Seed Cracker


Pausing on the path, sluggish as an emergent wasp from its winter dormancy, I took stock of the day so far. Reeling Grasshopper Warbler at Cley, Nightingale serenading us at Salthouse Heath, Woodlark and Golden Pheasant, violently contrasting songsters, at Mayday Farm as part of a grand total of about 40 species, mostly heard in darkness or the dim light before sunrise; some dazzled in the headlights of the car. 5.30am on 17th May 1991, Lynford Aboretum, time for our annual 24 hours birding marathon and we were doing alright. But I was cold and keen to warm my sluggish body from the numb of pre-dawn chill. Why on earth was I here? Damp feet, freezing hands, no sleep; images of being curled up in a nice warm bed pervaded my dangerously dozing consciousness. Taking a deep breath of fresh May air fragrant with the scent of pine, I once more scanned the ranks of firs, larches and assorted exotic  shrubs and noticed a trio of dumpy looking birds fly into a nearby tree. I raised my binoculars to be greeted by the wonderful sight of three Hawfinches perched brazenly in front of me. As I marvelled at their beautiful colours, a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and bathed the birds in early morning gold. My lethargy lifted and fled, chased away by an ecstatic feeling of privilege and joy. My first ever Hawfinches and what a way to see them; an image of short duration but forever etched in my memory, rendering the hitherto discomfort a thing of minuscule consequence.  I glanced around to find my friend and companion of many such similar excursions, but by the time I had attracted his attention the birds had flown, leaving a bare brown branch where seconds before a rainbow had come to rest.

I’ve never forgotten that moment, thinking of it every time I revisit this rather special Breckland site. The magic of the first encounter with these shy and mysterious birds has sadly never been recaptured, but any sighting is still noteworthy and special. A quarter of a century has sped by, seemingly in the blink of an eye, and here I am again accompanied by a quartet of friends watching Hawfinches in spring. Unlike my initial early morning connection, when we were the only people tramping around, or maybe on the planet as it sometimes seems when out so early, these birds have been well observed. Today a small party of birders are scoping them or trying to photograph them with lenses too heavy to carry with dignity or without putting yourself in A&E. I recognise them from numerous casual meetings; Little Bittern at Lakenheath, Penduline Tit at Strumpshaw, wherever a rarity turns up. Pleasantries are exchanged, images on the back of the camera proudly displayed, general information swapped. And there they are; we can see them for ourselves, a total of six gaudily bedecked finches rooting around in the rusty brown leaf litter at the far end of an avenue lined by mature beech. We are able to admire their multi-hued plumage blending surprisingly well into the deep layer of last year’s cast off foliage. They must be looking for beech mast or fallen seed but are very jumpy. A squirrel spooks them and they are off, seeking the safety of the canopy. Another 5 minute wait for them to decide the coast is clear before they return one by one to resume their foraging. On this occasion they don’t venture too close, at this mid-morning hour there are a constant stream of eager birders and dog walkers that make too much noise and movement, but they are close enough. Their massive, strong beaks really are an outsize tool, shining steel grey giving them a stern, snooty countenance but ideal for cracking open tough seeds and cherry pips. At this time of year they can often be found high in the tops of the trees where they will surreptitiously feast on emergent buds. They are easily overlooked which makes this almost guaranteed sighting all the more welcome. It is certainly a tremendous pleasure to see these most prized of our finches, but nothing will ever quite match the sight of my first birds sitting proud, bathed in the glow of a beam of radiant sunlight.

As close as you are likely to get in the UK

You can get a bit closer in Hungary

Bramblings added a splash of colour

And the mating antics of toads was very good to watch

Room for one more on board!

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