Hawfinch

Collins 'New Naturalist' volumes have accumulated through the post-war years to provide an invaluable library. Earlier issues have become collector's items among them 'The Hawfinch' by Guy Mountford published in 1957. Seeking a copy of this excellent monograph reflects the difficulties in observing an often highly-elusive bird.

Self-effacing hawfinches present great difficulty in assessing their status. Their shy and retiring habits and lack of conspicuous song make it possible for many people to live for years without discovering the presence of hawfinches.

Hawfinches spend the summer in dense tree foliage. At other seasons flocks search warily on the ground for fallen fruits. The birds have an unexplained habit of breeding in the same locality before disappearing and then returning after a few years. Such erratic behaviour results in few conclusions about population trends.

Hawfinch
Hawfinch: photo © Hannu Liivaar

This fluctuation in numbers has been highlighted by events at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust East Wretham reserve. Following arrival of a flight of 23 of these secretive visitors the birds fed day after day on hornbeam seeds, pausing from time to time to drink at shallow pools. With the arrival of spring almost all had slipped away as mysteriously as they had come. But a single pair remained. Soon, a small and rather untidy nest built of twigs and lined with lichens appeared. A clutch of eggs could be discerned from below through the flimsy nest-bottom.

During at least two succeeding winters unprecedented totals of hawfinches assembled at this reserve in February. A maximum count of birds flighting in at dusk was a remarkable 183. Today such numbers are but a memory...

Whenever I have been fortunate to watch a party of Breckland hawfinches they were very wary, taking flight at the first alarm and rocketing into the treetops. They always take a long time returning, constantly turning huge heads from side to side and dropping one by one in cautious stages through the branches.

Identification is fairly easy when the birds fly overhead in bounding flight, revealing translucent white in the wings and tail. The call too is distinctive: a high-pitched 'tick'. At close quarters the massive head and bill, the bull neck and short tail combine to give the hawfinch a stocky, top-heavy appearance.

During April hawfinches delight to perch on the topmost branches of tall trees. It has been at this season that I first became familiar with them. Courtship is elaborate: the cock's initial approach involves a wing-drooping ceremony showing to advantage the iridescent purple and green flight feathers. This display culminates in the cock making a deep bow, tucking his bill under his belly and revealing a grey nape patch. A 'moth-type' display when the cock makes short fluttering flights above the hen has been described. And aerial chases in which the cock chases headlong after a mate, twisting and turning among the trees.

Often several pairs of hawfinches nest in close proximity. These colonies usually consist of up to half a dozen pairs, but in two Suffolk woods scattered colonies of 20 pairs are on record. I am unaware of colonial nesting in Norfolk

.By Michael J Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.