Opheusden, The Netherlands, 13 December 2013

20 December 2013 -  

The Alder in the garden is bathed in morning sunlight and eight Goldfinches are feeding on the cones. The tree has grown six metres in our time here, and in winter it is heavy with thick clusters of dark pink catkins and innumerable bunches of small, chocolate brown cones. These are set off by the silver-grey trunk with its patina of green algae and growths of grey-green lichen.

The finches are busy. Each perches horizontally on a bunch of cones, steadily extracting the seeds with deft head movements, usually working from above, pausing every few seconds to look up and around for danger. They are absolutely gorgeous, their brilliant yellow zigzag wingbars in blazing contrast to black, white-spotted wings and tails. Red and white faces framed with black appear and disappear quickly as they work, and when they turn, russet smudges on breast and flanks appear. Each finch takes a periodic break to clean its conical, blue-grey bill with energetic side-to-side swipes against the branch on which it is perched. Two of them fly to the nearby poplar to engage in intensive, seemingly ritualised bill cleaning, before re-joining the others in feeding.

They feed in silence among the still, windless branches. Suddenly, after nearly an hour, they fly off in a miniature explosion of gold, black and white, their quiet but emphatic, liquid, twinkling, trilling calls embellishing the stillness.

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