Hawfinches are shy and elusive birds so I was very pleased to see these near Morpeth. In the winter they eat tree seeds and are very fond of hornbeam seeds. These birds were in a row of mature hornbeams on the site of an old tree nursery. Hornbeams are not native to the north of England but there are mature trees which have been planted in parks and gardens. The birds I was watching mostly appeared in the tops of the trees for a few moments before disappearing so all the photos are at long range and heavily cropped.
The most striking feature of the hawfinch is its enormous bill, used for cracking open seeds and fruit stones.
The male's colouring is beautiful but catching a well coloured male in good light was difficult. This one wouldn't sit in full view but you can see the colours on his head and the blue in his wings. You can see how well he is camouflaged against the hornbeam leaves.
A lot of the birds were less brightly coloured - probably females or this year's young.
Even in silhouette they are pretty easy to identify.
The hawfinch is Coccothraustes coccothraustes, meaning kernel breaker. Few of the birds I saw stayed for long but this one was feeding on the hornbeam seeds for a few minutes.
The hawfinch is a scarce breeder in the UK with fewer than 1000 pairs. Numbers have declined markedly over the last thirty years and it is now red listed. This map from the BTO Bird Atlas shows it is mainly confined to a few areas of the country.
The winter population is a little higher and more widespread, boosted by migrants from Europe.
This autumn has seen a record influx of hawfinches. This graph from BirdTrack shows a reporting rate 12 times higher than the historical average. Lets hope a few of them like it here and decide to stay and breed next year.
There are plenty of hawfinches in continental Europe so it is a bit of a mystery that they are so rare in the UK. Causes for their decline here include habitat loss and predation of nests by American grey squirrels. This EBCC map shows the European distribution.
And a graph from EBCC shows a stable European population.
Thomas Bewick made this engraving of a hawfinch for A History of British Birds (1797).
Archibald Thorburn painted this male hawfinch along with male and female linnets.
You can listen to the BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day on hawfinches here. To learn more about hawfinches and their rise and fall you can read a great article by Ben MacDonald in Birdwatching here.