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Country Diary: Ornithologists on lookout for handsome bird

Hawfinch.
Hawfinch.

Guess what? Whilst driving through Brompton village past the church, a small party of ornithologists were seen gazing intently at trees in the churchyard. What had caught their attention? Hawfinches! These handsome, rare birds are seldom seen high in tree tops, but this year has produced some large flocks in Yorkshire. The massive bill and rather short tail give the hawfinch a most distinctive silhouette.

I always pause to admire the mature horse-chestnut tree at the foot of the drive. It’s usually the first one of its kind to burst into leaf, and although it’s early days yet, its large, sticky, brown buds were swelling, soon to open and reveal large, palmate leaves with five to seven leaflets or ‘fingers’.

Feel the buds, and you’d imagine they’d been dipped in glue. The sticky substance is called ‘propolis’, a word which means, ‘before the city,’ or an outwork in defence. Before modern beehives were introduced, bees used to close up the entrance of the straw hives with this substance, leaving apertures through which they entered and departed the hive. This was done by the bees to prevent the intrusion of their enemies, such as the death head moth.

Propolis is a gum collected from buds of poplar and lime trees too. It’s used by bees to stop up all cracks and loose parts in the hive. It’s quite a pleasant smelling gum, with a similar smell to vanilla. Propolis can become a nuisance if bees use large quantities of it to seal the tops of movable frames to the brood chamber. Bees have been known to collect bitumen from roadways and use it for the same purpose as the natural product!

How I miss the monotonous call of the little chiff chaff this year whilst gardening. Last year it sang from March throughout summer and autumn, and remained with us through the mild winter. However, this year it must have been wise and headed for Mediterranean regions, as the majority do on migration. We must wait until late March before it returns to welcome spring.

Two early spring flowers which are easily confused, are the lesser celandine, and winter aconite. Both are in bloom.

The lesser celandine is the most common, with heart-shaped leaves growing on long stalks. The solitary flowers are bright yellow, sometimes fading to white, with usually six to eight petals.

The winter aconite is low growing, and the lobed leaves only appear after the flowering stem has died down, except for three. These form a conspicuous green ‘ruff’ immediately below the solitary yellow flower.

Finally, please do not feed bread or similar products to geese and waterfowl. This can cause ‘angel wings’, making them unable to fly and therefore vulnerable. Feed cracked corn, oats, wheat, grapes (cut in half) and bird seed ideally.