As promised, today I am going to write about the Crossbill sighting I had the other week. Sometimes when you know about something you think others will as well. However, after talking to my volunteers about seeing Crossbills, all sorts of questions arose. What are Crossbills? How can I see them? Aren’t they only seen in the north of Scotland?
Crossbills are a chunky finch with a large head and bill which is crossed over at the tips. They are most often encountered in noisy family groups or larger flocks, usually flying close to treetop height in conifers. They feed acrobatically, fluttering from cone to cone. Adult males are a distinctive brick-red colour and females, a greenish-brown. The bill is an adaptation for prising open cones and extracting the seeds. They prefer spruce but can be found feeding on pine, larch and other conifers. They are gregarious birds and will often drink from pools of water in family groups.
I have most commonly seen them in flocks, feeding high up in conifer trees. They are quite noisy and will call out in flight with a loud, metallic sounding call. They are often silent when feeding so you will need to look out for falling cones and seed wings discarded by the birds. In some ways there movements in the trees could be described as parrot-like.
There is a Common (or Red) Crossbill and a Scottish Crossbill and they can be seen all year round. The difference between them is marginal and species differentiation is more to do with where they are located. If you see a Crossbill in the highlands they are most likely to be a Scottish Crossbill. Elsewhere in the country they will be Common Crossbills. They are known as an irruptive species and may be more numerous and widespread in some years compared to others with birds often flying over from the Continent.
Laura Preston – Falls of Clyde Ranger, Scottish Wildlife Trust
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