Mid-winter sees the trees cleared of the last leaves, revealing seed-rich catkins and, with luck, flocks of tiny finches hanging from them. Now is a great time to look for wintering finches and help boost your #My200BirdYear bird sightings at the start of the year! These four are just a small sample of the riches on offer this month. How many can you see?
The Crossbill is an unusual finch in more ways than one. Even ignoring the uniquely crossed bill, it is also a bird which nests very early in the year. Indeed, juveniles may appear before many species have even settled down to nest.
Crossbills are tied to coniferous woodland, and can be found in family groups or larger associations, feeding quietly on cones. Bits of cone dropping to the forest floor are often the first indication they are around, as they can feed remarkably quietly for such a large, chunky finch. Once on the move, though, they are noisy birds, giving loud, distinctive ‘chup chup’ flight calls. Only adults males are gorgeous shades of brick red, while females are green and juveniles streaky brown.
Even smaller than a Lesser Redpoll, and with a shorter tail, the cute little Siskin can often form mixed flocks with its brown cousin to feast on Birch and Alder seeds. Males are very distinctive, with bright yellows and greens played again a black crown and bib and a black streaked white belly. Females are plainer but a greenish yellow wash and yellow wing bars should help identify them.
The main British ‘species’ (formerly subspecies) of redpoll is also the smallest and most brown. It is roughly the size of a Blue Tit and utilises this to dangle tit-like from Birch or Alder catkins. Note the red forehead (poll) and the black bib.
Adult males have more pink/red, especially on the breast. In all plumages, the wing bars are suffused with buff, not pure white as with the larger Mealy or Arctic Redpolls. If there is any yellow or green in the plumage then the chances are it is not a Lesser Redpoll, but more likely a Siskin.
Closely related to the Chaffinch, these wheezing northerners come from the continent and Scandinavia in the autumn and winter in variable numbers. In a good year, there are more than a million in the country.
Though similar in shape and general pattern to the Chaffinch, these beauties are liberally painted in orange (especially on the shoulders and breast, but also on the wing bars) with a white rump and buff-tipped black heads. They are essentially woodland birds, with a preference for Beech woods, but will also join mixed finch and bunting flocks on agricultural fields and may come to garden feeders.
The mighty Hawfinch is now a pretty scarce bird in the UK. It is also a very elusive bird, going about its business in a very unobtrusive way, often quietly shuffling around in leaf litter, which perfectly matches its rich autumnal hues.
So, they are easiest to see in flight or perched high in a tree towards dusk when they gather at favoured, often traditional, sites to roost. Seen well, the Hawfinch is an unmistakable finch, not least because of its huge bill on an oversized head.