• Ed Jenkins

Crossbills for Christmas in Vermont

Oh the holidays. That special time for catching up with family and friends while playing board games by the fire, or eating and drinking too much before snoozing on the couch. Julia and I like to get away for short walks in the woods between rounds of battling piles of gravy-soaked roast potatoes and turkey, with this year being no exception.

Rural Vermont in mid-winter is a place of still, silent beauty. Thick snow muffles sound and often the only sign of life are tracks of the secretive snowshoe hare and coyote. In the Green Mountains, birds can usually be found at feeders, but are typically much harder to pin down in the large expanses of contiguous forest.

It's not easy finding birds in this!

If you do venture out, then it's likely you'll first encounter black-capped chickadees as they tumble noisily through the treetops in small flocks, often with a golden-crowned kinglet or red-breasted nuthatch in tow. If you're lucky you may be alerted to flocks of American goldfinch, purple finch or pine grosbeaks by their flight calls, while the harsh cries of common ravens should be unmissable. Cryptically plumaged ruffed grouse may explode from a dense spruce with a whir of wings, and the taps of downy or hairy woodpeckers might give away their presence on a dry tree trunk. We are usually content to encounter any of these species before happily retreating back to the warmth of the wood stove.

However, this year, we were surprised to find our usually quiet patch of forest alive with bird song! Complex streams of low buzzy notes and high-pitched whistles were overlapping from multiple songsters simultaneously, and we soon spotted a stocky finch-like bird gliding between two spruces as it continued to sing. As it alighted, we saw the performer of this display flight was a bright pink male white-winged (or two-barred) crossbill, and that there were more feeding on cones just below it. Two then flew down into a bare apple tree and from there to the side of the dirt track where some grit from a snowplow was exposed, only ten feet from us! The freezing fog was thick, but I took a few photos, missing the vibrant male, too stunned by how close they were to raise the camera. The birds were licking at the salty grit, presumably accessing hard-to-come-by minerals.

Joining them then appeared another welcome surprise, two red (or common) crossbills, a different species (and until recently the only other in North America)! Similar to the white-winged crossbill, the male red crossbill was brighter than the green female, but brick red instead of pinkish, and lacking those namesake broad white wing-bars.

Finding crossbills was a surprise, for it's the first time we've seen any in the area before, over many years of searching. Not only that but finding both species associating together was also surprising, as the literature suggests they usually stick to single-species flocks. Based on all the exhibited breeding behaviors, and the generous spruce pine cone crop, it may be that these white-winged crossbills will breed in the area, and soon too, as they are not tied to photo-period or insect availability to raise chicks, being solely reliant on cone seeds.

We will be back to check on them in the New Year.

Happy winter birding,

Ed & Julia