By Marcus Ward, 9 January 2016
It’s 7:20am, about 40 minutes before sunrise, and the sky is just turning grey as I make my way along a woodland ride in the south of the New Forest. I walk quietly along the track, keeping my ears open for those strange nocturnal noises you often hear in this pre-dawn period. I sense a large shape pass low over my head, and soon after I hear the distinctive mewing of a Buzzard. Surprisingly early risers, I am often ‘buzzed’ by individuals checking me out in the half-light.
I frequently wander through the forest at this time of day monitoring Hawfinch roosts, but today is more exploratory – I am following up a tip-off that Hawfinches have been seen recently in this area. Ten minutes later I am in position amongst an area of holly, adjacent to a small plantation of Douglas Firs. I can hear a couple of Tawny Owls hooting to one another, and a young Fallow buck passes close by; we lock eyes momentarily but he doesn’t perceive my static figure as a threat, and after a few moments he slowly ambles on.
By 7:45am the forest is starting to wake up, and nearby I hear roosting Bullfinches starting to call to one another; I count at least four birds in one holly, probably a regular roost site. By 7:55am the surrounding woodland is starting to resonate with chatter as birds emerging from their roost sites communicate with one another. A couple of noisy Crossbills pass over, and I soon pick up a small group of crests noisily bickering in an adjacent holly and pick out the distinctive tones of Firecrest. It is still semi-dark, but I manage to pick out two Firecrests busily flitting around the holly sprigs, picking off unsuspecting insects as they go.
Then, just after 08:00am, my patience pays off as I hear the distinctive metallic ‘tic’ of a Hawfinch – it sounds like the bird is sat atop an Oak tree, literally just above me. A minute later I hear another calling from the nearby Douglas Firs and the bird above me responds to its call. The contact calls continue for another minute or so before both birds depart to the southwest. A short while later I hear a third bird in the Douglas Firs, and again hear the call receding as it moves off to the southwest.
So that becomes the 20th Hawfinch roost that I have discovered during my survey work on this species in the New Forest. It will take a number of repeat visits to get an understanding of the dynamics of this roost and the number of birds using it, but I have at least isolated the block of Douglas Fir they are using.
Before I move on to to inspect the site in more detail, the Firecrest in the adjacent holly treats me to my first song of the year for this species; this is earlier than normal, no doubt due to the ongoing mild weather – my previous earliest singing Firecrest was in the first week of February.
Follow the weblinks below for sound clips of Firecrest and Hawfinch:
At 8:30am I move off to look at the Douglas Fir plantation in more detail, and to work out the plan-of-action for my next visit and find a better vantage point; this will give me better visibility of the area that today’s Hawfinches emerged from. While I am walking through the plantation, eyes fixed on the skyline, a bird bursts up from beneath my feet – a roosting Woodcock that makes me jump out of my skin!
As I head home I reflect on the significance of this Hawfinch roost, as it is in area where the species has not previously been recorded. It is also close to a large village and the site is popular with locals using it for recreation, so it is encouraging to find Hawfinches here. Each new roost is an extra piece in the puzzle of how these nationally rare and fascinating birds use the New Forest. But for now it’s time for a well-earned breakfast!