It is one of the coldest mornings of the year and I am glad to be on the move, working my way around the local lanes and tracks for Bird Atlas 2007-11. I have written of this national stock-take of Britain’s (and Ireland’s) birds before, a periodic mapping of their distribution and numbers. It is the last leg of the Atlas, with two winter visits over the coming three months and then two summer visits next year, and I find myself in an area of open farmland and small woodlots up near Shipdham. This is a place that I have not visited before.
As my two-hour mapping exercise continues so I come to realise just what an excellent piece of Norfolk countryside this is. A large flock of Yellowhammers and Skylarks is feeding on some stubble, a rare sight these days, and Lapwings lift from a piece of damp pasture upon my approach. It is the hedgerows that surprise me most of all. Although they have been cut back hard, they rise to a decent height and hold a larder of berries and fruits, attracting in Fieldfares, Blackbirds (by the dozen) and various finches. They also carry last year’s nests, including a surprising number of Chaffinch and Goldfinch nests, neatly constructed in the forks of the taller shrubs, alongside those of Wren, Blackbird and Wood Pigeon.
A soft whistling note alerts me to the presence of a Bullfinch, old billy black cap, and then I spot him just ahead of me above the bramble. He is not alone; two other Bullfinches slip from the hedgerow, their striking white rumps evident as they fly. The Bullfinch is a wonderfully engaging bird, with its little black cap, pinky-red breast (in the male) and stubby little beak. I used to watch them as a child, feeding on the seed heads of dandelion and sorrel with delicate precision. They are birds of scrubby woodlots and thick hedgerows, often overlooked despite their colourful attire. Both the song and the call are subtle and easily missed.
Our Bullfinches are largely sedentary in habits but they will make small local movements out from favoured woodland sites to search for seeds in nearby farmland. These movements are more pronounced in those years when Ash seeds, their staple food, are in short supply. Interestingly, the larger Scandinavian birds can make substantial movements in some years. This is such a year and several have been reported around the Norfolk coast. Bullfinch numbers have declined since the 1960s, most notably within farmland, and they are one of the birds that is often missed when doing Atlas fieldwork. To stumble across this trio of billy black caps has made my morning.