Wednesday 16 January 2019

Forest of Dean Crossbills 15th January 2019

Three years ago in February I saw some Common Crossbills coming down to drink from puddles at the end of the narrow road that stops at St Paul's Church in Parkend which is part of The Forest of Dean. Although the weather was cold and grey that midwinter day the location was idyllic, the substantial eighteenth century church being at the top of a wooded hill above Parkend. Beyond the church the road becomes a pedestrian track descending into the depths of the forest.  

St Paul's Church Parkend 
The end of the road
Parkend is best known to birders for its Hawfinches which frequent the surrounding area but not quite so well known is the area around the church and the fact it is as good a place as anywhere in the forest to see Common Crossbills which come down to drink from puddles, formed where the road has disintegrated. Probably because the location is relatively undisturbed, tucked away off the beaten track and in an elevated wooded position, that is what makes it attractive to the crossbills.

The puddles where the Common Crossbills came to drink
Today I made an early start from my home to make the fifty mile journey to Parkend in order to be there just after dawn. I wanted to ensure I got a good position for my car, parking parallel with the favoured puddles. As with the Hawfinches lower down in the yews by Parkend Green, the best views are always obtained by remaining in one's car although there are those who will insist on doing otherwise.

I was, as hoped, the first to arrive this morning at just before eight but it would not be long before others arrived as it has become widely known that this winter, Parkend and its church is a good place to encounter crossbills at very close quarters, and soon I  was joined by another birder and we lined up our cars so we were no more than fifteen feet away from the puddles, but being concealed in our cars we knew the crossbills would not be troubled. The morning gradually became lighter and with little wind it was still and grey. 

With the car window open I could hear crossbills calling but they were passing overhead and did not stop.  My fellow birder topped up the puddles with water from a container and spread some seed and sunflower hearts on a drift of fallen oak leaves just beyond the puddles. The stage was all set and we awaited the arrival of the supporting cast and soon a small flock of Chaffinches and a couple of pugnacious Robins were taking full advantage of the seed but there was no sign of the star turn.

I sat in my car and prepared for the usual long wait for any crossbills to arrive and this morning was to prove no exception. In the meantime I was entertained by the constant activity around me as  a number of woodland bird species came to take advantage of the seed, sunflower hearts and peanuts spread across the ground. Two Jays came and went, collecting  peanuts in the pouch below their bills and flying off to store them in the surrounding forest. Chaffinches and Goldfinches fed on the seed and delicately sipped water from the puddles. The Goldfinches were tiny in comparison to the larger Chaffinches, their heads banded red, white and black and showing golden flashes when they spread their wings, making them exotic compared to the more prosaic muted winter colours of the Chaffinches. They never stopped for long, consistently nervous in the open area around the puddles and departed with a tinkling, twittering complaint at the slightest alarm. 

European Goldfinch
Another finch, a male Siskin,  smaller even than the Goldfinches became yet another visitor to the puddles, a vivid combination of yellow and lime green with dark streaks on its white underparts and a natty black crown, the colours and patterning looking so very bright and conspicuous on the muddy surrounds to the puddle but forming the perfect disguise for concealment in its favoured larch and alder trees nearby.

Male Eurasian Siskin
Nuthatches and Marsh Tits, a pair of each, spent the entire time I was present collecting sunflower hearts  from the ground and just like the jays flew off to store them in the surrounding venerable oaks, stuffing them in the bark of the bare branches. The Marsh Tits were particularly industrious, shuttling time and again, back and fore, every few minutes, collecting one or two sunflower hearts in their bills and flying up into the bare branches above to hammer holes in the bark and secrete them for later. 

Marsh Tit
European Nuthatch
Latterly they were joined by Great, Blue and Coal Tits. Thus, in the absence of any crossbills I was not short of bird activity to keep me attentive and occupied.

Coal Tit
Eventually at twenty minutes past nine a sequence of loud metallic chipping notes announced the arrival of a Common Crossbill in the large oak growing above me. It was now a question of waiting and hoping that the crossbill would come down to drink and it was not long before it descended. It was dull yellow with a hint of an orange suffusion to its breast and looked like it was a male and seconds later it was joined by another, this one was pale greyish green with a yellow rump which appeared to me to be a female. 

Crossbills seem to desire a lot of water possibly because the dryness of the conifer seeds they consume gives them a thirst and when they come to drink they can be very confiding allowing one, if you remain still, to stand close to them although remaining in one's car is by far preferable.

The bright yellowish orange plumage and spotting on the mantle would
indicate that this bird is a young male

The bright yellow rump and grey green overallplumage plus spots
on the head and back would 
point to this bird possibly being a
young female
Common Crossbills, being predominantly arboreal, are rightly nervous of having to come to ground level to drink and consequently are only present for the minimum amount of time necessary to quench their thirst, usually less than a minute, before they fly up again to the security of the trees.

They are a bulky compact finch with a flat crown on a large head, a short, markedly forked tail and are the same size as a Greenfinch. The most remarkable feature about them is their specialized bill where the tips of the mandibles are crossed to facilitate the extraction of pine seeds from the cones they feed on. They are gregarious at all times of the year and small flocks can be found calling excitedly in a conifer as they acrobatically feed on the cones. They can also be early breeders and may already or will be nesting high in conifers in the forest which may explain why today there  were only ones and two's coming to drink as the flocks may have broken up. It is impossible to tell as this bird can nest at different times of the year, any time from August to June  so consequently it is found in a bewildering variety of moult stages and plumage, relative to the time of the year it was born. 

The Common Crossbills that came to drink today were, as alluded to above, in a bewildering variety of colours, none of which was a typically pink or red male. Some were almost orange whilst others were greyish green or yellow. The variable plumage and amount of yellow, orange or red colouration cannot be used to age males as this depends on food supply and the moult season of each individual. Any male type bird showing juvenile wing coverts can with reasonable confidence be aged as a first year but that is as far as I can go. As for the others that arrived periodically it was just an educated guess on my part and possibly a wrong one but there is only one way to learn and that is to observe them as much as possible. Below is a series of images of the Common Crossbills I saw today which clearly illustrates just how much variation there is in the plumage of these birds.

Male Common Crossbill, possibly a first winter due to
the pale 
tips to the greater coverts

Possible adult female Common Crossbill

Male Common Crossbill

Female Common Crossbill

Male Common Crossbill

First winter female Common Crossbill

Adult female Common Crossbill

Probable first winter female Common Crossbill

Male Common Crossbill
As the morning progressed the area became busier as more birders arrived to park their cars in any available space and eventually we had formed a semi circle around the puddles, each birder toting a camera through an open car window but everyone remained in their car and as a result the crossbills continued to visit, albeit at irregular intervals ranging from fifteen minutes to just under an hour.Small parties or single birds flew over without stopping, but occasionally birds would drop into the oaks, tempted by the puddles of water and then drop down to drink before flying off again. 

Birders cars surrounding the puddles
I spent four and a half pleasant hours sat in the comfort of my car and during that time crossbills visited on six occasions.The maximum to visit at any one time was only two but mostly it was just a single individual. The larger groups seemed unwilling to stop to drink but nonetheless it was a privilege to be able to see this attractive bird, almost uniquely for me, at such close quarters.


I returned to the same location six days later and not one crossbill showed up all day!


  1. Great account Ewan. Sounds like somewhere well worth a visit!

  2. Excellent! Saw bugger-all when I went a few years ago! x