Parrots in the tree tops

The weather was as it has been for the first few weeks of the year, dull and grey. A monotone sky that seemed to sap colour from the surrounding trees. It was cool but not terribly cold, just grey and dank. Here in Santon Downham the river winds its way through blocks of forest before passing through the village and then on through the expanses of grassy Heath and forest that make up Thetford Forest. Along this little stretch the trees are tight to the far bank of the slow moving water, while on the near bank the block of trees steps back leaving a narrow parkland of open area rough grass dotted small stands of tall pines.  Shaggy, highland cows graze the grass, their impressive long curved horns and long fringe giving them a rougish appearance. The long single tarmaced road ends at a neat Forestry Commission car park. Here a gravel ring surrounds a small stand of Scots pine. In these trees, and moving among the trees along the river, a group of very distinctive birds have been hanging out for the last few months and getting the birding community very excited.

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Car park at St Helens

As with any wildlife watching nothing is guaranteed. The first time we turned up to try and spot these particular birds on a very cold, grey morning in early December, we literally pulled up in the car park, got out of the car and seeing three or four telescopes pointed up at the dark pines duly set up our own and there amongst the needles and pine cones were the very birds we wanted to see. A couple were bright red, while others more greyish green, but all with one of the most impressive bills in the bird world. It is thick, hooked like a parrot but the very tips unusually cross over each other, giving the bird its name, parrot crossbill. Crossbills are not unusual in the Thetford Forest. There are common crossbills regularly found among the blocks of pine trees. Like parrot crossbills they have crossed mandibles, but their bills are not quite as big, being slightly longer than they are deep. All crossbills are specialist feeders of conifer cones, the unusual shaped bill helping to extract the seeds of the cones. Parrot crossbills are usually found in northern Scandinavia and further east, but are irruptive which means they will move south and west in large numbers if their food source fails. The end of last year and the beginning of this has seen an invasion of parrot crossbills across the U.K. In Santon Downham a group of about 40 have taken a likening to the Scots pines of the forest.

Watching parrot crossbills

The second time we came for a walk along this stretch of river, just before Christmas and on a day of bright sunshine and blue skies the flock was not to be seen. It was a lesser spotted woodpecker that took the show that day.

And so the new year was upon us and we had returned. Once more it was grey and gloomy but the bird watchers were still out in force and a wander down the road led to a small group which once again had their telescopes trained at a small cluster of trees between the road and the river. There standing proud at the top of the pines, working their way through cone after cone,were once more the birds we had been hoping to see. Parrot crossbills. With no work to rush off to there was enough time to take a couple of, all be it some what distant, photos. They are by no means the best photos taken of this particular group of birds but they are a good enough ‘record shot’ for me.

Parrot crossbills

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