Last winter will be remembered for the large number of overwintering hawfinches. Signs of an irruption became apparent in October when large numbers started to appear at migration hotspots including 50 on the Isles of Scilly.
This was probably due to a failure in fruit and seed crops in eastern Europe following some late spring frosts. During the winter hawfinches feed on seeds and are especially fond of hornbeam. Fortunately it was a mast year for this tree at Haldon Forest near Exeter and stands of hornbeam soon attracted flocks of over 20 hawfinches. Much larger numbers were present in the area as over a hundred birds recorded leaving a communal roost nearby in December.
It was a great opportunity to watch these often elusive birds. I made several visits to a stand of hornbeam close to some crackling electricity pylons and was rewarded with some excellent views. Their typical robin-like ticking calls and softer “shree” flight calls were often the first indication of their presence. By waiting quietly it was possible to observe them feeding on the hornbeam seeds. I was surprised at how acrobatic these large finches could be when picking off the seeds. Often a bird would pick a beak full of seed keys and fly to a nearby perch to eat them.