By Charlotte Owen
It would be easy to dismiss December as a dull and boring month without much wildlife to see, and better spent wrapped up warm indoors. But the wintry weather brings with it an exciting chance to see some rare and unusual seasonal visitors, and this year we’ve been treated to a horde of hungry hawfinches.
Less than a handful of them breed here in Sussex and they are usually a scarce sight even in winter, when a few extra migrants arrive from continental Europe. This year, we’ve seen a record influx and a huge peak in reported hawfinch sightings, about 12 times higher than usual. It seems they’ve had a particularly successful breeding season and with more mouths to feed, hungry flocks are now on the move in search of seeds, hips and haws.
They can still be tricky birds to spot though because they’re shy and secretive, tending to stick to the treetops and fly at high altitude. Listen out for a ‘tic-tic’ call overhead or scan the highest branches for a group of stocky silhouettes, particularly at dusk as they gather together to roost. If you do manage to get a good view, the first thing you’ll notice about this heavily-built bird is the impressive beak, which is incredibly large and chunky even by finch standards. Powered by massive jaw muscles, this specialised bill can deliver a crushing force more than a thousand times greater than the bird’s own body weight, and it’s strong enough to crack the toughest of cherry stones with ease. Cherry seeds seem to be a hawfinch’s favourite snack but they will also eat the large seeds of beech and hornbeam and forage their way through the hedgerows for the red berries of hawthorn, sometimes feeding on the ground and often moving around in groups. Male and female hawfinches share the same striking plumage: a warm, orangey-brown head with black eye markings that can give them a bit of a frowny face, and a grey scarf around the muscular neck. If you’re lucky enough to see one of these fantastic finches, do let me know by calling 01273 494777 or emailing [email protected]