Hawfinch: A study of the Devon population and conservation by Roy Adams. Plymouth Branch AGM and Indoor Meeting on 13 November 2023

The enigmatic Hawfinch is something of a ‘bogey’ bird for many birdwatchers. In our county you may have been rewarded with sightings of these birds, for example in the area known as the ‘butterfly’ walk in Haldon Forest.   When we are fortunate enough to see this imposing and beautiful finch, it is a special event to remember, marking the date in our birding calendars!

Roy Adams knows much about Hawfinch having studied them and written scientific papers for a project that took him across the many forests of Great Britain and wider a field to Poland and Hungry in search of answers to the habits and behaviour of this bird. However, he pointed out that in reality we don’t know enough about this species. Why in some years do we see birds in a perfect habitat for them and yet they suddenly disappear?  What causes them to not turn up in their favourite trees at all, but then after several years, reappear?

Roy visited Budshead Wood in Plymouth this week and was impressed with the great Hornbeam trees laden down with seeds ripe and ready and inviting for Hawfinch, but there was no sight nor sound of them there. Historically in the 50s and early 60s there had been a fair-sized population there.  This is prior to the extensive building that now impinges on this woodland that dates back to the times of wooden ship building.

We know of recent Winter irruptions with Continental birds forced here when their indigenous food stocks are low.  It appears that this species needs a wide variety of food sources in an area, not just Hornbeam, but also Field Maple and Yew, so churchyard sites are worth investigating.  There is a magic when standing close by, hearing the cracking of seed pods by these finches as they feast.

In flight these large finches with their massive bills, short tails and ticking contact call are easily recognisable and their propensity to fly in and perch on the highest branches makes them easy to pick out – if one is lucky enough to time observations in their favoured spots.

Roy recommended February as a good time to see Hawfinch when they may also be singing, albeit a weak and wispy song for such a sizeable bird!  They are usually to be found in the leafless tree tops or foraging on the ground amongst the Beech mast, flying up as you approach them.

For Roy his commitment to monitoring and observing Hawfinch in Devon continues and brings him back from his home in Hungary where, in his adapted garden, he regularly sees good numbers. Just reward for this dedicated naturalist.

John Lloyd                    Committee member Devon Birds Plymouth Branch