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November 5th- new daily sketches and notes from Gilling East

I have been walking familiar local routes and this will be the first of a new series of daily lockdown diaries. The transition from autumn to winter is a time I really love, while the days become shorter with long dark evenings, winter can offer tremendous light if you go outside. Make the most of the intensity of winter sun when you can. Take in the glorious sight of Orion on clear winter evenings. A walk in the woods in winter offers light; with the canopy now open the woods are much brighter than in summer. Look at bare tree trunks and the way shadows of branches fall upon them, listen for flocks of tits moving through the trees, they may well include other species such as treecreepers and goldcrests. Over the next few weeks I will share some of the joy and light I find during late autumn and winter.

We were gardening last Sunday when I heard two sharp “zeee” calls followed by an abrupt “tic”. Without looking I knew they were made by hawfinches and quickly found two high above the garden. They descended into the the top of an ash tree a couple of hundred metres away. From here they descended to feed in yew trees near Gilling Castle. I can monitor these birds from my studio with good views through the scope.

I have also been spending time sketching autumn at Yorkshire Arboretum where I have seen up to nine hawfinches. There are almost certainly larger numbers earlier in the morning before the grounds open. The hawfinch is a magnificent looking bird, the males display beautiful but subtle colours in bold markings. As such they are a joy to draw and paint. In fact while drawing them I feel I am drawing a cartoon bird with huge bill and head and the most intense staring eyes! Their ability to crack large seeds to eat the kernel is incredible. I have watched them casually cracking sloe stones, don’t try it if you want to preserve your teeth! Sometimes, at the arboretum I have first located them by the sound of cracking seeds. Here they eat hornbeam seeds. The hornbeam seed which is covered by beautiful raw sienna bracts is very hard, but inside is a highly nutritious kernel.

On a recent visit I watched several hawfinches in a hornbeam copse near the visitor centre. But there are only a few cropping trees this year and I expect the seed supply will dwindle fairly soon. An alternative food is yew; they eat the seed within the waxy, scarlet berry. So with hornbeam in short supply yew will likely be the best tree in which to find a hawfinch this winter; churchyards are therefore a good bet. Don’t just look in the yews. Hawfinches can hide so well in yew trees and sometimes the best views will be in surrounding tree tops before they descend into the dark evergreen foliage.

Seeing a hawfinch in winter is amongst the birding highlights of the year for me. They are a challenge to find and observe well, but they are a captivating bird to see and I find myself lingering until well after my hands are numb with cold as I wait for the next good view. For as long as I have been birdwatching the hawfinch has been a favourite species to study and I have been very fortunate to find myself living somewhere where they are not uncommon during the winter months.

Watercolour sketch of sweet chestnut trees at Yorkshire Arboretum- November 4th. I gathered many chestnuts to roast on the fire this weekend!

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