|Shy visitor - blown here by Storm Ophelia?|
AN “irruption” of hawfinches has been a highlight of early-winter bird migration to the UK.
The resident population - which is probably fewer than 1,000 pairs - has been boosted by birds flying here from the continent.
Says Jamie Wyver of the RSPB: “Hawfinches are the nutcrackers of the bird world, with their massive parrot-like bills that can crack even the hardest nutshells.
“The influx is a real treat as hawfinches are very attractive birds, patterned with autumnal shades, including a rich chestnut head, rose-pink breast and black and white wing markings.
“In recent weeks, numbers seen have been much larger than normal, with hundreds of sightings recorded.
Lizzie Bruce, warden at the RSPB’s nature reserve at The Lodge in Sandy, Bedfordshire, comments: “In our county alone over 230 hawfinches have been counted.
“That’s extraordinary, as in most years we are lucky to see one or two.
“At The Lodge we’ve had up to four hawfinches in the tops of the birch and yew trees with single birds flying over most days in October.
“This has caused great excitement for our visitors and RSPB staff, who have been dropping everything and running out the office to catch a glimpse of individual birds perched at the top of a tree!’’
She continues: "Typically irruptions are associated with failing food supply: too many birds, or not enough food for them to survive the winter.
“This happened last year with another species - the waxwing.
“The weather is also a factor.
“Hawfinches traditionally migrate south from their breeding grounds in Central Europe towards the Mediterranean.
“This year their migration coincided with the arrival of Storm Ophelia which headed eastwards from the Atlantic swirling anti clockwise, with the strong winds pushing many of the migrating hawfinches into the UK.
“This theory probably explains why the majority of hawfinches have been seen in the South of England and Wales.”
RSPB scientists are studying the reasons why hawfinches no longer nest in the UK as widely as they used to.
There is an ongoing collaboration with Cardiff University to ascertain whether food availability may be a factor.
Hawfinches are immensely shy, and winter, when many trees are bare, is probably the best times to catch a glimpse.
Hawfinches flock together at dusk to roost in trees for the night, and will also gather during the day to look for food.
Photo: Courtesy RSPB