09/01/2006
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Getting the shot - Hawfinch

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I remember 1985 very well indeed.

I had been warden at the Wyre Forest National Nature Reserve for some time, and had a pretty good idea where most species of plants and animals were to be found in the Forest. It was in the early days of the Goshawk era, and we were not supposed to even mention the species by name. All of the Goshawk nest-sites were known to us, and we would often have dawn sessions watching the nests. At that time I was working with a friend who had been studying the Wyre birds for some time and it was during these times that I first became acquainted with Hawfinches.

I had seen them in the past at my previous reserve, which was Castor Hanglands, near Peterborough in Cambridgeshire. However, the birds in Wyre afforded me much better views. By the time the Goshawks had done with their morning screaming ritual near the nest site, we would regularly encounter Hawfinches singing at first light from the tops of 80-foot-high Douglas Firs.

I also remember that year well because I found several Hawfinch nests and they were nothing like the ones on the "fag cards" I had collected as a boy. They were supposed to nest on some pretty fruit tree branch festooned with blossom. It wasn't like that at all. One was in a sapling Beech smothered with Honeysuckle and another was in the same climber in a Birch sapling. The end of a long horizontal branch of a Rowan was the site of another, and the last was in an Oak tree, some 50 feet from the ground.

Nowadays nest photography is frowned upon, but back then it was the only way birds such as Hawfinches could be photographed well. Unlike the present day there wasn't the option to get hold of long fast lenses and digital equipment and I couldn't afford the good 'stuff' anyway. I was running a Pentax S1A and a second hand Optomax 135 lens.

The high Oak nest was the only accessible option due to the others being close to public paths. Of the other sites, as I watched the Rowan nest a squirrel walked over the nest and jumped off the end of the branch onto the next tree, causing the eggs to jump up in the air and fall to the ground. The Birch tree eggs disappeared — most probably predated.

For the high Oak site we had to use climbing irons to access the nest and the hide was tied to the main trunk of the tree. To make the hide, stretch material off an old sofa was stretched between branches and the hide was more like a cocoon than a conventional hide. The nest was just four feet away from the camera and the birds were the tamest I have ever photographed — and I've done a few in 50 years of photography. We ended up with some good images and the birds successfully reared four young.

Hawfinch: Wyre Forest, Worcs (photo: John Robinson).

That was twenty years ago.

My photographic gear has changed a bit since then. I now use a Nikon D100 with a 100–400mm Cosinon lens. In addition, I have a Nikkor 80–400VR but don't use it that much. Since the mid–1980s Hawfinches have dramatically declined with many years passing with no sightings at all. The familiar bull-headed bird and its seemingly laborious dipping flight became a rare sight in the Forest. Over the last few years however, one or two have turned up again, during the winter months, and are seen fairly regularly around Lodge Hill Farm, where I still live. The area gets busy in the early days of the year with watchers starting early on their "year lists".

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I have been trying for several years to get the birds to come to my garden drinking pools where I have permanent hides, but to no avail. Over this time I must have spent a fortune on sunflower seed. Many times the birds feed in the tops of the oaks, and are often seen feeding on buds with Bullfinches, but seem reluctant to come into the garden itself.

However, in December one suddenly appeared on the lawn in front of the kitchen window feeding amongst the chickens, and I was able to grab the camera and get a few shots. They were terrible.

Hawfinch: Wyre Forest, Worcs (photo: John Robinson).

The window glass distorted the image because of the downward angle, and it was after our first, and only, snowfall. You know how it is — a dark bird on a pure white background. Worse than a Blackbird in a coal house. The bird then started to come quite often, and over a period I started to put the sunflower down in one particular place. It had to be sunflower, and the bird, a male, would only stay and fill its crop for around one minute. But we noticed something strange. I had started to keep a log, and the bird was coming almost on the hour. For example, if it came at 2 o'clock it would probably be back at 3. By now I had managed to persuade my wife to let me leave the window open for long periods, and I had a black sheet hanging down inside the kitchen with a hole for the lens. I got pictures, but the bird was still quite way off. At about 25 feet and "looking down" the images were still not to my satisfaction.

Hawfinch: Wyre Forest, Worcs (photo: John Robinson).

By now I had one of my hides up and had been moving this nearer and nearer to the feeding site which I had gradually moved away from the more open public area. The only reason for this was that the bird simply would not tolerate anyone within sight. Many hours were wasted because of people passing by or work going on at the reserve base nearby.

Hawfinch: Wyre Forest, Worcs (photo: John Robinson).

During this time I had been getting the bird used to a couple of feeding stumps but it nearly always used the ground — and only for a minute at a time. The seed had to be replenished every hour due to the multitude of other species which took a liking to the sunflower hearts — plus the squirrels and the chickens!

Hawfinch: Wyre Forest, Worcs (photo: John Robinson).

At the end of it all it was a tiring and often frustrating time, but worth it I think. Only a few pictures — but memorable ones.

Hawfinch: Wyre Forest, Worcs (photo: John Robinson).

At the time of writing the D100 has fallen to bits, and I managed to get a new D70s, but with the old camera I had taken over 40,000 shots. Counting the cost of the lens as well, I reckon that is something like 5 pence per picture. Unfortunately the bird has not been seen for a couple of weeks now.

Written by: John Robinson

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