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Ccord­ing to folk­lore, many years ago the birds of the world gath­ered to de­cide which of them would be king. Who­ever could fly the high­est would be crowned, and the eagle soon soared high­est of all – only to dis­cover upon land­ing that the lit­tle brown wren

Sussex Life - - Front Page -

Each win­ter the big freeze con­sumes north­ern Europe and our is­land’s mild mar­itime cli­mate pro­vides a refuge and a life­line to birds whose reg­u­lar food sources lie buried un­der snow and ice. Black­birds, bram­blings, bit­terns, star­lings, sander­lings, smew and many other species head here to sur­vive. But last year the win­ter vis­i­tor every­one was look­ing out for was the hawfinch.

You prob­a­bly won’t be fa­mil­iar with the hawfinch so I’ll give you a few key iden­ti­fi­ca­tion fea­tures… Aw, for­get it. Just look at that mas­sive beak! You can’t miss it. It’s like some­one cross­bred a chaffinch with a puf­fin. I’m amazed it can stand up – you’d half ex­pect that ridicu­lous beak to send it tot­ter­ing face-first to the floor. This pair of mon­strous mandibles com­bined with pow­er­ful jaw mus­cles can ex­ert a whop­ping 150 pounds per square inch of pres­sure and are de­signed to crack its favoured food; fruit stones and seeds. You know how hor­ri­ble it is when you bite down on an olive and find there’s a stone in­side? Hawfinches would shat­ter that stone with­out bat­ting an eye­lid.

Last win­ter, Bri­tain was the hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion of choice for hungry hordes of hawfinches. There were an es­ti­mated 14 times as many in Sus­sex than usual. It was a once-in-a-life­time in­va­sion – the re­sult of a suc­cess­ful breed­ing year for con­ti­nen­tal hawfinches fol­lowed by a dras­tic short­age of food; an equa­tion that sends them flock­ing across Europe in search of seeds and stones.

We have a few pairs of res­i­dent hawfinches breed­ing in Sus­sex but we don’t know ex­actly how many be­cause, de­spite be­ing a bulky-billed bird of bulky build, it is fa­mously hard to ob­serve. Back in 1938, Sus­sex or­nithol­o­gist Walpole-bond re­marked that the hawfinch was: “the very in­car­na­tion of all that is wary and shy” and com­mented on their propen­sity to roam far and wide. “In­clined to vagabondage” as he put it. A won­der­ful phrase, even though these days it sounds like some­thing you’d read on a Tin­der dat­ing pro­file.

For one win­ter wan­derer his trav­els would end in Sus­sex. Last Jan­uary I re­ceived a call from a lady who re­ported a hawfinch had col­lided with her pa­tio win­dow. Con­sid­er­ing that pow­er­ful beak, I was sur­prised that the win­dow wasn’t the vic­tim here, but sadly the bird dropped dead. It was ten­derly wrapped and laid to rest along­side some fish-fin­gers, its jour­ney to es­cape the big freeze end­ing in a big freezer. I was asked if I had any use for a frozen hawfinch. Plans for cre­at­ing a nov­elty nutcracker sprung to mind but this hawfinch did not die in vain. His body was do­nated to sci­ence and will con­trib­ute to cur­rent re­search into the diet and move­ments of these birds. His death hope­fully aid­ing the con­ser­va­tion of his big-beaked brothers in the fu­ture.

Birds are a part of our land­scape. Whether it’s a robin sig­ni­fy­ing that win­ter is here, the pi­geons that are part of our towns, or the seag­ulls that are an ever-present threat to ice creams at the sea­side, our en­vi­ron­ment seems to be teem­ing with them. How­ever, keep­ing track of their species and num­bers is no easy feat, which is why the Royal So­ci­ety for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is call­ing on mem­bers of the pub­lic to help.

Ev­ery Jan­uary, the or­gan­i­sa­tion holds its Big Gar­den Bird­watch, a na­tion­wide cam­paign that asks mem­bers of the pub­lic to count the birds in their gar­den over an hour-long pe­riod. This year the Bird­watch will be be­tween 26-28 Jan­uary, but 2019 is ex­tra spe­cial be­cause it marks the Bird­watch’s 40th an­niver­sary. “It’s in­cred­i­ble that a wildlife sur­vey has been run­ning for that long,” re­flects project man­ager Emily Kench.

It all be­gan in 1979, when the RSPB was look­ing for a way to get the younger gen­er­a­tion in­volved with wildlife, so it sug­gested that chil­dren got in touch and told them about the birds they could see in their gar­den. “The TV pro­ducer Biddy Bax­ter loved the idea so much that she fea­tured it on Blue Peter, and it just took off from there,” Emily ex­plains. The cam­paign has evolved to en­com­pass all ages, and 40 years on an in­cred­i­ble eight mil­lion hours have been spent watch­ing birds across the na­tion.

A free pack for record­ing your re­sults is avail­able to down­load on the RSPB web­site, and re­sults can then be sub­mit­ted on­line or by post. How­ever, cru­cially you are only count­ing the max­i­mum num­ber of birds at any one time to avoid record­ing the same bird more than once.

The RSPB is also en­cour­ag­ing watch­ers to note down other types of wildlife too, such as bad­gers, foxes, squir­rels and frogs, help­ing them to gain a more wide-rang­ing pic­ture of who calls our gar­dens home.

A par­al­lel event, The Schools Big Gar­den Bird­watch, will also be tak­ing place through­out this month. “It gets chil­dren out into the play­ground, where they then count the birds they see,” Emily says, with the aim of en­cour­ag­ing our younger gen­er­a­tion to take an in­ter­est in pro­tect­ing our birds.

Once the re­sults have been sub­mit­ted, they will be an­a­lysed by a team of sci­en­tists and used to di­rect fu­ture con­ser­va­tion. “The data gives us a re­ally good idea of what’s hap­pen­ing with our gar­den bird num­bers so that we can iden­tify cru­cial trends,” Emily ex­plains.

It is thanks to find­ings from the Big Gar­den Bird­watch that the RSPB has been able to iden­tify a de­crease in the num­bers of the song thrush, for ex­am­ple. “In 1979, the song thrush was in the top ten list of birds, but by 2009 its num­bers had halved,” Emily says. “The Bird­watch has also re­vealed an in­crease in the num­ber of col­lared doves and wood pi­geons over the past 40

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