Thursday 30 November 2017

Parrots in The Pines 29th November 2017

At the beginning of October this year I went with some friends for two weeks birding in Shetland. I saw many good birds but one particular bird stuck in my memory more than most and that was an encounter with some half dozen Parrot Crossbills that had invaded Shetland for the first time in twenty five years, irrupting from their Scandinavian or Russian forest homes due to a failure of the pine cone crop and it  was no coincidence that the Faeroe Islands were also invaded by Parrot Crossbills, in considerably larger numbers, at the same time as the birds that arrived in Shetland.

Parrot Crossbills are no ordinary crossbills, being larger, more powerful and more chunky than their Common Crossbill cousins, possessing a hefty, deep bill that looks similar to that of a parrot hence the name but more than this they possess a chutzpah that gives them enormous appeal to those who seek to encounter them, such as myself. They can hardly be called physically attractive being rather short and squat with a disproportionately large head, bull neck and possessing small beady eyes. Such an outlandish appendage as their monstrous bill does not help, but strangely this, plus the fact they are very rare outside their breeding areas and the adult males are a deep red colour, serves to impart a certain charisma to them. Maybe I am biased but there is definitely an indefinable 'something' about them which fascinates me.

In the last seven days at least, two flocks of Parrot Crossbills have been found in England, well south of their normal range, presumably irrupting for the same reason as the ones in Shetland last month.There is currently a flock of at least 40 at Santon Warren in Norfolk and another flock of 16 in Swinley Forest at Wishmoor Bottom, which is an area of heathland and pine woodland in Berkshire, part of which is utilised for training by the nearby Sandhurst Military Academy but the rest is open to the public to roam at will. 

Parrot Crossbills normally live and breed in the pine forests of Scandinavia then range eastwards to the Kola Peninsular and Pechora in Russia although, since 1991 they have colonised Scotland and by 2007 at least a hundred pairs were thought to breed mainly in the Abernethy Forest, although the latest RSPB estimate now has them at only sixty five pairs. Parrot Crossbills are usually sedentary and they are a very rare irruptive vagrant outside their breeding areas, so the presence of  at least two flocks well away and well south of their normal range is cause for much interest and speculation.

The first recorded Parrot Crossbill in Britain was a female collected at Blythburgh Suffolk in 1818 and prior to the major influx of 1962/63 only two records for Britain have been accepted, a female trapped on the Isle of May in Scotland on 18th September 1953 and an immature male killed by a car near Catleugh, Northumberland on 16th September 1954.

There have been at least three major irruptions of Parrot Crossbills to Britain recorded; 1962/1963 when records of 79 separate birds were accepted by the BBRC (British  Birds Rarities Committee), 1982/1983 when 109 records were accepted and 1990/1991 when 264 records were accepted. Since then the odd individual bird has been found away from their Scandinavian, Russian and Scottish breeding areas and I myself saw a female associating with Common Crossbills on a bitterly cold day, the 2nd February 2012, at Blackdown NT on the Surrey/Sussex border, and a flock of 14 at Budby in Nottinghamshire in December 2013 which remained into 2014. These were the last I had seen apart from the ones on Shetland this year but I never dreamed I would have the chance to see them in England again so soon, until today that is. Many birders have been eagerly awaiting this opportunity to encounter these wonderful birds in an easily accessible part of Britain and now their chance to do so has come. Many are making the most of this as it could be a long time until it happens again.

Peter had sent me a text on Monday suggesting we might go for the Parrot Crossbills in Norfolk but on Tuesday suggested we go for the Parrot Crossbills in Berkshire, rather than make an unnecessarily long journey to see the more distant ones in Norfolk. I was happy to concur and we met up at Peter's home in Garsington at 9.30 am, as arranged, on a sunny but bitterly cold Wednesday morning.

We set off in Peter's car on the hour long drive to Wishmoor Bottom which lies on the borders of Surrey and Berkshire and soon found ourselves at the end of Kings Ride, near Camberley, where we parked and, following instructions on RBA, set off on the half mile walk along a gently rising track heading north through part of the two thousand hectares of open heathland and mainly coniferous woodland that comprises Wishmoor Bottom. Following the detailed instructions on my RBA app, after half a mile we turned right and shortly after turned left, following a wide grass track that brought us out onto an area of open heathland with scattered lone pine trees. This looked just the spot and according to the RBA grid reference it was but there was no sign of any crossbills or other birders.

Uncertainty held sway briefly as we stood looking around. I was feeling the cold, as now out in the open, the northerly wind, although light, added a few more minus degrees to the air temperature. Peter then saw a line of birders, beyond some bushes, standing in another open area a few hundred metres further on, looking up at a single gaunt Scots pine. 

We took a small track  and quickly joined them where we found they were already looking at the unmistakeable profiles of crossbills, Parrot Crossbills, at the very top of the tree, silhouetted against a pale, sullen grey sky that had long since clouded over and obliterated any vestige of sun. I took some pictures but the birds were distant and too far away for my camera and lens combination to cope. In my binoculars I could see the red males and olive green females hopping around in the topmost branches of the tree, nibbling at the numerous cones or snipping one off and holding it aloft briefly, almost as if in triumph, their prize held firmly in their huge mandibles.

To see them side on one could not fail to notice the depth and size of their bills and the large heads and powerful necks that supported them. Almost like a mini Hawfinch.

With around another fifteen birders we watched them in the tree and edged a little closer and then closer still. The crossbills seemed oblivious to us and carried on acrobatically clambering around the tree top feeding on the cones, flying from one part of the tree to another but always maintaining a position near the top of the tree and in close company. It was impossible to count them as some were far inside the canopy and virtually invisible in the density of pine needles and fretwork of twigs and branches.

Twenty minutes later some of them started calling persistently, to my ears a more melodious  mellifluous call, that is slightly softer, deeper and tuneful and not so metallic and clipped as the call of a Common Crossbill. Then the birds burst forth from the tree in a loose assemblage and flew in a bounding flight across the heath to land in another cone laden pine some three hundred metres distant. I counted sixteen birds in the flock. We all followed  to where they had landed and now we could see them so much better, as some of the birds were feeding lower in the tree with no longer a pale background of sky but the deep green of pine fronds behind them. Much better for photography and even for viewing through binoculars and telescope.

Adult male Parrot Crossbill
With virtually everyone possessing a camera of varying quality these days, we positioned ourselves individually around the tree at a  discrete distance and took images of the birds, male and female, adult and juvenile, to our hearts content, the birds either feeding or just sitting not doing much at all as if they had fed enough and were content to watch their fellow crossbills continue to strip the cones.

Their specialised diet consists virtually exclusively of the  large, hard, thick scaled cones of Scots Pine or other species of pine cone and very occasionally insects. They expertly strip the scales off the cone, one by one, to extract the seed, either feeding from the cone in situ or snipping it off and holding it down with their foot on a pine branch and dealing with it that way. This feeding behaviour is yet another similarity to a  real parrot. Such a dry diet can create a thirst and once during our two hour observation, some of the flock flew down to a puddle to drink very briefly but they were obviously uneasy about being on the ground and quickly flew back up into the tree.

One of the Parrot Crossbill's favourite  pine trees
For the next forty five minutes we watched them feeding in their chosen pine tree, individual birds appearing and then disappearing in the thick green pine fronds. An adult male, glorious in his brick red plumage rested quietly on top of a pine twig just looking around, his lightweight body being gently swayed by the wind disturbed twig he had chosen to perch on. 

Just below him an orange and yellow juvenile male was tearing a cone to shreds and a grey and green female fed in similar fashion slightly higher up. Unlike the birds I saw in Shetland, which fed quietly and did not call, the birds here softly 'chipped' to each other, maybe because there were more of them and they wished to maintain contact with each other in the depths of the pine. I watched as an immature male hung almost upside down from a pine frond to pluck off his cone of choice. Another parrot like mannerism. 

Parrot Crossbill acrobatics

Note the long, pink and sticky tongue to which the pine seed adheres once
it is extracted from the sheath by the bird's bill

Immature male Parrot Crossbills. Note the orange
plumage rather 
than pink or red and areas of grey and
yellow feathering.The narrow 
wing bar is probably another
sign of immaturity as also is the paler
less substantial bill 
The males plumage from what I observed today can be very variable, from adults showing a deep red body and head with brown wings and brown forked tail, while some, probably younger birds, show a faint pale wing bar on their greater coverts, and others, presumably younger males and born earlier this year exhibit an orange, green and pink combination, although crossbill's plumage can be notoriously confusing and makes ageing individual birds difficult. The females are much more muted in colour, being an amalgamation of dull olive and yellowish green with distinctly greyish tones to their heads making them inconspicuous amongst the pine shoots.

Female Parrot Crossbills
With unhurried movements we re-positioned ourselves at intervals to get the best angle for a photo.It was a quiet and relaxed atmosphere as everyone enjoyed these close views of the crossbills going about their everyday lives. We almost felt privileged as neither myself or Peter thought it would be as good as this. I can only assume our fellow birders felt the same too. 

Birders watching the Parrot Crossbills
Then, at a signal unknown and unrecognised by us the crossbills flew again, departing with loud calls and returned to the original tree and fed once again on the abundant cones.There is certainly no shortage of food for the crossbills here, so they may remain for some time. Let's hope so.

We followed them again and stood near the tree and watched. An immature male and a female sat near to each other in the bare twigs and branches towards the outside of the tree. The female moved closer to the male who then fed her with presumably regurgitated pine seed as she solicited him with shivering wings and upheld beak. The sun even broke through, briefly illuminating the orange and yellow plumage of the male. We had spent only fifteen minutes here and then all the crossbills flew back to the tree from whence they had come. 

We followed once more as this was sort of on the way back across the heathland to the car.We stopped at the tree and watched them once again, fussing and fiddling with the cones. Just one more photo for each of us, well maybe two, even three more but we had done really well.

An old male Parrot Crossbill. Just look at that bill!

Peter asked me the time. 'It's one pm Pete. Fancy going? 'We have been here almost two hours and I don't think we can do better than this.' Peter agreed. 'Yes I'm happy to leave' so we slowly walked back across the heath and along the muddy, wet track through the woodland and back to the car. I no longer felt the cold, now inwardly warmed by my audience with the Parrot Crossbills of Wishmoor Bottom. I may well go back if they stay. It was that good.


For Peter's account of the day see here

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