Winter Finches.

Three winter finches to look out for in November and December.

The chaffinch is our commonest and most widespread winter finch and can be found in all types of habitat from local gardens to farmland, woodland and parks. In winter we get an influx of Continental chaffinches from Europe especially if the weather is rather severe there. These visitors tend to gather more in open fields and grazing areas and can form quite large flocks.

The male chaffinch winter plumage has a rusty-red tinge to it, the bill looks rather buff coloured, before the steely blue-grey colour of the summer. The males are still really handsome with the conspicuous white shoulder patch and white wingbar. A reddish-buff tinge covers the usual blue-grey crown on the head with a duller mantle, cheeks and breast.

Females still have their olive-brown upperparts with a grey-brown face and less white in the wing bars. The bill is pale fawn coloured and sometimes shows a darker tip. The chaffinch song is the cheerful, familiar rattling sequence, ending in a flourish. Males start to practice their songs often by the first week of February in time for the coming Spring. If you listen out, they sometimes start by singing just parts of it, almost as though they haven’t quite remembered the full sequence or maybe this is just new young males singing for the first time?

Male chaffinch in summer plumage.

Female chaffinch in autumn.

Our second winter finch is the brambling, a winter visitor to the UK from Scandinavia and closely related to the chaffinch. They visit from October to April and the UK populations can fluctuate from year to year, depending on the winter food supply in Northern Europe.

They do like a diet of beech mast so often mix with the chaffinches in the woodlands up in the Chilterns, in a good year lots of them can turn up. I have sometimes found several of them, just in the car park with chaffinches at Cowlease Woods.

Being closely related to chaffinches they are a similar size with both sexes having the orange shoulders and breast, dark tail and yellow bill with a black tip. The winter male’s head is mottled buff but you can seen the black colour underneath ready to show through in the spring. In a woodland setting the striking white rump shows up as they fly, distinguishing them from the chaffinches. They have a rather bounding and nervous flight and when disturbed fly up to sit high in the trees waiting until the coast is clear to carry on feeding.

Male brambling in winter.

Female brambling in winter.

The third winter finch is the linnet, they breed mainly on heaths and commons often with gorse and other dense vegetation but winter on lowland farmland or sometimes on the coast. They are slightly smaller than chaffinches and have a streaky brownish pattern with a buff-brown dark streaked throat. In winter the males lack the lovely red markings on breast and crown with the females seeming to look almost the same all year round. Both sexes show white flashes in the wings and tail, with a white underwing.

Again, they are very nervous when on the ground and fly up as a group at any sign of movement to settle on the tops of nearby trees. They can look almost sparrow-like in a flock and have a rather bouncing flight with all the members of the flock staying close together. Sadly numbers of linnets have dropped somewhat in recent years but various farmland schemes are now in place to help feed them in the colder winter months and give them the best chance of breeding again in the spring.

Male linnet in spring.

Report by Colin Strudwick.