A charm, the collective noun for a gathering of goldfinches, is nowhere near adequate to describe the flock of more than 100 that we followed along the cliffs near Hawthorn Dene this morning. Our experience of these little finches was one of pure elation.

They were feeding in thistles and knapweed, shredding seedheads, sending thistledown drifting out to sea. Their liquid, twittering calls brought to mind a schoolyard full of excited children at playtime. That sound rose to a crescendo when we came within 20 paces, before they rose into the air in a panic of whirring yellow-barred wings that flashed in the sunlight, then faded again as they settled back to earth.

A small part of a vast flock of goldfinches feeding along the cliffs at Dawdon

‘Their liquid, twittering calls brought to mind a schoolyard full of excited children at playtime.’ Photograph: Phil Gates

This stretch of coastline is fine goldfinch habitat, with impenetrable gorse and blackthorn thickets for nesting along the clifftops and a mile-long strip of limestone flora that provides enough seed resources to last well into winter. The huge flocks that assemble here are one of the most exhilarating sights of early autumn, especially on a fresh, golden morning like this, with a clear view to the North Sea horizon, where sea and sky meet with razor-sharp clarity.

The sounds of flocks of birds can have a profound effect on mood. From the south we could hear the faint but unmistakable clamour of geese. When we turned to look we could see that other cliff walkers were gazing at the sky. A skein of migrating pink-footed geese passed overhead, flying in a ragged V formation towards Northumberland, probably heading for their winter feeding grounds on sandbanks around Lindisfarne.

Pink-footed geese migrating northwards along the Durham coast

‘A skein of migrating pink-footed geese pass overhead, flying in a ragged V formation.’ Photograph: Phil Gates

There is something about their wild calls that sends a little shiver down the spine and stirs the soul. Long before clocks and calendars, when the passage of the sun across the sky and the celestial orbits of the moon and planets were the only measures of time, this spectacle would have been a portent of change, a time to prepare for the turning of the seasons.

Soon they faded from view, trailing in their wake a reminder that fine autumn mornings like this, with bounding flocks of goldfinches set against a sparkling blue sea, are moments to savour. All too soon, winter will be here.


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