Issue 151    December 1st   to March 1st 2022

NATURE NOTES                      Flocks of Finches and Egrets

If you go for a walk in the countryside this autumn take a pair of binoculars with you and look out for flocks of small birds… probably finches.  You may be lucky – so much depends on the weather, the sun and the direction of your walk.   A mixed flock of chaffinches, goldfinches and greenfinches is a sight to behold.   However at this time of year the light maybe a little bit difficult to see the colours of the birds and identify them accurately.

If,  on the other hand, you want to see birds close up and in their natural habitat you should pop down to Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve.   It is only 50 miles away and lies on the Solent, opposite the Isle of Wight.   The reserve will fill up with more winter visitors over the next few weeks.  Also there are plenty of  information and identification boards to help.  Furthermore there is a splendid information centre with helpful volunteer wardens and a brilliant book shop.  Some of the books are written specifically for children and make ideal Christmas presents.   

I went down to the Haven on Friday October 22nd and saw over 60 different birds including a little egret and a cattle egret but no finches.    I suspect cattle egrets will soon colonise Hungerford common but this is a place where I have never seen finches.   Perhaps there are too many dogs and dog walkers there and perhaps the cattle egrets will choose Hungerford marshes instead.  At the Haven a birder told me cattle egrets have colonised the Lyme Bay area and are moving east and north.  Therefore one should not dismiss a large white bird as another little egret.  Cattle egrets have yellow bills and little egrets have black bills.

We are due an irruption of brambling.  Bramblings are members of the finch family and very similar to chaffinches.  Indeed they are called the “northern chaffinch” and  sometimes the “mountain finch”. They form flocks in autumn and sometimes huge flocks in winter but they usually spend their summer in the north of  Scandinavia where they breed.   Strangely they sometimes breed in the UK – nests have been found in Scotland – but this is quite rare.

Bramblings will feed on stubble fields like most finches but they have a white rump and an all over orange hue which makes them easy to identify.  However it is well known they like the seeds of beech trees which we call mast and I suspect they tour the countryside looking for beech mast.

Sadly they look like “little brown jobs” in flight and can easily be overlooked but there are records of large flocks in England and even larger flocks in Europe.   My favourite bird-book “The Birdlife of Britain” which has a forward by Prince Charles and was produced in association with the RSPB states that 70 million brambling descended on Switzerland in the winter of 1951/2.    Interestingly a large flock was enjoyed by thousands of birdwatchers on Merseyside recently. 

If you are interested the BTO have produced a video on “bramblings and chaffinches” and the RSPB have produced a fact sheet on them … just fire up your electronic device. 

Incidentally I was told recently by a young ecologist to enter the 21st century and get a modern phone with an “app” on birds for it.  When I was told the price I declined.

Richard Barker  aka Hawkeye