Of Hawfinches and Karma

I grew up in Northumberland, next to an old WW2 army camp of Nissen huts and cheap brick buildings.  When I was very young some of the buildings were being used for rearing pigs – noisy porkers growing fat on the swill brewed up from school dinner leftovers, restaurant scrapings and stale bakery discards – ah, we knew how to make recycling work in those days!  However in due course the pig farm closed down and the buildings lay empty for several years while a rampant growth of hawthorns and elder bushes, fueled by years of copious manuring, sprang up around them. Checking inside for barn owl roosts one snowy winter’s day I noticed the silhouettes of birds feeding on the haws through the grimy cobwebbed windows, and then discovered that a broken pane meant I had a brilliant ready-made hide.  I found an old wooden chair and spent many happy hours watching throngs of thrushes – redwings and fieldfares as well as blackbirds, mistle and song thrushes – and other birds driven to the berries by the snow, at little more than arm’s length.  I have never been as close to fieldfares, so handsome and wary, before or since.  And then some birds turned up that I had never seen before – big chunky finches with massive bills and grumpy expressions.  They were subtly coloured in peach, cinnamon and apricot, their wings strikingly patterned and with a small patch of curiously shaped inky blue feathers; those bills framed in deep black making them look almost parrot or toucan-like, as if they would be more at home in a tropical rain forest.  They were Hawfinches (Coccothraustes coccothraustes).

The only other time I had seen hawfinches since then was one or two summers later when I came across a family party, adults and fledglings, in the Blyth Valley woodlands nearby.  This would have been about 1970 when hawfinches, which had been gradually increasing in distribution and abundance since the mid-1800s, were at the peak of their British fortunes. After about 1990, however, their expansion went into reverse for reasons not yet understood, and none have been known to breed in Northumberland since 2005.

Hawfinch by Brian Martin

So I was very interested when word on the birding grapevine reached me last November that there was a big influx of wintering hawfinches that were turning up all over Britain.  As with its decline as a breeding bird, there seems to be no consensus on what has produced this unusual irruption.  Hawfinches are widespread in continental Europe and there have been mutterings about forest fires in Portugal and a shortage of tree seeds in Eastern Europe, but no clear evidence offered for either of these hypotheses.  A twitter group has been set up to report sightings in Britain (@HawfinchesUK) which is well worth visiting if you want to find out whether there are any known to be near you.  Otherwise it is worth checking any stands of hornbeams, yews, cherries or other trees with large hard seeds – they could, literally, turn up anywhere with a suitable food source.

I was lucky to have some reported not far away from me at Abbey Mills on the outskirts of Morpeth.  Morpeth is a small (but rapidly expanding) market town, unwisely located where the valley of the River Wansbeck narrows as it cuts into the coastal plain.  This means it is prone to severe flooding but also that it is very richly endowed with ancient semi-natural woodlands on the steep valley sides of both the main river and its tributary burns (it is therefore entirely appropriate that William Turner, the 16th century ‘Father of English Botany’ not the fictional movie pirate, came from Morpeth).  However to my surprise the Abbey Mill hawfinches were not utilising these ancient woodlands but rather three rows of tall, spindly and tightly spaced hornbeams on the fields of the floodplain.  Hawfinches, with their massive seed-cracking bills, love hornbeam seeds so that they were making use of these trees was not the surprise; finding so many hornbeams planted on the outskirts of Morpeth was.  Hornbeam is not native this far north, and while you come across scattered planted and naturalised hornbeams in Northumberland I had never come across so many in one place.

Hawfinch by Brian Martin

I was pondering this while admiring the little flock of hawfinches that had taken up residence, and remarked on it to a birder called Duncan, a man well into his third age, who had been photographing the birds.

‘Ah’, he said, ‘I know the answer to that – I planted them!  This was a county council tree nursery back in the ‘60s and I worked here.  We planted those trees to make hedges to divide it up into compartments.  We didn’t know they were hornbeams – we thought we were planting beech !’

Duncan had come to birding relatively late in life and had never seen hawfinches before they turned up here on his doorstep.

Hawfinch on hornbeam by Brian Martin (@BrianSmyrTyr1)

It is nice to think something you do for one reason can have entirely unforeseen but beneficial results that give you such pleasure fifty years later – that, surely, has to be some kind of Karma!