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Seeking the 'Scarlet Pimpernel'

Birds, such as fieldfare, redwing and brambling would be amongst the general expectations of Nordic visitors to our shores at this time of year, however this winter something rather special happened. Flocks of rare hawfinches arrived in the UK in unprecedented numbers following poor seed-crop yields in parts of eastern Europe, notably in the bird's main wintering quarters of Germany and Romania. The effects of Storm Ophelia may also have contributed to this event., forcing birds to fly much further west in large numbers before reaching our shores. This remarkable invasion, of the UK's largest and rarest finch gave some birdwatchers a special treat this Christmas. To glimpse one of these elusive birds, known for their shy and secretive behaviour, is very special. They usually inhabit the upper-reaches of tall trees and only seen briefly as they fly between tree-tops with a labouring flight when the white flashes in their wings are most evident. There are probably fewer than 1000 pairs native to the UK today after dramatic population declines in recent years.


The hawfinches Latin name Coccothraustes coccothraustes, loosely translated means 'seed breaker' and reflects the hawfinches powerful bill to crack open almost any nut, from hornbeam seed, beech mast to cherry stones. Sadly, we didn't experience such an invasion of these handsome birds in the Scottish Highlands, though another species with a similarly impressive large bill colonised the ancient Caledonian pine forests following such an eruption in 1991. Parrot crossbills would normally be found in the pine forests of Scandinavia, then range eastwards to the Kola Peninsula and Pechora in Russia.


The parrot crossbill is something of an enigma in the UK, a very rare bird with less than 50 pairs, mainly centred around Abernethy Forest, and not to be confused with the Scottish crossbill. Both males are red, and the females green, both support heavy hooked bills that cross onto a bulging lower part of their beak, however, the parrot crossbill has a deeper call than the Scottish crossbill, which is distinctive and the only reliable way to separate the two species in the field.


If you are feeling lucky and know where to start your search for the elusive 'scarlet pimpernel', they sing from the tops of tall pines and being early nesters now is, perhaps the best time to look as they begin their pre-nuptial courtship. They are indeed very impressive birds and what's more they may be found just along the road close to my home. While many birders eagerly await the opportunity to encounter these wonderful birds in an accessible part of England, this is my solace after missing out on such an extraordinary invasion of the handsome hawfinch.

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