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How I got close-up shots of one of the hardest birds to spot: the hawfinch
Whilst I was busy painting for my Christmas exhibition last October, I began to hear news of huge flocks of hawfinches arriving in the UK. As more and more sightings were recorded across the country, it became clear that we were experiencing the largest invasion of these rare finches ever recorded. Hawfinches enjoy a near-mythical status among birdwatchers, since they are among the hardest of all British birds to spot. The UK resident population is estimated to be as low as 1,500 and the bird is registered as endangered on the RSPB red list. This winter’s influx of birds turned out to be migrants from Europe’s Eastern Bloc, where there had been a severe harvest failure.
My interest piqued when the invasion hit Yorkshire. Hawfinches like to feed on the seeds of hornbeam trees which grow mainly in the south of the country. But there are hornbeams growing at The Yorkshire Arboretum, a botanical tree garden affiliated with Kew Gardens and part of the Castle Howard Estate. I couldn’t resist taking time away from my easel for a closer look. When I arrived at the arboretum, the place was already bustling with bird watchers keen to get a close look at this rare and impressive finch. There were hawfinches everywhere. You could see them flying high overhead and feeding in the stands of hornbeam, which were laden with seed.
These trees were still hanging on to the last of their leaves, which meant that in places it was hard to get a clear look at the birds. And the hawfinches were skittish and shy, making photographing them difficult. But the noise they made as they cracked open the hard hornbeam seeds gave them away. Hawfinches are notable for their unusually large beaks and strong jaws. The avian equivalent to a fireman’s hydraulic cutter, these beaks can shear open plum, cherry and even damson stones. The hawfinches use the cutting edge at the back of their beaks and hold it there whilst they skilfully extract the kernel with their tongues. The process is known as mandibulating and hawfinches are so deft they can strip a seed from its husk -without damaging the seed – at a rate of 15 seeds a minute. I know because I timed one.
I held up a telescope to examine a male as it perched on a branch of a hornbeam and was taken aback by how beautiful hawfinches are. Their plumage is a warm autumnal colour set off by an iridescent ‘sail’ along their secondary wing feathers. I decided I need to get closer. Much closer. But given that it was already very difficult to get a good photograph even when there were so many birds about, I realised that getting up close was going to take a lot of planning.
My first step was to approach the arboretum to see if I could put up a hide whilst they were closed to the public for the winter. I was delighted when they agreed and immediately set to work on building a hide specifically to attract hawfinches. I shut myself in my workshop for days whilst I also constructed a 12ft infinity pool to go outside the hide. This was to go at my eye level once I was inside my hide. And it needed to be strong since it would hold nearly a ton of water. I also built a large bird table – which again I wanted to position at eye level to the hide. I wanted the table to mimic a woodland floor and covered it with soil and leaf litter. It was a lot of work and I had no idea if it would work or not. But if you don’t try you don’t succeed! By the end of November everything was in place.
But then hawfinch numbers began to dwindle. Most of the hornbeam trees had been stripped bare and what was left of the seed had fallen to the floor. Luckily some of the finches remained and were now feeding on the woodland floor, pecking their way through the leaf litter where their autumnal colours made them difficult to spot.
I knew that to keep these birds from moving on I needed to offer their favourite food on my table. I bought some hornbeam seeds online. At £35 a kilo it’s the most expensive bird seed I had ever bought! I then hung some bird feeders close to my hide and scattered a mixture of seeds, including sunflower hearts, yew seeds and my expensive hornbeam seeds, on to the ground. I was hoping that if I attracted other finches to the site, the hawfinches might follow. Finches are social birds and tend to group together, the principal being that there is safety in numbers.
The arboretum closed to the public on December 1st. I now knew that I had almost 10 uninterrupted weeks to get some close up shots of these elusive birds. I went to my hide that very day and waited. Already some chaffinches and greenfinches had found the food. There were also nuthatches and tits feeding on the feeders. But after two hours of watching, there was still no sign of any hawfinches. It was pouring with rain, but as the rain eased a little I thought I heard one. A hawfinch makes a high pitched slightly spitting ‘pix’ sound – which seems out of character for such a bulky, powerful bird.
Then I noticed a flash of black and white wings. A hawfinch landed in the leaf litter just to the left of my hide and I slowly swung my camera around to it. The hawfinch began to feed alongside greenfinches and chaffinches. It wasn’t until I saw it next to its smaller cousins that I really appreciated how big this finch is. It is twice the size of a greenfinch and has a huge head that makes it look top-heavy and almost prehistoric.
Before very long I spotted another bird. And then a third hawfinch appeared. I noticed the third bird was eating sunflower seeds. So much for the expensive hornbeam seed I had bought. All of a sudden the birds began to call out in alarm and flew away. A fox wandered past. It was as if the fox knew the arboretum was closed for the season. It gave my hide a nonchalant look as it passed by. After this successful sighting I realised that my scheme might just work after all. Now all I needed was to get the hawfinches to feed on the table I had built.
As I was driving home that evening I passed through North Grimston and noticed a line of yew trees at the side of the road. Hawfinches, incredibly, can crack open yew stones and eat the seeds that are highly poisonous to mammals inside. Other bird species only ever ingest these seeds and then eject them whole. I pulled over and as soon as I got out of the car I heard a hawfinch calling. Sure enough there were a number of hawfinches feeding on these yews. On the pavement there were hundreds of yew stones. I drove back the next day and filled two wheelbarrows with the sweepings off the path. I sifted out the stones, dried them out on my boiler and then added these to the other seed delicacies on the table.
Then one day in mid-December, a male hawfinch landed on the edge of the pool I had built. It was only four feet away from me. My heart nearly stopped as I tried to train my camera on it. But within seconds it was gone. Then a second male landed briefly on the table, but again it was soon gone. I realised I needed to make some adjustments to encourage the hawfinches to the table. I noticed that the hawfinches were reacting to any changes – especially to the shutters being open and camera lenses poking out. I decided to disturb them as little as possible by leaving the shutters open. Then I built some ‘false’ camera lenses made from painted plant pots – I placed a piece of black Perspex on one end to mimic the glass of a real lens – and left these poking out of the hide so that the hawfinches got used to them being there all the time. I usually only have to do this for birds that are very wary, like buzzards.
A week later I noticed my ploy had worked. Five or six hawfinches were feeding on the table. I stopped leaving seed for them on the ground and by Christmas Eve I started getting the sort of shots I wanted. After almost two months of persevering, my efforts were paying off. I became obsessed by hawfinches. I even went to my hide on Christmas day and on Boxing Day to feed them. In fact most of my Christmas and New Year was spent in the hide filming and photographing them from dawn until dusk.
And there was never a dull moment. Not only were the hawfinches fascinating, but there was also a supporting cast of more than 100 other woodland birds, including nuthatches, goldfinches, chaffinches, siskins, bramblings, fieldfares and woodpeckers to watch. A flock of more than 60 greenfinches as well as long tailed tits, blue tits, coal tits, willow tits and great tits were also among the throngs of birds gathered around my hide almost every day. I felt so aware how the arboretum is more than just a home to more than 1,600 tree species, it is also a sanctuary for a wide species of birds – and of course a hawfinch haven. I felt so grateful to the arboretum for brightening up my winter with this super-sized finch. By mid-January I had 30 hawfinches feeding on my table and could see up to 100 perched in lime trees close to the arboretum’s visitor centre. It was incredible and the photographs and video that I got were worth every moment.
I learned a lot about hawfinches as I watched them. Read my blog on four of the most fascinating facts that you may not know about a hawfinch here.
- My hawfinch photographs and video footage will be on exhibit alongside a new painting inspired by my experience at The Yorkshire Arboretum visitor centre from February 10th – March 17th. The arboretum is open from 10am-4pm daily. The display will also be available to see at my gallery in Thixendale from 9.30am – 4.30pm on weekdays and from 10.30am-4.30pm on weekends.
Author: Robert E Fuller