Tuesday 11 March 2014

Parrot Fashion 8th March 2014

Male and female Parrot Crossbills
With my wife not due back from Boston USA until Sunday I had another Saturday free to go birding. So it was no hardship to accept an invitation from Hugh, who had accompanied me on last weekend's exploits, to come and stay at his house in Yaxley near Peterborough on Friday night and go birding in Norfolk first thing on Saturday.

Hugh, never having seen Parrot Crossbills, had a burning desire to rectify that situation, so it was, not without a few moans and going into old lag mode, I bowed to the enthusiasm of youth and 5.30am found us heading for Edgefield on the corner of Holt Country Park in Norfolk to try and remedy this particular gap in Hugh's birding life list.

We arrived on a grey and bleak morning at an area of pines, devoid of people and cars and with a large area by the road clear felled, leaving just a couple of isolated tree trunks standing bare and forlorn in the centre and providing a scene not too dissimilar to a First World War battlefield consisting as it did of a wasteland of fir cones, twigs, logs, branches and general arboreal detritus that always seems to be left once the conifers have been felled. 

I was gratified to find we were alone having expected others to be attracted by the prospect of seeing Parrot Crossbills and especially as it was a Saturday.Where was everybody?

A Woodlark was singing from some birches as we got out of the car and assembled our gear. Hugh saw it but another Woodlark then arrived on the scene. The singing stopped and hostilities ensued with the birds flying off in pursuit of each other before I could locate them.

At first we were uncertain of what exactly to do or where to stand with regard to finding crossbills. We could hear them from virtually the moment we got out of the car. We viewed the area from the entrance track but it seemed that would be too distant to see any crossbills as they would surely all be in the pines that were still left standing on the far side of the extensive area of clearfell

I had studied various pictures of the Parrot Crossbills taken from here and they all indicated that the photographers had got pretty close to the birds but the tracks around the clearfell were distant from anything that looked likely to attract crossbills. As we contemplated this fact the distinctive metallic calls of a flock of crossbills came from up in the sky and a flock of eleven birds descended from on high into the most obvious bare pine tree trunk standing upright with snapped off bare branches, like a fish's backbone, in the middle of the clearfell. 

The lone pine tree trunk favoured by the crossbills coming to drink from the
puddle just below
I looked at the crossbills in the scope. Surely it would be too much to hope they were Parrot Crossbills? Correct, they were undoubtedly and indisputably Common Crossbills. Still it was good to see them. They sat for what seemed an age on the spikes of the trunk just fiddling about. From previous experience this indicated they had come to drink and sure enough, eventually the first birds, bolder than their companions, dropped down in twos and threes to an unseen puddle formed in one of the many ruts and depressions in the clearfell below the tree 

This made my mind up and I left the track and slowly walked closer, much closer to the lone trunk until I could see the puddle they were drinking from. It was obvious that this was where the photos I had seen had come from and I could even see where the lucky photographers had placed strategic upturned logs to sit on to take their photos. "Come on Hugh, let's stand by that other nearby bare trunk and view from there. Trust me it will work". The crossbills promptly and excitedly flew off to some pines to feed. "Don't worry they will be back." I advised confidently.

Hugh followed in their direction to get a better view of them feeding in the distant pines while I remained to watch the now vacated and consequently bird free tree trunk. A few minutes passed then to my ears came the familiar calls again and another group of twelve crossbills landed on the top of the trunk. I looked in the scope. The top three birds in silhouette sent a shiver down my spine. They showed massive deep bills, huge heads, bulging necks and thickset bodies. They could only be one thing. Parrot Crossbills. 

Parrot Crossbills
I waved urgently to the now distant Hugh who came over fast, flushing a Woodcock in the process. I scanned down the trunk checking each bird. The top eight were Parrot Crossbills, a mixture of mainly males and a few females and, providing a handy and very convenient comparison, the bottom four were Common Crossbills. The difference was in this case very marked and obvious. The Common Crossbills, looked so much more petite in build, their bills, especially the lower mandible looking delicate, almost puny compared to the gargantuan appendages of the Parrot Crossbills. This mixed group sat quietly, as crossbills do, in the tree, before the first two descended to the puddle to drink and bathe. They were followed by others but no more than four were ever in the puddle at one particular time. The views from so close were sensational. The male Parrot Crossbills  showing varying shades of brick red were almost brutish with their enormous heads and monstrous dark grey distorted bills. Younger males were a combination of orange, yellow and green and one Common Crossbill was as far as I could see virtually all yellow apart from its wings and tail. This latter individual was drinking beside an absolute classic male Parrot Crossbill. You really could not ask for more than this. 


They remained at the puddle for around ten minutes with two birds flying up from the puddle to perch above our heads on the top of the bare trunk under which we were standing.Totally unafraid they sat there while we looked vertically upwards at their forked tails and eventually they were joined by the others and then they all flew around in a wide circle before disappearing off to some distant pines by the entrance track. We were jubilant, Hugh especially so as it was another lifer for him. It was still barely eight in the morning and we were all alone having seen in the space of forty five minutes both Parrot and Common Crossbills. Earlier reports from others spoke of having to wait hours for even a glimpse and we had assumed similar would be in store for us. We obviously wanted more and subsequently a steady stream of crossbills flew over and around the clearfell or fed in the bordering pinewoods. Single birds, pairs and small groups tested our observational and identification skills, many were too distant to identify unless seen in silhouette and even then problematical. As for differences in the calls of the two species forget it. I could not discern much if any difference but that was probably down to my lack of experience with both Parrot and Common Crossbills calls. The majority of crossbills we saw at this time after our close encounter with the Parrot Crossbills, not unexpectedly appeared to be Common Crossbills and those that were dubious in our minds were probably Commons too. 

A lull in activity ensued. Four Common Buzzards held a territorial dispute above the pines, mewling loudly as they sorted out their differences in the sky. A Sparrowhawk flashed above the trees and a lone bird dropping onto the clearfell resolved itself into a lovely Woodlark. 

No more crossbill flocks arrived on the favoured tree trunk for an hour or so until a group of eight descended, again announcing their impending arrival with those rapid excited metallic calls, to land in the tree. We scanned them but they too were Common Crossbills apart from one brick red male which was a Parrot Crossbill, albeit with not quite the classic deep bill but hefty enough to leave little doubt as to its identity. One bird in this flock was also yellow like the one we had encountered earlier. This flock flew off having had a brief drink and we resumed our vigil. 

The wind now blew even colder, gaining in strength and the sky was still a sullen grey. I huddled with the tree trunk at my back to stave off the chilling wind. Time dragged by and we were joined by another couple of birders. One of them, a local, told us that up to twenty seven Parrot Crossbills had been seen here. We waited and waited and finally a large flock of crossbills landed in the tree.There were twenty six in this flock and checking through them we counted at least six Parrot Crossbills. The crossbills adopted the same procedure as before, dropping down in two's and three's to drink and bathe before flying back up to their elevated perches. 

Then, as one they were up and off, as ever calling loudly but only flying across the clearfell to the pines by the entrance track. By now more birders had arrived and they were scoping the birds feeding on the pines by the track. We went over to join them but as we did the entire flock flew back to the lone trunk. Back we went and got more good views of a mix of Common and Parrot Crossbills. Then our crossbill encounter came to a halt when the flock flew off once again. We called it quits having had for the most part the place and the crossbills to ourselves.The magic was over as far as we were concerned.

We wasted some time going to Sheringham via the coast road but did find a lone Pale bellied Brent Goose in amongst a small flock of Dark bellied Brent Geese at Cley. 

Pale bellied Brent Goose with Dark bellied Brent Geese
We baulked at paying £4.90 to the National Trust to park the car at Sheringham Park despite the temptation of a Firecrest and instead returned to Holt for a reviving coffee for Hugh and a hot chocolate for me.

We had been told of some Black throated Divers off Stiffkey Saltmarshes so tried our luck there. A long and treacherous slither across wet mud and saltwater channels out to the distant shoreline resulted in an unsatisfactory distant sighting of one Black throated Diver. Nevertheless despite the slight feeling of disappointment it was impossible to be too downcast as the environment here is an enticing mixture of endless wide spaces of deserted sand and sea and an open sky loneliness that becomes very beguiling especially as the sun chose this time to come out. Most of the commoner waders were present such as Curlew, Grey Plover, Oystercatcher, Bar tailed Godwit, Knot and Dunlin, their cries providing an evocative accompaniment to the roar of the sunlit sea and strong wind. Loose flocks of Dark bellied Brent Geese, growling conversationally amongst themselves wandered the saltings and Little Egrets like pieces of stray washing flustered up from the saltwater channels  at our approach and headed fast, downwind to safety.

Stiffkey Saltmarshes
I grew tired and returned to the car to peruse my images of Parrot Crossbills taken earlier in the morning at Edgefield. Hugh followed me some ten minutes later and on arriving at the car prised me from my camera and images of crossbills by pointing out a ringtail Hen Harrier flying across the marshes in front of me and following this up with a ghost grey male some few minutes later. A good finish and final flourish to the morning.Well done to Hugh.

Now what? "Fancy going back for some more crossbill action" I ventured. "Tell you what, let's go to Burnham Overy Staithe. We can scope it from the road and then if it is no good we can go back to the crossbills" countered Hugh. "Done"

Burnham Overy's wide expanses of fields, marshes and dunes was not exactly its usual mecca of birding. There was in fact comparatively little to see. Distant Pink footed Geese, Eurasian Wigeon and Dark bellied Brent Geese were scattered across the pastures. A female Marsh Harrier, a Red Kite, Common Buzzard and frustratingly, due to distance, an impossible to reliably identify Rough legged Buzzard perched on a post, fulfilled the raptor quotient.

"Crossbills it is then?" "Let's go". We returned to Edgefield, parking in the same spot as this morning. We were no sooner out of the car than a group of  crossbills became evident perched prominently in the bare deciduous trees a few metres on the other side of the road. One was singing. In the scope it became a male Parrot Crossbill judging by the bill and another lower down was a female Parrot Crossbill. Of the other half dozen we could see, all were Common Crossbills. They suddenly took off and from half a dozen the flock became twenty or more as previously unseen individuals left the trees. Two birders watching from the other side of the road came over asking us whether the birds were Parrot Crossbills. "The top one was" we advised.  "Thanks we were watching it but did not really know what to look for" they replied.

Walking back to our former spot under the isolated pine trunk it became obvious any chance of a lone vigil was now out of the question. A number of birders were now staking out the puddle and in my opinion were far too close, one photographer in particular was virtually on top of the puddle but claimed the crossbills were not put off.

We enquired whether they had seen any Parrot Crossbills but the answer was, "No, only Common Crossbills." "What about you?" they asked. "We just had at least two by the road". "What just now?" "Yes." A look of shock permeated the assembled birders. It became apparent that some of them had no idea what to look for when identifying a Parrot Crossbill. They were obviously content to rely on others. What can you do?

We were not too fussed about the lack of crossbills having done so well with them in the morning. Two flocks of crossbills flew around on two separate occasions and looked like they wanted to settle on the bare pine trunk but thought better of it. The 'too close' photographer was probably the cause. No matter it was pleasant sitting on our pine stumps in the sun and just relaxing. I dozed on and off. It had been a long day already and the walk out onto the Stiffkey Saltmarsh more tiring than I cared to admit. The photographer gave up and left. Ten minutes later a pair of Common Crossbills settled on the tree and after quite a long time the male descended to drink and then after flying back up onto the tree the female dropped down to drink before they both left. 

Common Crossbill male
Common Crossbill female
Other birders arrived with cameras. Someone started talking too loudly. A photographer asked another if the image he had on his camera was a Parrot Crossbill. To amuse ourselves we estimated how many Parrot and Common Crossbills we had seen during the time spent here today. The totals were impressive. At least seventeen Parrot Crossbills and around a hundred Common Crossbills.

We left soon afterwards as there was one last location I wanted to visit before dusk. Roydon Common. Here we were more than likely to finish the day as we began, alone. Hugh had never been here before but I had and knew it was a favoured place for Hen Harriers to roost. My prediction of having it to ourselves proved true and so after a short walk from the car park we looked out from a slightly elevated heather bounded track across a large area of moor grass, scattered gorse and heather. 

The first ringtail Hen Harrier arrived some thirty minutes later, gliding past in supreme elegance close to us, to pitch into the long rank grasses. A male European Stonechat scattered needle sharp notes as it flew up in one last song flight before going to roost. Two more ringtail Hen Harriers arrived and cruised around, alarming a flock of Meadow Pipits into hesitant and complaining flight. Two Egyptian Geese flew across the open sky before us. A final, fourth Hen Harrier arrived, perching on some gorse as the light slowly faded. Four Fieldfares fled across the common and a Yellowhammer chizzed from some blackthorn. It grew still and silent across the common. The long shadows now darkening the topography as the sun set. A circus Big Top, on the distant hill by the main road, was now a blaze of coloured lights in a separate world to ours. Each to their own.

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