Favourite birds

Hawfinch (Martin Kelsey)
Overshadowed by the zany, ecstatic whistling whoops of the Spotless Starlings or the continuum of Serin tinkling, there is a hesitant, almost nervous addition to the morning soundscape in mid-January. It carries no sweetness or melodic flow, no accomplished songster this. But the bird plugs on regardless, modestly adding an almost random pitch into the late winter air. The jumpy, pause-laden chinking notes remind me of a forlorn occupant of a lonely window-seat in a cafe, absent-mindedly tapping his saucer with a tea-spoon, forsaken by his date. Looking up to the bare almond tree in front of our house, with its haphazard twist of twigs, old swollen almonds and buds on the verge of bursting, the stocky bird responsible for this modicum of song is revealed: a Hawfinch. It is perched rather stiffly, its massive triangle of a bill at a rigid right-angle from its bull-necked body. The bill opens and other dull metallic note is hit, a pause and then a slightly higher, more drawn out squeak of a wheeze, followed by another chikt.

I have a fondness for Hawfinches and it is one of my most profound privileges that Hawfinches love our garden. To me to see Hawfinches so close to the house, almost throughout the year (save the middle of spring when nesting turns them into silent, secretive creatures) is a source of joy. I am frequently asked what is my favourite bird of all and my truthful response is that I do not have one. How can I compare and rank the extraordinary diversity of birds and experiences across several decades? But, pin me down and force me to narrow down to within families of birds and then, I confess, certain birds emerge as sublimely special. Somehow a weave brings together significant memories, facets of plumage or behaviour that intrigue and engage and above all carry a sense of place. They are species that regardless how often I encounter them, the reunion is special, always.

Thus my favourite eagle is unquestionably, the Bonelli's Eagle. I recall my first, many many years ago, sailing out from behind a crag in southern Andalucia. It is a bird that exudes power and mystery, a bird of deep, rugged valleys, wild places, appearing always without fanfare. Often it arrives as a pair, when the small male will rise with the female on the wide arc of soaring flight. There is a strong bond between them, which I have often wondered must have something to do with their pursuit of birds (and often flying birds) as prey. These hunting encounters become life-long memories, such as when the pair works in unison, appearing to ambush a winter flock of Wood Pigeon: coordination and pincer-movements. Recently we stood beside a quiet bay of a reservoir, watching wintering duck. Distant dots distracted us and with the aid of a telescope we could see that they were soaring Bonelli's Eagles, several kilometres away, but the contrast between their pale bodies and dark underwings were unmistakeable, as were their long, but almost hawk-shaped wings. I watched them until they dropped out of sight behind the tree-tops of the rolling dehesa in front of me.

Suddenly there was a wave of terror as the raft of Pochard pounded the water surface and in synchronous panic became airbourne. Taking both duck and me by a start a dark form materialised low over the water surface. A second appeared from the other direction. Somehow, the Bonelli's Eagles had approached at speed, out of view, skirting the wood and keeping tight to the topography to launch a combined assault on the duck. The first bird, missing its target, braked hard and landed on the bank and watched as its mate continued in pursuit. This time the Pochard had gained enough speed and the eagle was outwitted, or perhaps it had been confused by the tremulous commotion of wings and water. It left me drained, breathless. But what inspired me most was the sense that perhaps these eagles had been planning their attack strategy whilst still soaring dots in the distance.
Wintering Garganey with Shoveler (Martin Kelsey
I was surprised last week to come across my favourite duck species, Garganey. I hope to encounter this always ephemeral species from Frebruary onwards, normally on otherwise unremarkable small bodies of water and often behaving in a rather self-effacing fashion (although we had a remarkable passage of these gorgeous duck last spring and it was possible to find courting drakes in frenzied bumper-car motion). Amongst a vast raft of roosting Shoveler, floated a dozing drake Garganey, rather easy to pick out with its broad pale head stripe and subtle mix of greys and browns, making the Shoveler extravantly gaudy in comparison. I wondered whether this was an extremely early spring arrival or perhaps a rare over-wintering bird.

And so the Hawfinch is my favourite finch, bursting with birding memories right back to my adolescence, fascinating me here in Extremadura as I have explored its month-to-month ecology, common enough to offer me encounters on an almost daily basis and yet each one triggering in me a response of deep gratitude.


Anonymous said…
Lucky you!

Brian Banks

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