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Haw haw haw – the Christmas nutcracker has landed

Wildlife lovers get an early Christmas treat as super finches flock to the UK

An unusually high number of giant finches have come to the UK this winter.

Hawfinches are the nutcrackers of the bird world, with their massive parrot like bills that can crack even the hardest nutshells.

The influx is a real treat as hawfinches are shy birds and there are thought to be less than 1000 pairs in the UK.

They’re also very attractive birds, patterned with autumnal shades, including a rich chestnut head, rose-pink breast and black and white wing markings.

The number of hawfinches that nest here has declined in recent years, but each winter birds from the Continent travel to Britain searching for food.

This year, however, the numbers seen have been much larger than normal, with hundreds of sightings recorded. In birdwatching terms, this is called an “irruption”.

Lizzie Bruce, warden at RSPB Headquarters The Lodge nature reserve in Bedfordshire, said “In our county alone over 230 hawfinches have been counted. That’s extraordinary, as in most years we are lucky to see one or two. At The Lodge we’ve had up to four hawfinches in the tops of the birch and yew trees with single birds flying over most days in October.”

“This has caused great excitement for our visitors and RSPB staff, who have been dropping everything and running out the office to catch a glimpse of one perched at the top of a tree.’’

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have produced a chart showing how dramatically numbers have soared this winter. The chart shows there’s clearly a big ‘spike’ this year.

So what might have caused this influx?

Lizzie Bruce says ‘”Typically irruptions are associated with failing food supply: too many birds, or not enough food for them to survive the winter. This happened with waxwings last year.”

“The weather is also a factor. Hawfinches traditionally migrate south from their breeding grounds in Central Europe towards the Mediterranean. This year their migration coincided with the arrival of Storm Ophelia which headed eastwards from the Atlantic swirling anti clockwise, with the strong winds pushing many of the migrating hawfinches into the UK. This theory probably explains why the majority of hawfinches were seen in the South of England and into Wales.”

RSPB scientists are studying the reasons why hawfinches don’t nest in the UK as widely as they used to. They’re currently investigating whether availability of food maybe a problem, in collaboration with Cardiff University. This RSPB research is funded via the Action for Birds in England programme and was conducted in collaboration with local volunteer ringing projects supported by Forestry Commission, Natural Resource Wales and BTO.

Winter is one of the best times to see these birds while many trees are bare. Hawfinches flock together at dusk to roost in trees for the night, and will also gather during the day to look for food.

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