Ray Collier Country Diary – Hawfinch

Just occasionally a rare bird turns up in the wrong place at the wrong time and such  was the case a while back with  a bird in a garden near Inverness.  It is a garden with the usual feeders with mixed grain in some and peanuts in others plus a nyjer filled feeder.  There were the usual great, blue and coal tits at the feeders plus siskins on the nyjer and then suddenly there was a juvenile male hawfinch.  The birds was at the mixed grain feeder and on one occasion it went to the nyjer and fed.   It stayed around  for a few days and then just went away.  It may have been too young to breed, had failed to find a female or had been rejected but it was an unusual record as they are very rare in the Highlands.

The hawfinch is a large heavy looking finch and much larger than a greenfinch.  The blue grey beak is, and looks, massive and so much so that when bird ringers come across them they literally handle them with gloves as the beak is so powerful.   The black throat and black wings contrast with the white flash on the wings and brown head and lower parts.  Unusually the secondary feathers are splayed out at the tips and look like a series of spikes.  What is unusual to see one in a garden is that normally they are very secretive spending most of their time in the tree tops where they are easily overlooked.   The flight is conspicuous as it is rapid, powerful and bounding.

It seems likely they were fairly widespread as a breeding bird around 1970 when the first bird atlas was published and there were records in the Aberdeen area.  By the late 1980s the second atlas indicated the population had fallen by over 30% and from then there seems to have been a slow decline and now there appear to be no breeding records for the whole of the Highlands.  Because the birds are so secretive the numbers of breeding pairs in Scotland appear to have been under recorded and the latest information in “Birds of Scotland” indicates there may be 40 to 75 pairs.  Wintering numbers may include some continental migrants but most birds are apparently resident.   It seems likely that the wintering numbers are around 100 to 200 birds.   Interestingly in many areas on the Continent they are regularly seen at garden feeders so if that habit spreads to Britain it might be a different story in the future.   Their main food is large seeds from woodland trees and they love hornbeam which are very rare in the Highlands.  So they resort  to beech plus Autumn fruits such as hips and haws.  They can even crack open cherry stones that are beyond most birds but the hawfinch with its strong beak and very strong muscles can deal with them.    They also eat buds and shoots and, in summer, the caterpillars of moths.   Seeing hawfinches in the Highlands is unpredictable but they appear to have a liking for yew trees so burial grounds and churchyards might be worth a look.  The photograph is of the bird on a mixed seed feeder.

The hawfinch has no Scots name perhaps because it has always been rare.  There are local names such as cherry finch, berry breaker and pie finch.       The Gaelic name is Gobach or Glaisean-gobach.    The birds are protected at all times under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  Because the birds have decreased so much and still seem to be in decline they are on the amber list of UK birds.