A Guide to Finches

Sam Hockaday

Winter may seem emptier after the summer migrants have left us but thankfully we have residents that stay with us all year round to bring some welcome colour and noise to our gardens.

Our Senior Conservation Ecologist, Andy Karran, introduces us to one of these year-long residents; the finches.

Finches largely spend the summer catching insects and their larvae to feed themselves and their chicks. Insects are a lot harder to come by in the winter but finches are adaptable with their diet and can utilise their large beaks to feed on seeds over the winter. This means they are able to survive our winters, particularly if we give them a helping hand by feeding them in the garden.  

There are a considerable number of finch species that have been recorded in the UK but a good number of these have never occurred in Gwent as they are just rare migrants or vagrants. In this blog we will concentrate on the species you have a good chance of seeing here in Gwent.  

There are a total of 13 finch species that have been recorded within the county. Nine of these regularly breed here, one is a regular winter visitor, and one an occasional visitor. Two have only been recorded once – the Common Rosefinch and Common Redpoll. 

The nine breeding finch species are: Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll, Linnet, Crossbill and Hawfinch. Bramblings are regular winter visitors and Twite are seen occasionally.    

How to identify the finches? 

This blog cannot possibly deal with the identification of all these species, so reference to a good field-guide is recommended. Nevertheless, the finches have some colourful and distinctive features to look out for that will help you tell them apart.

 

Finch features

Finches are relatively small birds. Our smallest, the Siskin, is not much bigger than our familiar Blue Tit but finches range in size up to the Hawfinch, which is noticeably larger than the House Sparrows in the garden. If you get a good look you will see finches have stout bills, similar to sparrows and the closely related buntings. Conveniently some of them are very aptly named, for instance the Greenfinch is indeed very green (although the females are less so and Siskins also have much green in their plumage) and Goldfinches have gold (bright yellow), although it is only on their wings. Also the Crossbill’s beak is indeed crossed over, an ingenious adaption for tweezing conifer seeds out of cones. Chaffinches and Bramblings can often be confused in the winter, however if a flock takes off in front of you, look out for the distinctive white rump of the Brambling as it flies away.     

Where and when to see them?        

Most of the species are with us all year round, although for all they are quite possibly most numerous in winter and on migration as their numbers are boosted by birds moving south and west to escape the worst of the weather further north. Chaffinch and Goldfinch are perhaps the species most likely to turn up in your garden, particularly if you feed the birds. Greenfinch are now sadly not as common in gardens as they once were, as they are particularly vulnerable to Trichmoniasis disease. It is very important to keep your bird-feeding stations regularly cleaned to control the spread of this. Siskin are, however, an increasingly familiar garden bird and if we are lucky the Bullfinch or even Brambling may visit the garden. The others may necessitate a trip out into the great Gwent countryside; see our guide below for more details.

Our guide to finches

This guide will give you a flavour of how common they are, which habitats or locations to visit and the best times of year to seek out our finches. 

Chaffinch

Male chaffinch

Andy Karran

Our commonest finch, it could turn up almost anywhere. Look out for flocks feeding on the masts beneath Beech trees in winter.

Bullfinch

Male bullfinch

Andy Karran

A common breeding resident, although quite secretive, favouring more lowland areas of scrub and mature hedgerows.

Greenfinch

Greenfinch male

Andy Karran

A common breeding resident but it has suffered badly with disease in recent years. Numbers continue to fall and it’s nowhere near as familiar as it used to be.

Goldfinch

Adult Goldfinch

Andy Karran

Another common species in Gwent, tinkling flocks roam the countryside looking for thistles and Teasels, and they will happily visit your garden if you provide them with Niger Seed or Sunflower Hearts. A flock of Goldfinch is very aptly called a charm.

Siskin

Siskin

Andy Karran

A less common species in Gwent but becoming a more familiar sight. Stands of Alder on watercourses and coniferous plantations are popular with roving flocks of Siskins, and they are increasingly visiting gardens.

Lesser Redpoll

Lesser Redpoll

Andy Karran

They breed in small numbers in suitable scrubby habitat on the edge of the uplands. Their numbers increase in the winter when they may form mixed flocks in the Alders with Siskins. 

Linnet

Male Linnet

Andy Karran

A bird of the open country, they can be found on the Levels, across our farmland and into the uplands. They seem to particularly like a nice area of gorse.

Crossbill

Female Common Crossbill in tree

Andy Karran

A specialist feeder, very much confined to our coniferous plantations where their curious beaks prise apart conifer cones and tweeze out the seeds. Wentwood is a good site to look for them.

Hawfinch

Hawfinch

Andy Karran

An uncommon breeding resident, made to seem all the rarer by its very secretive nature. Our largest finch species, their huge beaks can crack cherry stones. The exceptional influx of winter 2017/18 allowed many a view of these striking birds. The Wye Valley, particularly areas with good stands of Wild Cherry, are worth a try.

Brambling

Brambling in bush

Andy Karran

Not breeding in Gwent (in fact only a handful of pairs nest in the UK, in Scotland), they visit us for the winter. Beech woodlands are a great place to try to spot them.  

Twite

Twite

Andy Karran

A scarce winter visitor, not recorded at all in many years. The most likely place to find a Twite is on the coast in the winter. They look quite similar to Linnets with which they may be associating.