Worcestershire Record No. 28. April 2010
P. F. Whitehead
Although Bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula are widely scattered around Bredon Hill, favouring dense outgrown mixed hedges, in recent years they seem to have declined further and during 2008 and 2009 I had relatively few sightings. Even in areas where they were known to occur traditionally I felt that there were grounds for concern.
That changed rather dramatically at the end of 2009. The unusually cold winter of 2009-2010 began with dramatic speed when a long extended mild autumn was finally truncated on 16th December 2009. On 22nd December 2009 a pair of Bullfinches in my Little Comberton garden were the first for some years; after that date there was scattered movement of mostly single birds around the northern fringes of Bredon Hill and one visited my bird feeding station. However on 31st December 2009 a bird passed over my Little Comberton garden at a considerable height heading due east. The call of this bird was much more shrill and higher-pitched than local Bullfinches and I surmised that it was a continental Bullfinch possibly the nominate subspecies P. p. pyrrhula (L., 1758). This bird may have been heading south-west to avoid the extending Eurasian high pressure system which subsequently came to dominate the winter. At this same time numbers of 'Britannic' Bullfinches P. p. plicata appeared widely around Bredon Hill and in the Avon Valley area, many taking advantage of a good crop of ash seed in big old hedges.
On 5th February 2010 there was a sudden explosion of five Bullfinches in a shrubbery at Little Comberton together with some Yellowhammers and from their high-pitched fluty calls it was clear that these were also quite distinct from local birds. As fast as they appeared they melted away to the south and I planned to visit Bredon Hill to see if any had settled there. That visit took place in thick snow on 13th January 2010, working up the northern escarpment of the hill in the Little Comberton area, checking old dense hedges en route. The results were surprising. Between 55 m O.D. and 100 m O.D. a significant number of Bullfinches, in groups and perhaps numbering 20 in all, were observed in dense old hedges feeding especially on seeds of Field Maple Acer campestre L. At 100 m O.D. eight examples of the continental form of Bullfinch referred to were observed but these were behaving differently to the others, working through the high crowns of large open grown ash trees and tending to focus at higher levels. They even crossed areas of open country to work through large trees as high as 190 m O.D. at Far Wood. These birds were quite vocal and in the snow their calls were notably loud and penetrating. Sitting in the exposed high crowns of trees they were clearly larger than the 'Britannic' birds and perched with a notably upright stance. At this altitude in the severe conditions of the time no 'local' Bullfinches were noted.
At about 75 m in altitude I endeavoured to call up the birds and was soon surrounded by a number of Bullfinches, and although I succeeded in making three males sing, all of these were our familiar form of Bullfinch with relatively subdued contact calls. However there was clear evidence that these local birds were aware of, and perhaps agitated by, the continental birds, and the same comment applies to small numbers of birds seen on the Cotswold Hills above Winchcombe, Gloucestershire on 26th January 2010.
All of this conspicuous and welcome Bullfinch activity seemed to melt away as quickly as it came and after a further four birds at Little Comberton on 6th February 2010, none were seen again.
To summarise: a winter influx involving one of the larger colourful continental Bullfinches subspecies, thought to be P. p. pyrrhula, was noted around the northern escarpment of Bredon Hill and the Cotswold Hills, mostly during the maximum of cold in January 2010. The evidence suggests that they disappeared as rapidly as they arrived.