In Search of…

Greenfinches

A greenfinch on a branch
Image Source: Charles J. Sharp

It all began with a simple observation. I casually mentioned to Alex that while I had started seeing a lot more goldfinches over the past few years, it had been some time since I had seen a greenfinch. This made Alex realise that she couldn’t even remember the last time she had spotted one. And so, to break the tedium of lockdown and working from home, Alex and I made the decision to get out of the flat and spend more time in nature, especially now that the weather is warming. This new series of articles is going to document our various walks and record what we see.

Our overall aim, we decided, would be to see how many species of bird we could spot during our exploration of South Devon (and possibly, if restrictions later allow it, further field) during the course of one year. But we would also go on trips with the aim of trying to find particular species. Our first task was to track down a greenfinch.

The reason Alex and I had not seen greenfinches in a while was partly because we hadn’t spent as much time in nature recently as we would have liked, but also because the greenfinch population had been hit by a deadly disease – trichomonosis – some years previously. This much I knew, but I wasn’t aware just how badly the population had been hit until I did a spot of research. It turns out they have declined by as much as two-thirds since the parasitic disease first struck in the mid-2000s. In fact, current numbers are believed to be the lowest they have been since nationwide monitoring began in 1967.

A greenfinch on a branch
Trichomonosis has hit our greenfinch population hard. It causes difficulty in swallowing and birds to regurgitate their food.
Image Source: Andreas Trepte (www.avi-fauna.info)

Of course, life in lockdown continues (for anyone outside the UK reading this, we’re currently in our third national lockdown) and so we must remain local for the time being. Fortunately, there are some stunning coastal walks in the Torbay area where we live, and so, on a pleasant afternoon in early April, Alex and I set off from our flat in Paignton with a pair of binoculars and headed down to the seafront.

Our route took us past the harbour, where, at low tide, the boats sat grounded, tilted to one side. Then, it was up onto Roundham Head, a small coastal park atop sandstone cliffs that offers a great view across the bay. Many of the trees and bushes were still largely bare, so it was relatively easy to spot birds singing within them. A small flock of house sparrows chirped noisily from inside a large shrub beside the path. A male blackbird was rummaging around in the undergrowth, looking for food.

A flash of colour and a tinkling song suddenly grabbed my attention. A pair of goldfinches was flitting between trees, unnoticed by the dog walkers and joggers passing beneath them. Although these tiny finches are certainly colourful (and, in my opinion, one of the prettiest of our commonly-seen birds), I wouldn’t exactly call them gold. They have soft brown or buff bodies, a splash of bright yellow on each wing, and a distinctive black-and-white head with a red face. Their sharp, tweezer-like beak is perfectly adapted for picking fine seeds from thistles and teasels.

A goldfinch perched on a branch
The goldfinch was once called the red-fronted thistle finch, which, although being a little more long-winded, is a more accurately descriptive term than ‘goldfinch’.
Image Source: Pierre Dalous

I remember goldfinches being a much rarer sight in Britain when I was young – an almost exotic arrival in my garden, and a real cause for celebration whenever I spotted one. But these days I can hardly go into any park or woodland without seeing a pair or two. To find out why this is, I’m going to briefly delve into the history of the goldfinch.

In Victorian times, the goldfinch was much in demand as a cagebird thanks to its colourful plumage and delicate, high-pitched, melodious song. They were caught by the thousand using nets and twigs coated with a sticky birdlime. By the 1890s, the goldfinch had become a rare species in this country, but the newly formed Society for the Protection of Birds (later the RSPB) made the recovery of the goldfinch one of its main priorities at the beginning of the 20th century. Following legal protection, its numbers have increased over the past 100 years or so.

In the last two to three decades, however, its population has really soared and it is now one of our most common garden birds. This is thought to be mainly because the goldfinch has supplemented its preferred natural diet of thistle and teasel seeds with food from birdfeeders, especially black nyjer and sunflower hearts, which we have been offering in increased quantities. As a result of this extra food, more goldfinches are surviving the winter and breeding in our gardens.

Goldfinch
The collective noun for a group of finches, but especially goldfinches, is a ‘charm’, which seems fitting for such a dainty and colourful bird.
Image Source: Francis C. Franklin

A number of paths zigzag down the red cliff from Roundham Head to Goodrington Beach. This is known as the Rock Wall and was constructed in the late 1920s and early 1930s by Welsh miners, as part of a work creation scheme during the Great Depression. Some of the semi-tropical plants that were supplied by Herbert Whitley (the founder of nearby Paignton Zoo) still survive here today.

Once we reached the bottom of the Rock Wall, we headed over to a small boating pond that we had frequently visited last year to see a family of swans. There were no swans there today, although there were plenty of mallards and tufted ducks. A few moorhens seemed to tiptoe around the edge of the pond on their oversized green feet. A grey wagtail – which is more colourful than its name would suggest, possessing lemon-yellow underparts in addition to its slate-grey upperparts – flew out from some trees on an island in the middle of the pond and landed on a post sticking up from the water. It flicked its tail a few times, as wagtails always do, and then took to the air again, disappearing from view.

The view from the bottom of the Rock Wall, looking up.

On the path back up the cliff to Roundham Head, some movement in a tree and a brief flash of colour caught my eye. Two small birds sat in the bare branches. ‘The goldfinches again,’ I said, even though they were a little too far away for me to identify properly.

Alex raised the binoculars to her eyes to look at them. She was silent for several seconds.

‘Goldfinches?’ I repeated, a little more tentatively, beginning to doubt myself. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so hasty with my proclamation.

‘One of them is,’ Alex replied slowly.

‘Oh. And the other?’

‘I don’t want to say it in case I’m wrong, but I think…’

She didn’t need to say anything else. I already knew what she thought it was. Taking the binoculars, I looked at the two birds in the tree. One of them was indeed a goldfinch, its vibrantly red face responsible for the flash of colour I had seen. The other, sitting on a branch just above it, was a greenfinch.

I almost couldn’t believe it. Having not seen a greenfinch in the area before, I hadn’t really expected to see one today. But here it was. And not just one. Shortly after, another greenfinch joined the first and we watched them until they both flew off over the headland. Maybe they had been here all along and we just hadn’t noticed them before. Certainly, we’ve been on a few short walks since then and we’ve spotted greenfinches on a number of occasions.

In any case, we were thrilled at our find and were soon drafting ideas for future walks, based around species that we hoped to see on them. Our next one, we decided, would be a bit more ambitious. We wanted to track down a bird with one of the most restrictive ranges in Britain – the cirl bunting. Will our luck hold out?

Also seen on this walk: Feral pigeon, wood pigeon, robin, herring gull, pied wagtail

Running Total (Bird Species): 13

Author

  • With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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