Just before you read this column I shall have completed the RSPB Garden Birdwatch. Volunteers are asked to give an hour to watch out for birds in garden or park, to keep a tally of species and numbers seen and to send the results to the RSPB. Though mortifying, negative results are as important as positive ones in monitoring population fluctuations among some of our favourite birds. I can’t be sure that some of my regulars will show up in the designated hour but one thing I’m pretty certain about is that, compared to earlier years, numbers of chaffinches and greenfinches in my garden – as elsewhere in the country – have crashed: I shall be lucky to spot one. They’ve fallen victim to trichomonosis, and this, unfortunately, spreads rapidly through garden birdfeeders – especially if we are not very scrupulous about cleaning these regularly.
There is cheerful news: goldfinch numbers have soared, largely due to our provision of nyger seeds and sunflower hearts; bullfinches, once a rare treat, are round the year regulars; long-tailed tits have quickly learned to appreciate delicious fat balls; and siskins, once infrequent winter visitors, come much more regularly and, we think, breed locally. It’s also probably owing to our provision of feeders that more and more blackcaps, and now chiffchaffs too – once summer migrants – now take a chance on staying with us for the winter.
I got some interesting news this week. A friend was walking through Ilkley Cemetery when he encountered a group of birdwatchers standing with binoculars and telescopes trained upwards into the trees. They were watching hawfinches. This is the largest of our native finches and the biggest: a thickset bird with a heavy beak, rather like a small parrot. It’s quite colourful: face and head a rich tan with black trimmings round the bill, back a darkish brown, and breast a pale grayish pink; there are also eye-catching white flashes on wings and tail. It’s unmistakable – but, unfortunately, very difficult to see. It spends most of its time feeding in treetops, and it’s rare. Winter numbers are swelled by some in-comers and occasionally, when food is scarce in North and east Europe, we have a “good hawfinch year”. This is one of them. Nevertheless, I don’t expect any in my garden this weekend – though you never know! A friend in Halifax once had a hawfinch on her birdtable every day for a week – to the astonishment of her local bird recorder!