Finches & buntings

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The finches are seed eaters, often with large bills and pronounced wing markings. The chaffinch is the most common and can be found wherever there are trees and bushes, often giving itself away with its 'pink-pink' call Its close relative the brambling is a winter visitor from Scandinavia.

The greenfinch used to be widespread and common, but disease has led to a major decline. The yellow markings on its wings catch the eye and its hissing wheezy song the ear. Goldfinches have prospered as greenfinches declined. They breed here but most move to France or Iberia for the winter. They nest high in a tree and feed on the seeds of wild plants such as thistles, often forming small, twittering feeding parties.

Linnets prefer to breed on gorse heath but will use other sites with dense low cover and a good source of seeds nearby. They have declined by almost half nationally since the 1970s, but by rather less in Essex. Bullfinches too are in serious decline: two out of every three lost since 1969. Their habit of eating fruit buds in late winter has made them unpopular with fruit farmers, but they have also suffered as a result of intensive farming. It is an unobtrusive bird, nesting in woodland or thick hedgerows.

The hawfinch is much less common than any of these, occurring almost solely in open, deciduous woodland. Its large strong bill is adapted to cracking nuts and fruit stones.

Siskins visit Essex in winter, forming flocks feeding on the seeds of alder trees and other conifers, but recently a few have stayed over the summer, indicating that they may soon start to breed here. Historically, the redpoll was mainly a winter visitor to Essex too, but started breeding here regularly in the 1960s, in birch scrub or thickets of alder, thorn and willow, although since then breeding numbers have declined. Birch seeds are its favourite food.

Buntings are seed eaters like the finches, but have shorter bills and longer tails. They usually nest in hedgerows bordering farmland and have suffered from the efficiency of modern agriculture, which leaves little surplus for them. The greatest casualty is the corn bunting, which has declined by 76% nationally since the 1970s but rather less in Essex. Rather like a plump female house sparrow, its song is like the jangle of a bunch of keys. The yellowhammer too has a distinctive song, singing its wheezy 'little bit of bread and no cheeeese' from prominent song positions throughout May and in the summer.

The reed bunting prefers wetter sites with reeds and other tall vegetation, but it has spread into drier habitats as wetlands have disappeared. With its black head and bib, divided by a white moustache, the male is easy to recognise. Unlike these resident species, the snow bunting is a winter visitor from its breeding areas on the high mountain tops of Scandinavia. It can be found, sometimes in small flocks, all around the Essex coastline.

© Ken Wooldridge