An Autumn of Upset Williams

September has passed in a blur of school runs, playtime, pureeing food and walks in the forest with the dog. The weather has swung from a short final blast of warmth and sunshine to persistent wind and deluging rain.

The leaves in the forest were turning as autumn began, changing to yellow, orange and brown. Piles have started forming on the tracks adding a swish to the accompanying crunch of the gravel under foot. Still there are the perpetual greens of the forest’s coniferous trees.

The forest’s compliment of birds is also changing. No longer are there Tree Pipits, Whitethroat and Yellowhammer singing and calling, with the birds having moved on to winter quarters. There are still some Chiffchaff calling as they linger on and in the first week of the new month I have heard and seen Woodlark after a notable absence in the previous few weeks. Other birds have started flocking together in the forest. There are large groups of Siskin, and in particular Common Crossbills. Not since my days undertaking field work for my Masters have I encountered so many Crossbills while out in the forest.

This species breeds in the forest, and at this time of year numbers are bolstered by birds from the continent coming in. There are certain places where they are regularly encountered especially when flocks with juveniles start forming. Its not every year that I see them in such numbers, that’s not to say they aren’t there, just that I am not catching up with them. This year has been different.

It started with a single individual flying over me through a brilliant blue sky at Cranwich. Then while walking around Lynford Paddocks, again with a warm September sun blazing out of a blue sky, I heard the distinctive ‘plink plink’ of their call overhead. I was still getting my ear in, but I followed the sound and was rewarded further down the path with a group of 5 or 6 sitting in the tree tops above me.

Crossbills in the tree tops

As the month progressed I kept encountering them. Mostly they were silhouettes, skipping through now moody grey sky, and in small numbers. Although I did see a flock of up to 50 in early October, and on one occasion glimpsed 5 or so across a river, sitting in a tree at eye level.

It is many years now since I had my first encounter with these incredible birds up close. A cold and dry spell during the winter brought flocks of them down to water at one of our regular ringing sites. With nets set around the open water of the pond we hoped they would come in to drink, and waited with cold, baited breath. The birds were there, we could hear them, but they were excelling at avoiding the nets. Turning a corner after yet another empty net round, it was to see a small group of Crossbills drinking from an up turned dustbin lid where a small bit of water had collected. With that source of water removed almost instantly we caught them in the nets by the pond.

Up close they are unique birds. Chunky, the males are bright red and the females an olive yellow. But it is their bills that truly makes them special. Mostly when we come across a bird where the upper and lower mandible has crossed over it is due to a deformity. Here we were looking at a bird with a crossed bill by design, used to extract seeds from conifer cones. It is chunky, with a fierce point after the bill has crossed over and gives them a kind of severe expression.

That day I had the privilege of seeing a couple of these stunning birds up close, and while I have not seen one in the hand since it is always a highlight catching up with them when out in the forest.

Male Common Crossbill
Female Common Crossbill

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