Sunday 15 December 2013

Who's a pretty boy then? 14th December 2013

This story begins on the night of Friday 13th December at the always excellent and much anticipated Oxonbirders Christmas Curry Night along the Cowley Road in Oxford. A proposed trip to see a Baikal Teal near Liverpool on Saturday had to be aborted as the duck had flown away. I always had a hankering to see Parrot Crossbills, only ever having seen one before, in Sussex, and this year there has been an exceptional invasion of this species into the UK. My sights were set on a flock of fourteen that were being seen daily in Budby South Forest which is in Nottinghamshire and part of the wider Sherwood Forest. Badger who was going to come with me to Liverpool declined the opportunity but with such a large group of excitable birders around one table I soon recruited a couple of good pals in Andy and Terry to accompany me.

After a sleepless night due to my foolishly drinking Diet Pepsi at the curry night (I was driving) with all it's caffeine and chemical enhancements, I blearily made a 6am rendezvous with Andy and Terry on a damp, dark and somewhat chilly morning outside my house in Kingham.

We set off north across the Cotswolds and were soon on the Motorway up north. The journey was thankfully uneventful apart from seeing a Muntjac, a Badger and a Fox in the space of a few miles early on in the drive, which was surprisingly quick, with us arriving some two hours later, just after dawn, in Budby, a tiny village in rural north Nottinghamshire. A few minutes of uncertainty ensued as we tried to find the track from the village to  the woods which would, according to RBA (Rare Bird Alert), lead to the crossbills.

In the end it was easy as there was only one small, narrow road into the village which conveniently came to a dead end by a farmyard and some cottages from where the track ran onwards to the woods. A local birder was already parked by the cottages and he confirmed we were in the right place and gave us instructions as to where to go. We parked the car and as they say 'headed for the woods'. A mile or so later and we found ourselves traversing a large area of heathland with scattered trees, both deciduous and conifer. The local birder had confided that on previous occasions he had found the best policy was to wait for the crossbills to fly in to drink at some puddles on a track, which they seemed to do every two to two and a half hours. He hinted that they usually turned up around nine thirty. It was now approaching nine am.

We could see a number of other birders, who had already arrived, in the distance off to our left, presumably waiting around the area of puddles but as we walked along the main path in their direction another birder approached and told us that he had just been watching the Parrot Crossbills from a track off to our right. Quandary. Which way do we go now? We opted for the right as that was where the birds currently were. Andy was some few hundred yards ahead of us and Terry and myself had not got far down the track before Andy waved to us. 'I think he can see them Terry.' I said. Then crossbill calls came from the sky and a group of fourteen crossbills flew over us and onwards in the direction of the puddles.This had to be the Parrot Crossbills. We did a swift about turn and headed rapidly in the direction the crossbills had flown.

With such a good number of birders hanging around in the general area the crossbills were soon picked up as they flew and were seen to alight in an isolated conifer. It was about a quarter mile walk for us as I saw the other birders making their way towards the conifer tree.

I followed in their direction - fast. Please do not fly away. Please stay put. Just for a few minutes. Previous reports had suggested the crossbills were quite mobile and that any views obtained were only relatively brief so you can understand my anxiety. The birds to my relief remained in the top of the conifer and we cautiously approached them.

They were feeding and apparently were untroubled by the presence of around fifty birders slowly surrounding the tree. There was plenty of room and gently we all moved closer to the tree as the birds appeared relaxed about our presence.

Although fourteen birds had settled in the tree only five or six were visible at any one time.Their bills in silhouette were massive compared to those of normal crossbills and seen side on they were, well, forgive me, just like a parrot's bill. The upper mandible deeply curved. The whole bill very broad laterally with the lower mandible in particular very deep and bulky. A bill this size needs a fair sized head to carry it and this was the other noticeable feature about these birds, the big, heavy, thickset head and neck. They were real bruisers, charismatic heavyweights of their genus

I took some images and then my camera battery ran out. The spare was in the car! So tired, I had forgotten it. No matter, Terry and Andy would get some good pictures. In a way I was glad as now I ceased to worry about getting pictures and just concentrated on watching these beauties. The males were particularly attractive, red but with the plumage colour varying in intensity. One was scarlet, another presumably younger was almost orange whilst yet another showed a faint white wing bar on it's dark brown wings.

Male Parrot Crossbill c Andy Last

Male Parrot Crossbill c Terry Sherlock
By now we had got very close to the tree and one female was sat in the open attacking a pine cone with some vigour. I saw how she had severed the cone from the branch and then holding it with her feet on the branch proceeded to systematically remove the scaly bracts one by one from the core. We watched her for the fifteen to twenty minutes she took to demolish the cone. I noted how her crossed mandibles, the top one in particular slightly longer, was used to such good effect to prise the bracts away and then strip the outside of the bract to get at the seed, using her pink tongue. The spent bracts were then just allowed to fall to the ground which betrayed the birds presence when they were invisible in the foliage

Female Parrot Crossbill c Andy Last
It was fascinating to watch. Other Parrot Crossbills moved around the tree holding cones almost like a trophy in their bill which they too had severed from a branch. 

Whether we were lucky in our encounter I cannot tell but from speaking to the locals, for us to be able to see them like this was unprecedented. We calculated we had watched them constantly for over an hour getting some of the closest and most prolonged views I have had of any type of crossbill, ever. None of us thought this could happen. A couple of minutes watching them at best and we would have been happy. But this? Fabulous.

During our observation they were totally silent and often the entire flock was invisible in the tree. If you did not know they were there you possibly could have walked right past them with only the falling discarded pine cones giving the slightest hint of their presence.

Then suddenly, calling excitedly, they erupted from the tree as if on a given signal but did not go far, flying to a bare tree and perching at the top and then emboldened, flying down to the rutted, flooded path to drink. Inevitably someone got too close and they flew back up into the tree. Now we could see all fourteen. Six males and eight females.Some had absolutely massive bills but others had smaller bills although still more substantial than their commoner cousins. We watched them fiddling about in the tree, nibbling at buds and then they were up and off, calling and flying away and then back towards us and then away again and further into the forest out of sight and reach 

We were unanimous.This was the signal to go and we made our way back to the car almost bubbling in excitement at our experience with the Parrot Crossbills.

Incidentally the Parrot Crossbills were lifers for both Terry and Andy

Video c Andy Last

Terry and Andy - now with one more species each on their life lists
It was still only ten o'clock in the morning. We had not anticipated quite such a quick encounter with the crossbills and now, as Terry said, we had the rest of the day before us and anything else was a bonus. It had been vaguely planned to head for nearer home to try and see a Cattle Egret in nearby Buckinghamshire but this plan was promptly discarded in favour of something much more exotic. A first year male Desert Wheatear that had taken up residence on Severn Beach near Bristol.

A long drive admittedly but a great bird to see if we could pull it off and another lifer for both Terry and Andy. So we set off southwest into the sun for a three hour drive. Uneventful apart from some unknown hold up on the M5 which we avoided by taking a conveniently approaching turn off onto the A38 that then ran parallel to the Motorway and would according to the Satnav only add another five minutes to our journey.

We arrived at the somewhat unprepossessing Severn Beach, which in reality is a vast area of unattractive mud and shingle, at around 3pm. We walked west along the deserted promenade into a stiff southwest wind promising rain. At the end of the promenade ten or so birders were sat or stood looking downwards. I could, at first, see nothing of the Desert Wheatear and asked a lady next to me where it was. She pointed downwards and there was the wheatear, ridiculously close, sheltering from the strong wind in the lee of a small grassy bank below the promenade and with it's straw and black coloured plumage rendering it very well camouflaged on the dead grass, stems and autumn leaves on which it was perched.

It was unbelievably confiding and after a while came to life and started feeding on meal worms brought to it by birders concerned for it's welfare. We were sat on the low sea wall and the wheatear approached closer and closer. Eventually it was about six inches from my foot. Andy took a picture of it almost between his feet and two young birders also got very close up and personal

It was totally fearless and just hopped around delighting one and all. There were long periods when it just sat, sheltering in the lee of vegetation with feathers fluffed up against the strong wind. Some concern was felt amongst us about it's general health and indeed at times it did not look well but then on other occasions it looked fine and it was feeding regularly on the mealworms. Maybe it was just stuffed full of food? I guess the next few days will reveal whether it will survive. A female spent the whole of last winter on a beach in Aberdeenshire so there is no reason why this bird cannot survive here with some help from friendly birders who could continue to supplement it's food supply.

We all took numerous pictures and in the end satisfied and with the light fading we put the cameras away and just sat on the wall, with about a dozen other birders and looked at this rarity never more than a few feet from us. Lee Evans arrived and prostrated himself to take some photos or maybe in homage. At one stage he and the wheatear were virtually nose to beak. It was quite amusing.

To his credit he went off to get another supply of mealworms for the wheatear and we chose that moment to leave also.

Home for tea and mince pies by 5pm.

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