By Marcus Ward, 26 January 2016
As we enter the fourth year of our New Forest Hawfinch survey the project is really gaining momentum, and we now have Hawfinch experts across the country following our progress and providing some great support.
The autumn period is often a quiet time in the Hawfinch world, with most birds coming out of their main post-breeding moult and focussing on reforming their winter flocks. Moult was particularly late this year, and appeared to be equally late at other Hawfinch hotspots across the country. Hawfinches keep a very low profile when moulting as they lose a lot of their agility, becoming an easier target for predators. This makes my job of monitoring their movements much more challenging, especially as their roost gatherings are at their lowest ebb at this time.
However, as the first of the winter thrushes arrive in October and start devouring the colourful berries of Holly and Rowan trees, Hawfinches quickly latch on to them and become more visible. Any patch of Holly or Rowan with its attendant Redwings and Fieldfares can attract Hawfinches, who follow the thrushes around in anticipation of expelled seed – why remove the flesh yourself when you can get a Redwing to do it for you!?
November is always a busy month as I embark on the bi-annual consecutive roost count, which sees me going around all 19 discovered roosts day-after-day so I can get a ‘snapshot’ count of the New Forest Hawfinch population. Unfortunately this year, after a very settled and calm autumn, the weather turned unsettled in early November and it seemed to barely stop raining throughout the month.
The inclement weather, combined with a very poor seed crop in the New Forest, made for lower than average counts at most of the roosts visited, with some returning very low counts indeed. The main purpose of the November consecutive count, in addition to getting a snapshot total, is to simply check that the known roosts are still active before the start of the winter season. Overall, I recorded a total of 268 Hawfinch from 19 roosts surveyed; this total is around 30% down from previous years but this does seem to accurately reflect the current situation in the New Forest. We have often suspected that the total number of Hawfinches in the New Forest is at its peak in spring and summer with numbers dipping considerably during those winters where better feeding opportunities can be found elsewhere.
Keep an eye out for the next Hawfinch survey update that will cover the winter period (Dec 2015 to Feb 2016), and should be published towards the end of February.