Hawfinch tracking in the New Forest: a beginner’s guide

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By Helen Schneider 29 September 2019

Looking back now, I’m not quite sure how I came to spend so many hours over the last couple of months tracking hawfinch through the Forest. Indeed I confess that before I volunteered for this survey, I wasn’t 100% sure what a hawfinch looked like, having never knowingly seen one in the flesh. This is perhaps not surprising as it is one of the species on the red list of birds of highest conservation concern in the UK, meaning it is globally threatened and has suffered severe decline in the UK breeding population and/or range over at least the past 25 years. The New Forest remains one of its last strongholds in Britain. While it is our largest finch and the males in particular are rather colourful, with a large powerful bill and an attitude to match, the hawfinch’s habit of spending much of its time high up in the canopy make it difficult to see, particularly in summer when oak and beech are in leaf. Luckily, as we had to catch hawfinch in order to attach a temporary radio tag for the tracking, I got to see several adults and even one juvenile up close and personal.

Some of the Hawfinch tracking team on a training day (photo: Marcus Ward)
Some of the Hawfinch tracking team on a training day (photo: Andrew Colenutt)


The aim of the survey was to increase our understanding of which locations and habitats are important for breeding hawfinch to help ensure any future management work is sympathetic to its needs. My previous experience of radio tracking stretches back many moons to when I spent some time on the aptly named Kangaroo Island off South Australia, researching the behaviour of Rosenberg’s Goanna, a species of monitor lizard, and Echidna, a type of spiny anteater, one of the only two remaining egg-laying mammals in the world, the other being the fabulously named duck-billed platypus. Despite the considerable passage of time since then, superficially at least the technology doesn’t seem to have changed much. One innovation is the ability to record GPS data over a short period of time, as well as emit a radio signal over several weeks. Each tag is programmed to a different frequency so that individual birds can be identified as they are tracked.


Adult female Hawfinch HP, the only female tagged generated some very valuable data (Photo: Marcus Ward)
Adult female Hawfinch HP, the only female tagged generated some very valuable data (Photo: Marcus Ward)

There’s something oddly addictive about wandering around a landscape armed with an antenna, a little box receiver and a pair of headphones, turning a slow pirouette every few hundred metres, searching for that characteristic, but sometimes elusive, beep. Once you’ve got a signal, the hunt is on to pin down the bird’s location as accurately as possible. I guess our antics must have looked rather peculiar to people we met along the way. For those who asked what we were up to, their default guess seemed to be bat detecting – even though these encounters mostly occurred in broad daylight. I confess I did point the antenna at the odd car speeding down the road and then watch with a barely suppressed smile as it slowed down!

Tracking birds to their roosts involved working through dusk and into the night – with one particularly memorable session lasting until midnight as a result of us being so absorbed in the hunt that we lost all track of time. While I have done some camping under the night sky in the Australian Outback and in forests and on deserted beaches in the Tropics, my low cold tolerance means I haven’t done so in the New Forest since I was a child. Spending so much quiet time in the woods as the sun set and the moon rose, listening to the sounds of the night and coming across badgers, deer, foxes and nightjars going about their nocturnal business, was truly magical.

Hawfinch roost site in the central New Forest used nightly (photo: Marcus Ward)
Hawfinch roost site in the central New Forest (photo: Marcus Ward)

My thanks to Marcus from Wild New Forest for letting me volunteer despite not being your classic birder, and for being the source of knowledge on all things hawfinch. Huge thanks too to Andrew for going out of his way to give me lifts, being excellent company on our adventures and oh so patiently showing me the ropes of radio tracking in what must have been the longest apprenticeship ever. It was such a huge privilege to be involved, I hope to do so again next year. More info Wild New Forest’s work to support conservation action in the Forest can be found at www.wildnewforest.co.uk