Visitors from Siberia

Common crossbills in the Wyre Forest - female (green) and male (red)

Common crossbills in the Wyre Forest – female (green) and male (red)

It’s early Saturday morning on the north side of the Wyre Forest. I’m standing at the side of a wide track, which runs down the side of a small valley. There’s coniferous woodland all round, with a stream winding along the valley floor. Along with a couple of dozen other birders, I’m waiting for an unusual species of crossbill that turned up about a week ago, which yesterday had been spotted sipping at the stream.

The two-barred crossbills are usually found in the forests of Siberia and northern Canada. Their appearances in Europe – let alone as far west as Britain – are extremely rare, and only happens if their food supply fails. This year has seen an unusual influx into this country – presumably caused by conditions in their breeding range.  A flock of seventeen were seen in the Forest of Dean two weeks previously – I’d gone for them last week, twice, and dipped on both occasions!

I arrived at the same time as John, a local birder I’d first met in the Scillies in October, at the B&B I was staying at. For the first couple of hours we saw very little of anything: in fact we missed a brief appearance just after sunrise, seen by a photographer who’d got there earlier. While we waited, other birdwatchers also joined us.

Crossbills are quite vocal and we were all on the alert for their calls. At one point a large mixed flock of crossbills and siskins arrived, but there was nothing unusual among them, and they flew off. A little while later all was quiet, but then I became aware of another odd set of sounds from the other side of the small valley we were in, which puzzled me. I eventually deduced that they sounded like cones dropping into the undergrowth… which must mean something was in the trees dropping them… like squirrels… or crossbills…

I looked through my binoculars to the trees opposite – and immediately saw a crossbill, and soon realised a flock of common crossbills was quietly feeding. Then I noticed a female with white wing bars – and just as I did so someone called out that there was a female two-barred crossbill. Shortly after, someone noticed a male there as well.

Two-barred crossgill (male) in the Wyre Forest

Two-barred crossgill (male) in the Wyre Forest

Over the next twenty minutes we had stunningly good views of the crossbills, and especially the four two-barred ones that were part of the flock. Because of the way the track ran down the side of the valley, the birds were easy to see, not far above the level of where we stood. Furthermore they were close enough for me to take some decent photographs, of both species. It was a very satisfying birding trip!

Two-barred crossgill (male) in the Wyre Forest

Two-barred crossgill (male) in the Wyre Forest

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