Highly Commended image in the 2017 BWPA competition

Hawfinch in cherry tree.


At long last I can announce that one of my images – Hawthorn in a Cherry Tree – has been Highly Commended in the “Habitat” section of the 2017 British Wildlife Photography Awards. That makes three Highly Commended awards, one each time I have entered! Not bad for a landscape photographer. (Removes tongue from cheek……….)

For further information about the image and the background to it, please click here.

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In hawfinch nirvana.

Hawfinch in cherry tree, Dolgellau
Hawfinch in cherry tree, north Wales

A couple of years ago I posted about photographing hawfinches in a Welsh churchyard. (See this post). While it was exciting to come back with something usable it was not really the image of my dreams. So I kept my ear to the ground about other possible locations.

The hawfinch has always been an uncommon bird in the UK and has become increasingly scarce in recent years. In 2013 the maximum number of breeding pairs remaining in the UK was estimated to be one thousand. The 2013 BTO Bird Atlas noted that the Welsh population was becoming increasingly significant in a UK context. And – unlikely as it may seem – it has become more and more apparent over the last few years that one north Wales town is the British hawfinch hot-spot. The first hint of this came in 2004, when research published  in “Welsh Birds” suggested a breeding population of about fifty pairs in the area, and a wintering population of more than a hundred birds. The increasing scarcity of the species and its growing presence in the  area has resulted in further ringing and other studies being undertaken there. Both the BTO and the RSPB have become involved. The results have shown how numerous the species actually is there and how little we knew about the hawfinch!

Ornithologist Dave Smith and bird-ringer extraordinaire Tony Cross  have set up a feeding station in woodland nearby which is kept well-stocked with sunflower seeds. Hawfinches can rely on this food source all year round and there they can be netted,  ringed and released. The yellow plastic leg-rings, each with an individual letter and number combination, can be read relatively easily in the field. Perhaps the most astonishing information has come from just one garden in the leafy outskirts of the town. Shortly after moving into the house, inexperienced bird-watchers Trevor and Chris ******** began to notice some unusual-looking birds on their feeders. Delving into their field guide they realised they were hawfinches. Their garden has since developed into a hub of hawfinch-related activity. Trevor and Chris themselves have become, by their own admission, obsessed with the species. They sit in their kitchen and read ring numbers with a telescope. To date they have identified 185 different birds, with probably an equal number of un-ringed individuals. It really is hawfinch nirvana.

Thanks to my contacts in BTO Cymru Trevor and Chris very kindly agreed to let me visit their garden to do some photography. Trevor has himself taken many excellent photographs of the hawfinches through their kitchen window and posted them on Flickr. But there is no mistaking the fact that they are all taken at bird feeders. Not really the type of setting I felt they deserved. Tony Cross generously took me to his feeding site but the setting there is, if anything, less attractive. It is an extensive carpet of sunflower seed shells surrounded by ringing paraphernalia. We tried scattering seeds on the woodland floor around the “feeding table” but the birds just weren’t interested. Perhaps I should have been more patient……..

But there is a cherry tree in the ********s’ garden and the hawfinches sometimes perch in it before heading for the feeders. That sounded more promising! There followed a wait of several weeks for it to come into bloom and leaf. The strong northerlies of late April and early May held back flowering even longer than usual. Last Sunday the tree finally began to show some colour and it was amazing how much change there was in the following 24 hours. I chose a position in the garden where I could look across to the cherry tree against a dark background. For the first time in my life I  set up the tripod, brought out the camping chair,  sat down and draped a bag hide over myself and all my gear.

It took a bit of getting used to. Apart from the issue of physical comfort, tunnel vision was a problem. I could hear birds all around but often not see them. The lower branches of the cherry tree were visible but the lawn and bird-tables were out of sight. But when a hawfinch lands it has the tendency to sit tight for a few seconds and survey its surroundings. There is sometimes an air of deliberation about their activities. They seem to take their time and think things through. So on the few occasions when one did perch in the cherry tree I had the chance to catch it in a variety of postures and compositions before it dropped down onto the feeders. Light cloud was preferable to bright sunshine as it tended to illuminate tree, flowers and bird in a gentle, even light, and cast no shadows. I’m absolutely thrilled by this image.

NB I have removed Trevor and Chris’s surname to maintain their privacy, and also the name of the town.

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Hawfinches in a Welsh churchyard

Hawfinch on yew.
Hawfinch on yew.

On a Friday afternoon recently I was on my way to a 5 p.m. appointment with a customer when I encountered a traffic hold-up in a mid-Wales town.  I soon realised there was no chance of making the appointment so I phoned up to re-arrange it. It took 55 minutes altogether to get through the bottleneck (a set of three-way traffic lights at some roadworks already abandoned for the weekend!) so I had plenty of opportunity to reassess the rest of my day. Would the evening be an opportunity for some landscape photography as I had originally planned? And, if so, where …….. ?

Another interesting possibility suddenly entered my consciousness. Some ten years ago I had been told that hawfinches could be seen at a particular churchyard during June. It wasn’t that far away! It might be worth a shot. Half an hour later I was there.

At first the churchyard was ominously quiet. Then a stocky bird flew behind a yew tree and disappeared. Hmmmm…..what was that? Before long a series of these apparently random bird movements began to build into a picture. And then a hawfinch perched for a few seconds on top of one of the yews. The churchyard was heaving with them! Well, I’m exaggerating, but these birds are so rarely seen, let alone photographed, and I felt that with patience I might have a chance to do the latter. Long after the sun had vanished behind cloud a hawfinch perched right out in the open on a gravestone.

The next morning one was present when I arrived about 7.30 a.m.; it flew immediately, landing briefly in a cherry tree (where I photographed it) before joining a group of others a few hundred yards away. It was to be my last opportunity for several hours. I searched for a position where I could observe as many of the yew trees as possible, eventually settling (literally) on a tomb by the main door of the church. Single hawfinches came and went, disappearing low into the yews, or dropping in from the top. A bird would fly behind a yew and not reappear from the other side. Birds flew behind the church. They flew into a sparsely-leaved holly tree and disappeared. It was as if they were wearing an invisibility cloak. On the odd occasion when a bird did perch out in the open it was silhouetted against an excessively bright sky. The sun was still behind the dark foliage of the yew trees so metering was difficult and a correct exposure virtually impossible. I tried to estimate an optimum exposure and use manual metering but that didn’t help. It wasn’t going too well.

More of the same followed during the afternoon. At one point a party of four (presumably a family) appeared from nowhere, flew a few yards above my head and went who knows where. I did manage to identify their redwing- or robin- like song/call but these were so high-pitched as to be almost “not there”. Enigmatic really is the best adjective to describe the hawfinch. To pass the time between their visits I photographed other species – house sparrow and jackdaw – images which, apart from their lack of rarity value, I prefer to those of the hawfinches that I did eventually manage.

Meanwhile passers by came and went. I felt rather self-conscious with my paparazzi-style lens. One young woman asked me what I was doing and I told her I was trying to photograph some unusual birds. What birds were they? “Hawfinches” I said. “Are they like magpies?” she asked….. Later she walked through without speaking and I got the feeling she had decided that the strange man lurking around the churchyard was up to no good. If you had a suspicious mind, read the wrong sort of newspaper, and knew nothing about birds, it would be easy to believe I was taking the ****. Hawfinches indeed……..

As the hours passed the sun gradually swung around to the west and sank lower in the sky. The light was getting better! There was a flurry of hawfinch activity during the evening and I managed the most successful images of the day. Phew! It had been worth the wait!