Girton Birdwatch - March 2007
There are two birds that I should really like to see around the village and both are members of the finch family. They are the Brambling and the Hawfinch. I have only ever seen one Brambling and that was a few years ago at Minsmere in Suffolk. I have yet to see a Hawfinch, although hope to remedy that soon. Both birds have been known to frequent Girton, but one is much more likely to encounter a Brambling than a Hawfinch.
The Brambling is mainly a winter visitor, although there are records of a few breeding in Scotland and a few singing males have been heard down the east of the country. In fact the Brambling is one of the most migratory of finches and over much of Europe is entirely a winter visitor. Thomas Bewick, who is best known for the wood-block engravings with which he illustrated his A History of British Birds, first published in 1797, referred to it as The Mountain Finch because of its liking for cold, upland regions (although he reports seeing them on the Cumberland hills in the middle of August). In his day, vast flocks of Brambling could be found (in the birch woods of northern Europe they remain the most common bird after the Willow warbler), flying close together, so that frequently great numbers could be killed with one shot. It is a sad fact that Bewick, like so many early naturalists and ornithologists, was heavily dependent upon newly shot specimens for his studies, even though this practice did so much to contribute to our knowledge of birds. However, his comment that: "The flesh of the Mountain Finch, although bitter, is said to be good to eat, and better than that of the Chaffinch", can still produce a slight shudder.
The cock Brambling is a handsome bird - especially in its breeding plumage which we are unlikely to see in this country - with a white rump, orange-buff breast and shoulder patch, glossy black head and upper parts and rather scaly-looking black back (mottled brown in winter). The female has grey cheeks, black streaks on the crown and a brown back. In winter the best way to identify a Brambling is by its call note, a rather grating "tsweek", or by the "chucc-chucc-chucc' cry it gives in flight. Bewick, dismissively, comments that: "Its song is only a disagreeable kind of chirping".
Bramblings are quite often seen around the village - although not by me! - especially, although not exclusively, in the vicinity of broad-leaved trees. Perhaps Girton College grounds would be a good place to seek them out? In their breeding grounds north of the Baltic they move into conifers and birch-woods to nest build but here, in winter, they feed very largely on beechmast. Chaffinches will also eat beechmast if they happen upon it, but Bramblings will actively seek it out, roaming far and wide in search of it. The Brambling is a specialist mast eater, and can open the nuts more easily with a bill which is one tenth deeper and has sharper edges than the Chaffinch's. Consequently, given their fondness for beechmast, and if you really want to see them ("Physician heal thyself"!), then one place to go is Wandlebury and the Gog Magog hills.
Dave Heath has promised to take me to an arboretum near Barton Mills where he assures me we'll find Hawfinch. This is the largest of our finches (7in; 18cms), which has a relatively massive head and bill, bull-neck and short-tail, which together tend to give the bird a stocky, top-heavy appearance. Its general coloration is an orangey-brown, with mainly blackish wings and large white shoulder patches; the male's chestnut head, pale grey nape, rich brown back and pinkish-brown underparts, shading to white beneath the tail, give rise to a bird of subtle beauty. Despite this beauty, conspicuous head and bill, and despite the fact that they are widespread and resident, Hawfinch were long thought to be purely winter visitors (their nests were not found until 1833). This owes much to the fact that they are extremely shy, secretive birds which prefer to perch in the topmost branches of very tall trees and so are seldom spotted. It is renowned for its ability to crack open cherry stones (and, if some bird ringers are to be believed, to crack knuckles and draw blood) using its massive bill, which is almost as broad as it is deep. The internal structure of this beak has four horny pads inside the upper and lower palates, which are able to hold cherry and other stones centrally and distribute stress evenly to the impressive musculature on both sides of the head. This allows the bird to bring to bear a crushing force of 60-95 lbs, more than a thousand times greater than its own weight, which makes short work of the toughest damson, sloe or cherry stone. This skill made Hawfinches unpopular with fruit farmers and, given their equal liking for green peas, gardeners, but their rarity made their impact minimal, leading one commentator to assert: "Some people are fortunate ... to have their cherries eaten by a hawfinch!"
There are Blackcaps around the village again. We had one in our garden for the RSPB Garden Birdwatch on 28th January, and they've been seen down the High Street (J.C.; B.B.). Buzzards were also reported on 26th and 31st January, over the fields to the South West of the village.
Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com