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Birdwatcher’s Diary No.149

By Malcolm Fincham

As October came to a close, it was time and tradition to set our clocks back an hour once again. “Why can’t we leave those clocks alone and stick with British Summer Time”, is a claim I often hear, of which I always find myself nodding in agreement to.

Autumn colours in the Surrey countryside. Click on all pictures to enlarge in a new window.

My own personal bone of contention, from perhaps a rather selfish perspective, is the lack of daylight hours available for me to birdwatch and keep a supply of up-to-date photos for my diary.

An acer, striking in its autumn colour.

Although limited for time, a few days of sunshine did allow instances to absorb some of Surrey’s glorious autumn landscapes. As well as to capture a few fortunes that fell my way at opportune moments.

Fieldfare, a rather handsome member of the thrush family.

Winds turned to a brief northerly as we moved into November bringing an influx of fieldfares arriving from their summer homes in Scandinavia. Although most of my sightings were “flyovers”, I finally caught up with a few as they fed on the fruit of a cherry tree.

Redwing.

Feeding alongside them were numerous redwings. These birds I have heard arriving since mid-October, hearing their high-pitched “seep seep” sound as they maintain contact with each other with their flight calls, a typical sound of October nights.

Redwing in a cherry tree.

Redwings migrate at night, moving generally when the sky is clear and the wind is in the east. They can sound quite eerie, especially on foggy nights, as they often fly a considerable distance inland before settling for the first time.

Song thrush in a cherry tree.

Also feeding on the cherries there, I picked out a few song thrushes.

Blackbird, possibly of Scandanavian descent.

A group of four or five “first winter” blackbirds, notable by their black beaks, also joined the feast, suggesting, to me the entire group of birds were all winter visitors from Scandinavia.

Great grey shrike on ‘shrike hill’ at Thursley Common.

Elsewhere, a great grey shrike was reported for the first time this autumn at Thursley Common, arriving back to winter a little later than most years. This was first reported on November 1. Although reported there on several occasions since, I wasn’t in too much hurry to race over there, having already seen one there in the spring.

More interesting to me was the recent irruption of hawfinches that have invaded the UK. A large flock was of 60 had been recorded on the Isles of Scilly while I was there a few weeks ago. Getting some pictures of one at the time, I was certain it would be the only one I would be seeing this year.

Hawfinch I saw a few weeks’ ago on the ”Scillies”.

Arriving back from my visit, I learned of exceptional numbers of this special finch had also been recorded across Britain, many of them passing overhead at migration watchpoints, or discovered in large flocks in suitable feeding habitats.

Certainly a rare sighting for me, as I recalled the last ones I saw and wrote about in March 2013, when a winter roost of over 100 could be viewed near Dorking.

Ostensibly, I was close to becoming the last of a multitude of keen birdwatchers to have seen one in Surrey, where they were being reported on a daily basis at the end of October and during the first weeks of November.

With none to report on my local patch at Stoke Nature Reserve, it was rapidly becoming “personal”. On November 5, in the company of Bob and Dougal, we headed for the hills once again revisiting Effingham Forest on a sunny, but rather chilly day.

Marsh tit.

As we walked the woodland path we picked out the sound of marsh tits. And with some patience on our part, an inquisitive a one came within focus of my camera.

Arriving at a clearing, we found a good vantage point overlooking a wooded area mostly made up of pine trees. Briefly we caught the distant sound of a group of crossbills, although in spite of intense scanning though our binoculars, we were unable to pick them out.

Red kite.

A red kite came into view, flying low over the tree line.

Common buzzard.

While several common buzzards, drifted overhead.

Great spotted woodpecker.

Closer to view was a great spotted woodpecker, flying over our heads. It perched up near by in a tree, as if to get a better view of us.

Goldcrest spotted in a yew tree.

Nuthatches could also be heard, as if in conversation with each other; while in holly as well as yew trees goldcrests flitted back and forth.

Jay in flight.

Jays were busy flying back and forth in a broad-leaf plantation cackling away to each other as they collected acorns.

We were beginning to feel our quest for hawfinches in Surrey had once again drawn a blank. However, with a lazy glance across the landscape toward a lone pine we simultaneously spotted a bird perched up high in its branches. Instantly we all concluded we had found our prize. Briefly it was joined by a second one too!

Hawfinch in Effingham Forest.

Hawfinches are the largest of the finch family that breed in the UK, though also one of the shyest. Their pastel plumage consisting of various shades of orange, grey, peach, black, white and even a hint of metallic blue make them look like no other British bird. And with their enormous metal-grey bills set on big heads, they seem very front-heavy, a feature accentuated by their short, stubby tails.

Hawfinches, aren’t actually very closely related to any of our other native finches, being more closely allied genetically to several grosbeak species found in North and Central America.

This separation from other finch species is reflected in the unique scientific name Coccothraustes coccothraustes which translates as ‘seed-breaker’, a reference to the incredible strength of their bills.

Experiments have shown that the hawfinch exerts a force of over 110lbs, to crack open an olive or cherry stone. Quite a feat a feat for a bird weighing only about 2oz.

With hours of light at an essence, attempts to keep up to date with a reasonable portfolio of pictures was a struggle.

Red admiral.

The weakening autumn sun still had enough warmth in it to photo a few red admiral butterflies still on the wing, during the first few days of November.

Kestrel perches on an overhead cable.

A hunting kestrel perched for a while on overhead wires, while looking for a small mammal to feast on.

Lakeside view as autumn decends in Surrey.

Most notable, especially on the sunnier days, were the views of the scenic landscapes around the Surrey countryside. Especially for me in areas where there are lakes or rivers.

Cold Arctic air had moved down across the country by November 12. The cool northerly breeze had brought temperatures down to a rather chilly 7c, in the weak but glorious sunshine.

Stonechat.

With little time to spare before sunset I made for a brisk walk around my local patch at Stoke Nature Reserve. A male stonechat appeared briefly by the boardwalk as I made my way across towards the lake.

Although a recently reported Cettie’s warbler that has been present near the boardwalk continued to elude me, even by its sound, there were still a multitude of long-tailed tits to see and hear.

Meadow pipit by Stoke Lake.

And a meadow pipit to add to my photos.

A cormorant circles over Stoke Lake.

A cormorant circled the lake before disappearing from view.

Male and female tufted ducks on Stoke Lake.

While tufted ducks were settling in for their seasonal visit on the lake.

Once again, before I had the opportunity of any more photos the winter sun had beaten me and shad unk over the horizon, “racing around to come up behind me again.”

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4 Responses to Birdwatcher’s Diary No.149

  1. Steve Simnett Reply

    November 17, 2017 at 4:21 pm

    Great report again from Malcy.

    I still have not seen a Hawfinch this year, after trying three separate sites.

    With a name such as his – Fincham – it was always a certainty.

  2. Gordon Bridger Reply

    November 18, 2017 at 5:28 pm

    Really good pictures and account. Many thanks

  3. Matthew Smith Reply

    November 18, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks again for your photos, Malcolm. I think I might have shown you my photo of the male stonechat.

  4. Harry Eve Reply

    December 7, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    Redwing in a cherry tree leaves you in doubt about the identity. Great photo.

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