I don’t remember the year but I remember the rest of the date, 25/09. I was guiding on the old ferry which used to run from Pylmouth to Santander and just a few hours out from the Spanish port on the return leg I picked up a passerine, a long way off but flying towards us at a reasonable height. Flying straight at us there was precious little to indicate its identity but a little while before it reached our bow the game was finally up, Hawfinch! It carried on over the bridge leaving me somewhat shocked. For one thing I thought of the species as a late migrant, typically occurring on passage in the UK from mid-October to early-November. On the continent however they can begin wandering from late August and the peak migration period is from mid-September to early-November. For another thing I knew nothing of Hawfinch movements really and had assumed the small number of migrants occurring in the UK in autumn were overshoots of some kind. In a way they are. European populations of Hawfinch exhibit varying levels of migratory behaviour, some are sedentary, some move locally and some are partial-migrants. The principal wintering area for birds breeding in the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland is NE Spain, SE France, N and C Italy, with smaller numbers on some Mediterranean islands. There is evidence from ringing recoveries that wintering site fidelity is low, which, combined with the fact that numbers vary from year to year, suggests movements are often linked to food availability. For example, in years when the crop in S Sweden has been poor Hawfinch numbers in Finland, Denmark and Switzerland have been high. Presumably the small number of Hawfinches that turn up on Scilly every autumn and the lone bird we saw steadily beating its way across the Bay of Biscay represent the westernmost flank of a passage of birds that should really be heading S on the other side of the North Sea.
In Warwickshire the species is not known to breed and is, essentially, fantastically rare. Along with most people I first got to see it in the county when a small group turned up in the car park at Draycote Water during the last influx and magically hung around for several weeks. I saw just one other locally, prior to the current invasion. Leaving my car at Napton-on-the-Hill to begin a visible migration watch on 14/10/09 I slammed the door shut flushing a Hawfinch out of the tall deciduous trees along the N boundary of the churchyard. I first began to wonder if something might be going on this autumn when one was ringed at Portland at the beginning of October, by which time birds were already on Scilly. It soon became clear this was more than a small flurry of arrivals, but busy and still fighting a chest infection I twice set my alarm for visible migration watches only to jib out and go back to sleep. I finally forced myself to the Meon Hill area on ‘the day the world stood still’, otherwise known as 16/10, when the strong SW winds that constituted the death throes of Hurricane Ophelia whipped a cloud of Saharan dust across the country with a variety of profoundly weird consequences. Passage was good with pulses of Common Starlings due W along the Cotswold Scarp totalling 550 in three hours and a steady stream of Chaffinches crossing the adjacent plain and climbing the gulley to the W of Colemans Hill, perhaps to get some wind underneath them and gain some lift? After a couple of hours I picked up two short-tailed, front-end heavy finches the identity of which was quickly confirmed as Hawfinch when they passed on my side of the gulley and continued towards Hidcote. I was particularly pleased to see some here, along the flight line Eric Simms first identified in the 1940’s. Two days later l tried Napton-on-the-Hill, a singleton having been seen in the churchyard on 08/10 and two landing briefly there on 17/10. At dawn there were hardly any birds present and I was surprised to discover newly arrived thrushes when I returned towards mid-morning. A funeral was being held so I dropped down in to the Leam Valley finding 3 Common Stonechats in the field margins N of Lower Shuckburgh. Around 14.45 and back in the churchyard I set about checking the Yew trees. On my fourth lap around one of them there were two explosive, ‘Tzick’ notes from the other side of the tree. Typically made by Hawfinch when taking off, especially when spooked, this call has been described, quite splendidly in my opinion, as resembling the sound made by an ice pick glancing off hard rock. I could not find the culprit and the next day I determined not to repeat the performance but to do a proper visible migration watch off the N side of the hill. This was less than successful and I packed it up after an hour or so but could not resist one last look in the churchyard where John Barnett was in residence. I had not seen John for years and after a half-hour of chatting the cloud base lifted a little and birds started passing over the church. Whilst Chris Matthews stayed put, John and I decided to head back to the slope and crossing the grass area N of the church we didn’t have to look up far to find the Hawfinches whose continuous contact calls had just become audible as they broke the treeline to the NE and flew towards us. There were seven in the group and they made straight for a tall tree on the E side of the churchyard, only to fool around in the air above it with just one landing briefly before the entire group dropped out of sight towards the village. A single bird then flew back N across the hill a minute or so later. We saw no more that day and the following day was again bittersweet when a group of three followed the same line towards the same tree just as Theo de Clermont was driving over the crown of the hill, but again failed to settle. There were none on 22/10 and I couldn’t get out on 23/10 but Steve Haynes saw 14 at Hartshill Hayes that day and a further seven were recorded at Fillongley. These and eight at Sutton Park were all single groups, mirroring the Napton sightings in that extended watches yielded just one flock, unlike some sites, particularly those in the Chilterns where there have been multiple sightings in a day. The passage of migrants along the Chilterns seems to exceed that along the Cotswolds and I get the impression that these hills have witnessed the strongest movement of Hawfinches in the entire country over the last two weeks or so.
The current theory is that the storm edges that clipped us, whirling through in an anti-clockwise direction, pushed Hawfinches out of central Europe. This seems likely, though food availability may have influenced the numbers involved. I have no idea what, if any, hypothesis was forwarded for the last invasion. I recall being told that birds trapped on Lundy had very long primaries, suggesting an eastern origin. One thing I do know is that these two are the only big Hawfinch invasions I can remember (though I’m damned if I can remember what year the other one occurred) in the last 37 years.