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The Recent Status of the Hawfinch in Lincolnshire (1970-1999) by Graham Catley

Back in 1970 prior to my graduation to the heights of car driver, let alone owner, birdwatching trips to localities beyond the reach of the bicycle were restricted to the odd Sunday afternoon sight seeing tours with the family. On one such occasion, on the unlikely seeming date of July 5th, a rather fortuitous stop for a picnic adjacent to Pelhams's Pillar wood produced a sighting of a huge billed pink beast of a finch which came down to drink from a small puddle right by the side of the parked car. Its visit was relatively short lived; flushed by a passing vehicle, but its unmistakable features were well etched in my memory and a fascination with an almost mythical Lincolnshire bird had begun. The event was marked by publication in the Lincolnshire Bird Report of that year where it appeared a single record of a party of three seen at Potterhanworth Wood on March 29th.

Hawfinch North Lincolnshire Feb 2002

Hawfinch North Lincolnshire Feb 2002 © Graham Catley

In spite of seeing in excess of 170 Hawfinches in various Norfolk localities between 1974 and 1980, when regular trips to Breckland were a feature of my birding, it was another most unexpected sighting that accounted for my second Lincolnshire Hawfinch. Searching the scrubby perifery of the pits at Far Ings in search of early spring migrants on the morning of April 16th 1983, I rounding a clump of hawthorns whereupon a superb Hawfinch announced its presence as it flew up from the ground with a burst of explosive ticking and landed in the top of a large hawthorn. The encounter was as is so often the case a brief one as it all too quickly bounded away over the scrub never to be seen again. The big-billed finch had been added to my Barton list. In spite of spending more hours around the pits than I care to be reminded of in the seventeen years since that encounter, that lone bird remains my only local record to date but there exist other historical records from Barton in autumn 1947 and on January 4th 1969. But where did you have to go to see the species anywhere else in Lincolnshire?

Hawfinches are usually to be found in mature woodlands but also occur in old orchards and even gardens where the species is numerous, in fact in any woodland with a suitable food supply. The new Collins Field Guide, Mullarney et al, described habitat as "breeds in deciduous and mixed woods, preferring mature, lofty deciduous with plenty of oak, hornbeam, beech, ash and elm. Also attracted to fruit trees" They also state that it is "Very wary and shy and difficult to observe, spends most time up in canopy or seen flying fast high up between woodland-edge trees."

Hawfinch North Lincolnshire Feb 2002

Hawfinch North Lincolnshire Feb 2002 © Graham Catley

If seen the Hawfinch is quite unmistakable but by their very nature they tend to be inconspicuous and retiring. Most of their time seems to be spent high in the woodland canopy especially in summer when trees in full leaf form a perfect barrier to sightings from the woodland floor. Even in winter they often seem shy and will fly considerable distances if disturbed but at other times they can appear to be relatively tame if feeding in a favoured locality. The real key to finding Hawfinches lies not in having good eyesight but in having a good ear for their call. To my ears somewhat similar to the tick of a Robin but louder and more clipped, Lars Svensson in Mullarney et al describes it as "a very hard and sharp clicking pix with an almost electric quality or like the sound made by stabbing a spike into solid granite; with a bit of practice easy to recognise and distinguish from e.g. a Robin's ticking tic often repeated at a slow pace in undulating flight (one pix on each rise)". A better description would be hard to find. The note is recognisable once learnt but sadly most of us hear it so infrequently that learning by experience is a tricky business. Once picked up though the note will immediately direct the eyes to the sky as it is almost always the case that the origin of the note will be a bulky short-tailed, broad-winged bird either in bounding flight high overhead or perched in the very tops of the tallest and thickest tree nearby. Learn the call and you increase your chances of finding a Hawfinch by 100%. I have only heard the song on a couple of occasions. On the most recent in March 1995 my notes read ` song a collection of the normal tic notes plus a nasal tseeek with longer and shorter variants'. It is not immediately recognisable and does not grab the attention usually being drowned out by other woodlands calls and song.

Graph 1. Lincolnshire Coastal Hawfinch records

Graph 2. Lincolnshire Inland Hawfinch records 1970-98

Graph 3. Lincolnshire Hawfinch records 1970-99

 

Hawfinches occur at a wide variety of sites throughout Norfolk and in the southern counties of England but their true status in Lincolnshire always seems to have been clouded in mystery. Writing in 1952, Smith and Cornwallis presented the known status of the Hawfinch as " A scarce resident in most well-wooded districts. " By 1989 when Atkin and Lorand published the updated version of the county avifauna their assessment of its status gave little further real insight into its county distribution; "A scarce and local resident occurring mainly in the more extensive areas of deciduous woodland." They also briefly describe its increase and spread to the north of the county in the late 1800's and early part of the twentieth century, a spread and increase also noted in Yorkshire during the same period Mather 1985. There seems to be little evidence of the species distribution or numbers however, between 1914 when Blathwayt reported it as nesting in fair numbers in both southern and northern localities, and 1989 when the final sentence in Atkin and Lorand states "It seems to have declined since then [1914] but there is no evidence of any recent change in status."

As a species Lincolnshire birdwatchers tend to shun woodlands for the delights of wetlands, estuaries and the coast. So are Hawfinches out there escaping detection or are they really as rare in the county as the published information suggests? There are still plenty of mature woodland blocks in certain parts of the county but do they have the right mix of species to support Hawfinches?

A trawl through the historical reports suggests that there was a great deal of presumption in the 1960's and 1970's with regular status comments based on a single B to indicate breeding. There appears to have been no actual proof of any Hawfinches having nested in most of these years but they were assumed to be resident and therefore present in the county.

The actual published records from 1970-1995 and subsequent birds reported in 1996-98 fall into two neat groups, coastal migrants and birds seen at inland sites, mainly woodlands. There are obvious temporal differences between these two groups as shown in the accompanying charts. The 23 coastal records are obviously clustered in spring April-May with a less obvious autumn pattern spread thinly from late August to mid November but with two little peaks in late September to early October and the first two weeks of November. There are also two records at the turn of the year, which are somewhat surprising. Annual variations in coastal occurrences have been few but there was an obvious run of records from the mid 1970's to the early 80's. Records have been few in recent times apart from the peak year of 1994. It seems likely that these records refer to Scandinavian migrants as their temporal pattern of occurrence ties in with the species movements from and to Scandinavia in spring in autumn. Coastal birds have been seen at the usual hot spots between North Cotes and Gibraltar Point but also in the Wash at Kirton Marsh January 1994 and slightly inland at Conisholme 2 March 1st 1996.

Taking the records of inland birds and plotting birds in each of the ten-day periods of each month in which they occurred produces a very clear pattern. The table differentiates between the number of records and the number of individuals reported but the underlying pattern is still the same although exaggerated particularly in the early spring by the presence of small flocks. There is an obvious peak in sightings between mid February and mid May but with a scatter of records through the summer and winter months. Birds are often at their most obvious in early spring when there are no leaves on the trees and the birds are singing in advance of the breeding season. At this time flocks have been found feeding mainly on the seeds of Yew and Hornbeam.

Distribution through the county in the past thirty years has been heavily skewed towards the woodlands of the northwest around Scunthorpe, which have produced the vast majority of the records. Is this because this is now the county stronghold or simply that it is the only area where people look hard for the species? There has been a wide scatter of records from Bourne, Dunsby and Temple Woods, Sudbrooke, South Witham and Twyford Forest in the south to South Thoresby, where there were two breeding records in the late 1970's, Burwell Wood, Bardney Forest, Potterhanworth Wood, Metheringham and Kirkby Moor. Past breeding season records came from Belton Park in the southwest. Surely birds must still occur in some of these localities especially in the south of the county?

In the north west of the county birds have been recorded over a fairly widespread area from Laughton Forest and Scotton to Scawby Park, north to Normanby Park and Atkinson's Warren. There were records at Laughton in 1971 and Brumby Common in 1976, Twigmoor in 1979 and 1983 prior to the recent run of regular records which ensued after Wayne Gillatt located a flock of up to six birds in Brumby Woods between May and June 1984. The early spring flock at Brumby Wood and the adjacent crematorium became a regular feature of the second half of the 1980's and provided many Lincs birders with good views of the species. The flock reached a peak of 12 birds in March-April 1991but only three were seen in 1992 and two in 1993. An autumn record of two on a nearby housing estate in 1994 seemed to close the occurrences at this locality. At the crematorium the birds fed on the seeds of some small hornbeams planted on the open grass area. It is not clear why they seem to have deserted this locality but increased disturbance in the woods from the inevitable dog walkers and motor bikes have presumably had an effect. In April 1984 and May 1988 WG also observed Hawfinches flying high over Ashby Ville on a line which would have connected the Brumby site with Twigmoor and the adjacent woodlands on the ridge. It thus seems likely that all of the records in the Scunthorpe area over the last 16 years have involved the same population of birds moving between feeding, breeding and wintering areas. The only sizeable wintering flock was located by John Harriman in December 1992 when up to 12 birds were feeding in yew trees in Broughton Woods. Subsequent searches in later years failed to relocate these birds. In recent years the only regular site for the species has been the yew trees in Scawby Park where the flock peaked at 8 in March 1994 and 7 in March April 1995. It should be noted that there is only one public footpath through the park, which does not go alongside the woodland. There are apparently plans to tighten up other access, which has been generally ignored in recent years, due to the typical transgressions of large number of dog walkers. Probably a good thing for the Hawfinches but not for birders!

There are only four actual references to breeding having occurred in the county in the last thirty years. An adult with four fledged juveniles was seen at South Thoresby on August 17th 1977 and a single juvenile was reported there on July 28th the following year. In May 1990 while checking out a report of Hawfinch in a small wood on the edge of Scunthorpe, in preparation for a bird race, I was delighted to see two birds land in the top of a small dead spruce. Both dropped into the top of a twenty-foot high isolated mature hawthorn but only one came out. A surreptitious check through the leafy canopy from below revealed the tip of a Hawfinch tail projecting over the rim of a nest. I found the location to be rather surprising having previously thought that nests would be located in the topmost fork of a mature deciduous tree in the middle of an area of old undisturbed woodland. Reference to the Popular Handbook would however have been informative for there it states under "Nests on horizontal branches of fruit trees, occasionally in forest trees or thorn bushes at varying heights". This one was within a few yards of a fairly busy car parking area and was in an isolated bush set away from the edge of the wood. It seemed likely to me at the time that this particular breeding attempt failed as no birds were seen when it was checked at a later date. Looking at the nesting details in the handbook however, shows that incubation is given as 9 ½ days and the young then fly when 10-11 days old. Thus from commencement of incubation to fledging may be as short as 20 days which could mean the young fledged prior to my subsequent visit. A pair fledged young in the same area in 1993 the last known breeding in the area.

So a brief potted recent history of one of our most elusive resident birds. More birdwatchers looking in more woodland may reveal that the species is more widespread than records show but in recent years there appears to have been a general decline in many adjacent counties. It would be nice to know just how many Lincolnshire woodlands play host to this the most superb of our finch tribe and truly one of the best looking species on any birders list.

Graham Catley with thanks to many of the birders of the northwest especially, Wayne Gillatt, Neil Drinkall and John Harriman who have located most of the recent birds in the northern woodlands.

References

Atkin K and Lorand S 1989 The Birds of Lincolnshire and South Humberside YNU Publication

Cornwallis R.K and Smith A E 1955 The Birds of Lincolnshire Leading Edge

Hollom P A D et al The Popular Handbook of British Birds 1962 H F & G Witherby Ltd

Mather J The Birds of Yorkshire 1985 Croom Helm Mullarney K et al 1999 Collins Bird Guide Collins

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