Hawfinches are normally tricky birds to see and especially so in Oxfordshire. They used to be seen in small numbers in the grounds of Blenheim Palace but in recent years, apart from occasional sightings, seem to have disappeared from the area. As far as I know there are no longer any reliable sites in the county although they do get sporadically reported from various areas.
Over the last few months though the UK has been hit by a major invasion of these finches, known as an "irruption" and many have been noted in the country including some in Oxfordshire. We saw our first of these invaders in Cornwall back in October but views at the time were distant and difficult. Over the last few weeks more local reports had been coming in of birds seen at various places and we had caught up with some in a couple of local sites. They appear to have a penchant for churchyards since those places always contain a yew tree or two and hawfinches love yew berries! On Friday 5th January a fine local birder (Mick C) found a small flock of hawfinches feeding in Northmoor Churchyard in South-West Oxon so on Saturday morning Mrs Caley and I went down to have a look.
We arrived, parked right outside the church gates and immediately clocked a hawfinch perched in a tree behind the church. Too easy! I hadn't even taken the camera out of the boot but fortunately the bird remained and I rattled off a few record shots just in case that proved to be the only sighting. I needn't have worried!
Walking into the churchyard and towards the tree that the hawfinch was in we met another birder already there and shared the news of the hawfinch that was in the tree behind him but that he hadn't seen. He told us that there were more hawfinches present and that they were feeding in one of the yew trees but were difficult to see once they were in them. Yew trees are very dense trees and birds can easily disappear in them. I looked hard into the tree but couldn't see any birds but did notice several hawfinches flying overhead and back towards the original tree. Sure enough that tree now held at least 4 hawfinches but they didn't rest there long, they never do!
We gained a better vantage point behind the church and soon the hawfinches returned with some of them flying into a yew tree right next to our spot. We had to back off slightly in order to see the top of the tree but our luck was in as we spotted a hawfinch feeding in the uppermost branches and even more fortunately, out in the open! This bird seemed unperturbed by our presence and fed heartily on the berries. We were getting brilliant views of a normally hard to see bird and my camera went into overdrive! It was joined by another two but they were more elusive choosing to feed in towards the heart of the tree. After a good five minutes or so the hawfinches all flew back to the original bare tree, preened for a moment and then exited to the south and into a neighbouring garden.
While we waited, Steve joined us and we related our gripping tale of just how well they had showed in the yew! A hawfinch once again returned to the bare tree and Steve was able to join in the bonanza. No sustained views this time though and the bird flew out after just a few seconds. Amazingly there was now a whole flock of hawfinches flying over. They landed in spindly trees (elders?) next to a footpath that ran eastwards away from the church and between some gardens. I counted 7 hawfinches in one tree and another 2 in another making 9 altogether (gee my maths is good!). I had a feeling that with the birds flying around that there may have been more so 9 was a minimum number present. I tried to approach them but a (cursed) dog walker put them to flight before I could get there. They appeared to fly further away this time so I returned to the churchyard.
The hawfinches were soon back though, again flying overhead but this time the destination was a very tall tree at the front of the churchyard. Here they posed beautifully and the sun had burst through the layer of cloud so they were well illuminated allowing all their colours to be admired. The breeze was at our backs too so they faced us too. We were definitely charmed today!
We realised that the hawfinches were now going to a yew tree next to the tall tree and once again we manoeuvred into position for a better view. Over the next half an hour several birds fed in that yew tree and a couple of them showed themselves extremely well. I think we got our best ever views of hawfinches and the only slight disappointment was my images weren't quite as sharp as I had hoped for. But to be fair, in order to see the birds at the top of the trees, you had to be a good 30 yards away. I'm not really complaining though since the experience will stay with me forever.
Several other eminent county birders arrived but unfortunately the hawfinches became less cooperative and their appearances became less frequent with mainly fly overs the norm. We left the others to it and nipped into Farmoor where a water pipit had been seen earlier. We couldn't locate it but did have the consolation of finding the female greater scaup (a county tick for me, but I don't keep lists!) and burying a hoodoo after the lesser/greater scaup hybrid duck (which was also still present). Shame that it was fast asleep!
Farmoor was a bit bleak and very cold now the sun had disappeared so we didn't linger long. Not much was around other than the feral snow goose flock which was loitering way over the far side of FII but interestingly the first time I had ever seen them at Farmoor! Some little grebes and squabbling coots provided entertainment on the walk back but despite searching for the water pipit again we could only find grey and pied wagtails.
On Sunday Mrs Caley had come down with a heavy cold but fancied some fresh air so we chose to have a quick look around Blenheim Park. We parked in Bladon and entered the park next to the pub. This entrance gives a quick route to the walled gardens (which you can only access by paying) where hawfinches used to be found. A few hawfinches (3) had been seen in the park a few days before, close to Bladon bridge, so I was soon scanning the tree tops. About halfway to the wall I noticed a bird perched right at the top of the tallest tree at the southern end of the gardens. Sure enough it was a hawfinch! And another sat lower down in an adjacent tree. We were doing well! Soon there were 3 perched together in the same tree. I took a quick record shot and posted the sighting on to the magnificent www.oxonbirding.blogspot.co.uk
The parkland was alive with corvids (jackdaws, rooks and crows) and gulls (black-headed and herring) and a fair number of red kites cruised around in the biting northerly wind. We got ourselves up to the wall with a clear view of the trees and the palace in the distance and set up the scope ready. A few stock doves were feeding on the grass and a great spotted woodpecker went hurtling past but we couldn't see any more hawfinches. Under the trees are a few yews so I suspected that, in keeping with other sites, that the hawfinches were feeding in those but careful scrutinising of the parts that I could see yielded no birds except for a couple of blackbirds and a goldcrest. After 10 minutes or so some birds arrived back in the tree tops and this time we had 6 hawfinches perched in them. I managed a record shot of all 6 before a passing sparrowhawk spooked them all and they disappeared.
On the walk back a large flock of redwing were feeding under some birch trees. A few fieldfares joined them.