Linda Brown

The Woods are Alive with the Sound of Bullfinch

Linda Brown

Have you, like me, changed your walking routine since the lockdowns?

I’d always loved lacing up my boots and stomping around the country roads and tracks which loop around my East Ayrshire home town. But I marched too fast, timing myself on my walking app, obsessed with shaving seconds off my ‘minutes per mile’ walking speed, never taking notice of the simple beauty and wildlife all around me.

After March 2020, my priorities shifted – I wanted to go walking with my camera, connecting with nature, looking for mood-boosting positives and finding joy in my surroundings. Sorry if that all sounds a bit tree-hugger-ish (honestly, I haven’t… not yet… but never say never). My walks became highlights to be savoured, not races to be rushed, so although I still clock up the miles, they take me longer to complete because I allow myself time to stop, stand, and look. Slowing down and having a little patience has rewarded me with some amazing sights to photograph.

This morning I was on a bullfinch hunt. Bullfinches are notoriously shy – so shy, they’ve been evading me and my camera for weeks. Sometimes I hear their soft, piping call drifting through woods but rarely snatch more than a glimpse of these stocky little birds with their bull-like black heads, stubby black beaks, and rosy-red breasts (females have light tan breasts), in amongst the foliage.

My hunt began at one of my favourite haunts – the graveyard of Loudoun Kirk, situated on a quiet road outside Galston. Steeped in history with a ruined chapel, higgledy-piggledy weatherworn headstones, and lots of trees, Loudoun Kirk ticks all of my boxes as a great spot to hang out with my camera. It’s very atmospheric, especially on gloomy days. In fact, if Scooby-Doo and Shaggy ever peeped out from behind the obelisk commemorating Lady Flora Hastings of Loudoun, I wouldn’t be surprised. However, despite being the final resting place for generations of long-deceased local nobility and farmers, from autumn to spring the graveyard’s alive with birdlife… usually. I stress usually – sometimes the birds have a lie-in and take the day off and the graveyard is as dead as… a graveyard.

Today all the usual suspects were there. Chaffinches, great tits and blue tits zipped around the bushes and trees. Dunnocks and coal tits scuttled in the undergrowth. But no bullfinches. Some kind person had hung bird feeders from low hanging branches and I topped up the seeds (I always carry a bag of bird food with me) then hovered as unobtrusively as I could under a tree to watch and take pictures.

Christmas-card-cute robins ruled the roost, demanding first dibs with the sunflower hearts while the rest of the hoi-polloi hopped from branch to branch, waiting their turn in the literal pecking order at the feeders. A nuthatch skimmed over bushes, landing on a feeder perch and with the stealth of a little masked bandit, pinched a peanut then flashed away again, hiding among needles of an evergreen tree – and all before I could even extend my zoom lens. I willed him to reappear, which he eventually did, homing in on a moss-covered headstone on which I’d sprinkled seeds. Bribery worked, and he obligingly posed for a few snaps before taking his leave. I decided to move on too.

Ladyton Loch (to be honest, it’s more of a big puddle than a loch) lies further along the road, heading west towards Hurlford. The loch, or pond, is home to little grebes, mallards, and a pair of mute swans – but this morning there was no sign of either the cob or pen. Shimmering in the winter sunshine, the water was looking-glass still and I strode by, listening for the scolding clicks of crabbit wee wrens among the reeds.

I turned into Burnbank Wood. Redeveloped from old mining ground and planted with young trees and shrubs around sixteen years ago, the woods are a haven for birds, grey squirrels, badgers, and stoats.

Not long ago, I frightened a man here. Accidently, of course. I’d been lurking among the trees, trying to capture images of redwings feasting on the berries on a rowan tree. I was so wrapped up in my task, I never noticed the walker trudging along the nearby path. He was oblivious of me, until he glimpsed me in his peripheral vision, nearly rocketed out his Berghaus boots and shouted what my Granny would’ve called ‘a bad swearie word.’ The redwings bolted as did the red-faced man, while I garbled an apology.

Squelching along the muddy woodland path, I scanned the trees for bullfinches. I’d been told some had been seen in Burnbank a few days earlier, so was reasonably optimistic about them putting in an appearance. But after crossing the wooden bridge over Ladyton burn and meandering up and down the tree-lined nature trail several times, all I’d seen were siskins, dangling upside down on an alder tree, teasing out seeds from its cones. Not a bullfinch in sight. Maybe it was time to attempt a new trick? Last autumn, a friend suggested I played YouTube recordings of a bullfinch’s call from my mobile phone to attract the bashful birds. To be honest, I was sceptical and laughed off the idea… but today, in desperation, perhaps it was worth a go?

So, I fished out my phone, swiped and tapped the screen, and the sound of a M&S advert boomed through the woods scaring off the siskins. Thankfully the bullfinch ‘song’ started immediately after.

Parading back and forth, I held out my phone, allowing the mournful pew pew sound to float through the air. After half a dozen run-throughs and feeling a little bit silly and self-conscious, even though there was not a soul about, I was just about to give up, when a flash of pink on a branch caught my eye. I looked up and there, staring down at me quizzically, was a male bullfinch. Naturally, the second I lifted my camera to focus on him, he skedaddled into the trees behind me. But I managed to keep tabs on him and he settled high on a birch tree. I tried to zoom in but there were too many branches and twigs in the way to get a clear shot. He kept flitting about, as birds do, making the job of focusing even harder. I clicked off about twenty shots, more in hope than expectation. They’d probably be a blurry mess. Eventually he disappeared deeper into the wood and by this time, chilled to my thermals, I needed to move on and heat up. But at least I knew the YouTube trick worked. Or was the bullfinch’s appearance just a co-incidence?

Leaving Burnbank Wood, I walked smartly towards Hurlford to complete my walk. From the distance came the faint drilling noise of an industrious woodpecker. Which reminds me… I’ve not spotted an elusive Great Spotted for ages. My next winter walk could be a woodpecker hunt? Now, I wonder if there’s a YouTube video with his call?