Average Birding

Hertfordshire Hawfinches

This week brings many reports of Hawfinches. Perhaps one or two might still be reachable by the weekend.

As far as I can work out, thousands have turned up across the country. None of them convenient enough for a mid-week bike excursion. I spend the week sifting through the various sighting reports to try and find the sweet spot for a weekend attempt. I've not seen a Hawfinch before, so I don't much fancy having to pick one out in flight; we want a decent sized flock with a reputation for sitting about a bit. We also want to be able to get there using public transport and a bicycle in under an hour and a half.

These criteria quickly boil the options down to one; a big flock has frequently been seen in the back of a churchyard in Bramfield. Accessibility isn't great; it's a half hour cycle at each end of a forty minute train journey.

The cycle from Hertford North to Bramfield has some surprises, though; a Red Kite floats above the road. A collection of blobs in a furrowed field catches my eye as I cycle by. The bird book section of the brain pipes up excitedly: "were those Grey Partridges?" Well, potentially, but could you be quicker next time? I turn the bike around, retrace my steps (pedal strokes?) and cast my eyes over where the blobs were.

Were being the operative word. As the area is now blob free. Hmm. Quite the disappearing act. There are hints of bird along the ridges of the furrows, but they could just as easily be rocks. A watched field never boils, they say, so I briefly examine my phone to make sure I'm still on the right track. I am. No further report of Hawfinches has been recorded from up the road, however.

There, that ought to suffice. I glance quickly at the field, and what were hints of blobs are now blobs once more, fooled into action by my pretence of non-interest. Even better, they clearly are Grey Partridges; a bird I've never seen in the wild before. Hertfordshire's already gone up in my birding estimation, and we're only a couple of weeks into the year.

Bramfield isn't far from here, and it's cold, so the partridges perhaps don't get the attention they deserve. A brief wrong turn adds a couple of minutes to the remainder of the journey, but it's clear where I'm supposed to be looking as I cycle through town; there's a couple of folks with scopes malingering with intent at a churchyard gate. I lock the bike to a nearby street sign and head in.

An excited collection of folks is gathered a few metres in, scanning some conifers behind the church itself. I join in and immediately clock a chunky looking finch near the top of one of them; it turns its head to reveal a beak to inspire a new generation of crushing machinery, and it's clear I've got a Hawfinch. The conifers yield two or three more; then a good ten to fifteen more birds join them. This was the right choice; no uncertainty in the diagnosis, no lengthy twitch, a decent couple of ticks on the way there.

I spend a good half an hour in the churchyard helping the next arrivals find the Hawfinches, and then set out home before the light fails. The partridges are still in the same spot (now I've seen them they seem disinclined to perform their vanishing act); the red kite has been replaced by a kestrel; Hertford North offers a decent bacon sandwich while you wait (i.e still warm, in bread that is not completely stale, complimentary tomato ketchup); a pheasant hurriedly scuttles into the undergrowth as the train back into London rushes by. A most successful day out!