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Loxia Fantastica

The Site For The Discerning 'Scottish'Crossbill Enthusiast.

Updated: 2018-03-06T05:42:28.227+00:00


Parrot Crossbill Invasion !


You would have to have been living on the moon lately to not know that England appears to be experiencing a surge influx of large-billed Parrot type Crossbills, with Holland and Germany also reporting large Loxia.

There is an interesting thread (with links to sub thread) HERE on Birdforum, with some comments from yours truly (you will need to sign in or register to view the thread). It is funny how these things usually revert to Scottish Crossbills and whether they exist or not !

One of the latest posts questions can crossbills be identified by the depredated cones they drop ? Well, sometimes but it would be generalisation, albeit with over 90 odd percent confidence limits in my opinion. It really depends on the cone - is it a closed green cone, is it a 'dried' closed brown cone, how wet the weather has been etc.

A Scottish Crossbill 'worked' cone, with Commons it would tend to be the anterior portion of the cone that would be worked:

A female Parrot Crossbill, October 2006, Deeside, the cone showing the 'split' scales that can be diagnostic:


In another few weeks, depending how wet or dry it is, the Scots Pine cones will begin to partially open. Parrot Crossbill has it's breeding season synced in with this event, the young usually hatching to coincide with more easily available seeds. Here in Deeside in 2013 we had an almost 'year zero' with a very poor autumn 2012 Scots pine crop throughout much of the region and consequently breeding was nominal and numbers of crossbills have 'crashed'. At a study site in upper Deeside approximately only 1 in 10 Scots Pines produced a reasonable crop of cones, but in most cases the vast majority of cones were 'stunted', the cone directly below the 10 pence coin is 'normal' sized (Deeside, Feb 2013) :

With cones so small Parrot Crossbills would certainly find these too difficult to work as well as unprofitable. Abnormal weather patterns may have been partially responsible for this, but this is just speculation.

Looking ahead, I wonder if any of the English Parrot types will attempt breeding in late February through to April this year ? Sure fire signs are singing males, fighting males, courtship feeding and of course nest building (birds flying with twigs, grasses etc).

Who You Calling Phat ?


A nice illustration here of how body size is a distinguishing feature in separating Crossbill types (scroll down a bit, and warning, there are images of dead crossbills):

Notice how the the juv female Parrot, as it is sitting (alive) on the fence wire, does not have an apparently massive bill. Yet in the hand it is considerably larger than Common Crossbills. It does show the sometimes evident "small eye" syndrome though ! In the field it is often difficult to judge overall body size unless you have the luxury of a mixed group, though Commons to me are similar in size to Greenfinch (or just bigger than Chaffinch, which are often nearby). Parrots by comparison are just a bit smaller than a Starling or (smallish) Waxwing (eg. about 50-55g). Bill structure can seem to be in proportion to body size in many specimens thus some Parrots could potentially be confused with larger billed Commons without calls and without a strong idea of body size (indeed they were on Bird Forum a few years ago, though many of the birds had wide bills with strongly decurved culmens as well as "strong" necks.

Submitting Crossbill Records to NESBR


I had the pleasure on Monday 1st October of attending a talk on " The Crossbills of Scotland" by Ron Summers as part of the winter talk season organised by Aberdeen SOC branch. A very professional and informative presentation by RSPB Scotland's Chief Scientist and it was very well attended and received by the attending members.Then....the questions ! Invariably, one questioner got on to "can I, a birder, identify Crossbills in the field with any certainty" ? Well, of course, by using sound recording equipment and producing sonagrams was Ron's response. And then the questioner raised the issue about how, in our local bird report (The North East of Scotland Bird Report), especially the latest one, that it seemed to be "only one individual [me] going around with recording equipment and getting records accepted", and what is the point of submitting any records ! For those who don't know I write the species accounts for NESBR and have done since 2004. Well, I have no idea who this guy was, but I can fully sympathise with his dilemma and the point he made. I politely pointed out that this was not actually the case - records for Common Crossbill were accepted (though as a side note perhaps they shouldn't be as they could potentially be confused with Scottish) and that the large-billed records were accepted per the recommendations in Martin Collinson's crossbill paper in the 2002 NESBR, basically advising that, in order to differentiate with any confidence, 'Large-Billed' Crossbill records for NESBR should be submitted with acoustic or biometric evidence.As I consider myself a reasonable open minded guy who listens to criticsim, and the fact that feathers are apparently getting ruffled over this, a few points to clarify the situation:1) We do receive 'non-verified' Scottish/Parrot Crossbill records each year for NESBR and these are very welcome and are actually still very important whether they make the publication or not. They remain 'on file' in the database and are a record of Crossbill sp. for any future researcher or project.2) The Scottish and Parrot records/sightings that are published are accurate with regards to the current taxonmic criteria and nomenclature. I would think this was desireable/preferable for those who might want to see them or know where they occur. A few of the locations are 'vague' to protect important and sensitive breeding sites and Ringing Stations used by members of Grampian Ringing Group. This is actually standard BTO practise when submitting sensitive data, and if it offends people then I apologise for this inconvenience. Trapping sites have been compromised by photographers, incuding one of my own, so we reserve the right to slightly supress this info. It is not too difficult to read between the lines though, and with a bit of research it should put you in touch with your target species !3) In all the years of compiling the species accounts for NESBR I have never received an accompanying sonagram, audio file or biometric (including colour ring bird sighting). If I did then these records could be considered pending whether the site is 'sensitive' (c.f 2 above).I should add that I do get sent sonagrams and audio files, usually from birders South of the border. I always respond to these and help as best I can. One of the most memorable was a birder who was a friend of a NESBR colleague who managed to record "new" Scottish calls at Linn of Dee last year. I have lost all that info due to a Window's Live crash but will contact the friend who lives in Aberdeen and will incude it for the 2011 report.4) Without sounding like I am blowing my own trumpet, because believe me I am not, if you read the Crossbill accounts prior to 2004 there are often very few records at all nor very much substance. None are 'verified'. Merely stating a fact.5) I have written under three Editors, I hope they don't mind being listed: Paul Baxter, Ian Francis and currently Nick Littlewood. All absolutely first rate experience[...]

"We'll Take The Oil, you can keep the Crossbill"


S'been a while, I know. Very busy with work and catching up with all my crossbill data as the massive write up of all my data over the last 8 years continues. I am also digistising the remainder of Alan Knox's Crossbill Recordings ( from 1/4 inch tape !) after Magnus Robb kindly provided the first batch. These also need analysed...then collated with all my stuff to provide a 30 plus year call lexicon for Deeside. It's all exciting stuff and there will be a few twists.........

To keep all crossbill addicts going meantime here is a wing moult pic of a rather lurvley second calendar year male Common Crossbill from Finzean in Deeside:

Note the old greater coverts (fringed with buff edges), old tertials and pretty trashed outer primaries.

Stay tuned, more to come on calls, biogeography, ecology and what Devo Max and Independence will mean for the Scottish Crossbill  (EDIT content removed to avoid offence to those of a weak disposition..apparently).

Scottish Crossbill, 19th April 2009


A retrospective example of a genuine Scottish Crossbill to compensate for all those published pictures of Parrot Crossbills on the web and publications. Taken with Nikon D300 and Nikon 300mm f4 lens, upper Deeside Spring 2009.

© Lindsay Cargill 2009

Common Crossbill Calls and Dragonflies, Summer 2011


Been a while but have been really, really busy with work and other commitments - apologies to regular LF readers who may have missed their fix of Crossbill nonsense.In June I was lucky enough to spend a week over Glen Affric/Beinn Eighe way, primarily to look for Odonata but of course I was on the look out for Crossbills and had recording equipment with me. Turned out to be a really bad year for dragonflies - even seing a couple of Large Reds was a welcome sight some days. That said, in the end the only target species we missed that way was White-faced Darter, but we picked them up at a reliable site in Abernethy on the way home. Dragonfly highlight was Azure Hawkers at Loch Maree:And even some blue form Azure Dragonfly females:And a 'blue' form female and male together so you can see the difference (female on left):There were actually several of these blue form females at this site and we did wonder if it was a result of the particularly cool Summer we had been having up till that point - to date it has been the worst Summer I can recall, winds and wet weather have made it very difficult to do any serious ringing on my days off which has been really frustrating. It is worth pointing out that at this site we had blanked Azures on two previous visits - the day we got them in good numbers was sunny and warm.Quite a lot of these going around:And another highlight, Northern Emerald:I had flocks of Common Crossbills every day arounf the Beinn Eighe Visitor Centre and surrounding woods. Many juveniles were present and the birds were feeding on Scots Pine. Regular reader will already know of my concern at the interpretation of certain crossbill flight calls and here is a good example from Beinn Eighe:There is a juvenile begging call in there ( "teet-ow") but look at the adult flight call and how it 'morphs'. At the far left it almost resembles classic published Scottish Flight Call (fc3) with its extra trialing component. Then the extra component disappears and the second call in is a typical Fc1 ( choopy or parroty variant as I call them) but the last 4 fcs all have that quite strong trailing component ala Scottish Crossbill, and which give the call a flutey quality when appraising them aurally. These birds were definitely Common Crossbills - I had a really good chance to examine their plumage, body proportions and bill structures.The flock flying off (14 birds) and clear Fc1 (parroty variants):On the way home we discovered a really big feeding flock of Common Crossbills at Dinnet in Deeside. These too were feeding on Scots Pine. And, another "morpher":This bird is a Fc1 Common Crossbill. But, how many would classify it as a Parrot on the second, third and fourth calls ? How many would classify it as a Scottish on the last call ( a two syallable structure) ?This sequence adds in a variant Crossbill call I have been recording since last year:The third call in from the left ( and replicants at the end of the sequence) looks like a Fc1B (or parakeet)type on the sonagram, but aurally they sound very like Fc4 (or glip) type Fc's ( due to the higher frequenct trailing tail). The corresponding Ec does seem to be EcB so I am classifying them as 1B types but aurally they really are like Fc4's ! To me 1B "parakeets" sound really "cheepy" whilst these jobbies sound quite "clippy", a big difference. I don't think it is safe to assume these ones above are "parakeet" types, vocally.A "real" glip to compare, from lower Deeside 31st July 2011:And on the same day a Fc1 with extra component (ala Scotbill ???):I am pretty sure that Crossbills add these 'artifacts' as a result of their double syrinx - they can produce more than one note at a time and thus can easily produce two different notes at two different times as above ( I think it may be a 'resonance' of the first note through the second chamber of the syrinx, exaggerated when calling particularly strongly - but this is just a hunch). I am prety sure[...]

Birdwatch Crossbill Article....The Truth Is Out There ?


As a subscriber to Birdwatch and as someone who was consulted by David Callahan for his excellent article on Crossbill Taxonomy last year I read with interest the piece “Crossbills: New Challenges” by Andy Stoddart in Issue no.228. As a ringer and researcher spending much of my spare time studying the crossbills of NE Scotland some of the content contained in the article raised certain issues with me and there are also parts of the article that I feel are worth further comment. Firstly, I must state that I have every respect for Mr. Stoddart as an author and as respected and experienced birder whose all round experience is clearly extensive and not open to question, however I do know Crossbills very well so I hope my comments are received constructively and in the good faith that they are offered. My main reason for writing this response is that possibly up to 100 times more people will read Mr. Stoddart’s Birdwatch article than ANY scientific paper on Crossbill research, therefore I feel it is important that the facts and information are presented clearly and responsibly and that any speculation or personal hypotheses are also made clear and also in context.Mr. Stoddart raises the point that the movements of our native birds “are not fully documented, notably the extent to which Scottish and Parrot Crossbills may wander from their breeding areas”. This is not true for Scotland, which is where these birds are resident, as RSPB have conducted two extensive surveys including a Scottish Crossbill Survey. On a similar point later in the article it is claimed that crossbills have been trapped in England during the irruption of 1990-91 that had measurements that “fell well within the range of Scottish Crossbill”. Whilst this may be true there are two factors worth considering and adding as caveats; first, that individual observer bill depth measurements can vary significantly potentially over-estimating the bill depth measurement, and that this, combined with the fact that some Common Crossbills can have long wings, could make large-billed Common Crossbills appear ‘Scottish’. Secondly, there is considerable variation in crossbill biometrics within ‘types’ and perhaps this was ‘exaggerated’ by a bigger sample size during an irruption. Another important point is that, as far as I know, the all important vocalisations were not taken on these birds. In other words to infer that these Crossbills could have been Scottish Crossbills is speculation without foundation - the article that was referenced actually suggested the opposite eg. that some birds in the study considered to have been Scottish on bill size may actually have been Common !A 'big' Common Crossbill with Bill depth 11.2mm and wing 99mm....Another assertion that I strongly disagree with is the statement that the work on crossbill vocalisations that has most relevance to British observers is that of Magnus Robb in particular in Dutch Birding (2000). Not to take anything away from the pioneering work then (and now) by Magnus I feel it was a bit of a major omission not to reference or include (or cite !) the extensive work carried out by Dr. Ron Summers on UK crossbill vocalisations and distributions, and in some cases abundance indices are available for all the various crossbill call ‘types’, though again with a particular focus on the Scotland - we are still part of the UK as far as I am concerned regardless of any recent Nationalist 'sucesses'. Ron and his colleagues also matched biometrics with vocalisations, something that Magnus didn’t and which in part may have accounted for some of the Parrot calls on the Dutch Birding CD then being mistakenly classified as Scottish Crossbill. To recommend this to British birders is therefore somewhat errant as presumably they will want to accurately ID both Parrot and Scottish Crossbills. The Chapter on Crossbills in the “Sound A[...]

Toop, Toop, Choop, Choop !


No, I haven't lost my mind, but rather a short discussion of phonetic crossbill calls ! I get many references in emails describing crossbill calls in the field using phonetic descriptions. Most existing phonetic descriptions in the crossbill literature, other than those by Magnus and Sound Approach, are errant or misleading in my opinion, particularly for Loxia scotica. They also may not reflect the 'current' evidence either. Actual audio recordings are preferable, however the following may offer some clues in separating Parrot Crossbill from Scottish Crossbill in the field.

Parrot Crossbill

Flight Calls are a distinct "Choop" or "Chup", emphasis on the "oo" or "u". These can also sound 'flutey' (a term often wrongly used to describe Scottish flight calls) due to a pronounced harmonic that is often present ( and which can make them appear on sonagrams like published Scottish flight calls). Birds may also give a more subdued "tip, tip, tip" call when in 'cryptic' flight (similar to those given by Bullfinch). They sometimes give these on release after being captured and ringed. These can appear as single descending streaks on sonagrams.

Excitement calls are a lower pitched (than flight calls) 'cluck' reminscent of a Blackbird alarm call, or more closely a Jackdaw (and between the two in 'pitch' and timbre). Aurally, Parrot excitement calls sound very similar to Common Crossbill EcA ( or "British" ala Sound Approach) and it takes much experience to separate them by ear in the field. In such cases a look at the bill should help diagnosis, but not always it would appear !

Scottish Crossbill

Recent evidence that I have collected and matched with biometrics shows intermediate billed (Scottish) give a 'di-syllabic' flight call sounding as a "t-reep" or sometimes a 'lispy' "th-reep". This is much higher pitched than Parrot flight call and in fact can not be confused aurally with ANY commonly occuring Loxia in the UK ! NB. THESE CALLS ARE DIFFERENT FROM THOSE THAT HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED !

Scottish excitement calls are much more 'hollow' than Parrot Crossbill, and sound like a "tonk, tonk" or "tunk, tunk" - I think it sounds more stacatto (abbreviated) than Parrot and timbrally similar to wooden claves or woodblocks being struck (for any would be percussionists out there !). In the field it is VERY similar in tonal and timbral quality to Common Crossbill EcE or "glip" excitement call, especially if the harmonics are less pronounced ( which makes the call look very similar on a sonagram too !). This is a RARE call, by far my rarest recorded Crossbill Excitement call, suggesting this call, like the flight call, may be in a state of flux - time will tell.

One word of caution. Often people describe large-billed crossbills giving very 'deep calls'. In cases like this, assuming they are correct, they are describing Parrot Crossbills as both Scottish flight and excitement call are higher pitched than Parrot, and typically much more like those for Common Crossbill. It is worth reiterating that 90% of photos I am sent or see on the web of presumed 'Scottish Crossbills' are in fact actually Parrot Crossbills (in my experience) ! My advice: leave the camera at home, buy a mic and recorder, think about the above, and learn about the vocal dialects of the crossbills in your area.

I Don't Just Do Crossbills !


As many readers may know House Sparrow numbers are in sharp decline and the species is now Red listed. In my own garden in central Aberdeen I used to get up to about 60 at once but here too the numbers seem to have decreased in the last few years, and there is maybe a population of around 40 to maybe 60 in the area. Last year I know that they had several broods so juvenile survival must be very poor, either that or the birds are dispersing locally. I have ringed about 90 House Sparrows (with little effort) and have so far only had two retraps, and reckon at the moment there are only two or three metal ringed birds visiting.

So, I have just started a RAS project organized and sanctioned through the BTO to study my local House Sparrow population - RAS stands for ' retrapping adults for survival'. By colour-ringing the birds and reading the combinations in the field it is possible to get 're-traps' without physically re-catching the birds. By ringing enough birds and by getting as many re-sightings of individuals as possible we can deduce the mortality within the population. Over and above this I am going to colour ring as many of the newly fledged juvenile birds as possible to try and work out some numbers for juvenile mortality (and the time scale of this), as well as measuring any localised dispersal. The presumption is that the Sparrows will continue to visit the feeders so should be seen again (if they are not predated or die from disease). Dispersal can be measured by checking feeders and Sparrow perching sites in the neighbourhood. Disease may also be a significant factor in mortality- I rescued a male House Sparrow in December last year suffering from avian botulism, but sadly this bird expired ( horrible stuff, I hope none of you have to deal with that). I should add that this bird was a mile from my house so not my feeding regime causing the problem.

The bird in the photo is an adult male A01, now getting the distictive black bill of the breeding season. I am using Interrex acrylic rings designed and manufactured in Poland. The rings are sealed with cement to safely secure them and to prevent removal and are fitted so they can't extend below on to the foot or above the tarsus 'knee' joint. They are easily read with binoculars on perching birds ( when facing the right way !) or can be image grabbed from digital photo sequences.

I know many birders don't rate Sparrow but I can't understand this - they are very 'happy' social finches, the males striking when in breeding plumage and I for one can't imagine the dull silence that would prevail if there were no House Sparrows chirping in my garden. Let's hope the streets and fields don't fall silent.

Ground Control To Major Tom...What Gear Do You Use ?


Contact details have been added in my profile on the right. This is for use of any genuine enquiries and for colleagues who have been unable to get me at my old email address eg. Ringers, crossbill sound recordists, birders in Northern Isles who are sighting and collecting crossbill call data, people with dead or injured crossbills, or people with sightings of colour-ringed crossbills.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints I can't respond to general enquiries about crossbills or location requests for Parrot and Scottish Crossbill. This includes identifications from photographs so please don't send any - sorry. Such emails will not be responded to so to avoid potential offence please don't waste time writing them ! I also can't spend time writing extensive emails advising on sound recording equipment - I recently did such an email to an RSPB researcher, took me an hour and I didn't even get a reply saying "thanks" so no more I am afraid. There is now plenty info on the web on this, but for those interested I have used the following since 2006:

Telinga Stereo DAT and Twin Science Microphones
Telinga Pro 6 Handle
Fostex FR2LE recorder
Fostex FR2 recorder
Sennheiser ME67 (occasionally)
Sennheiser ME62 (occasionally)
Sony MZNH900 Mini disc recorder (with Telinga Power Box)
Sony MZRH1 Mini disc recorder
Beyer Dynamic DT990 'phones
Raven Lite and Raven Pro Software
Adobe Audition Sound Editing Suite
Misc Leads and connectors  from FEL Communications (excellent stuff btw guys)

Quite an arsenal when you see it written down.....

Sorry I can't respond to every enquiry but I do also have a job running my own business as well studying crossbills in any spare time !


Contact Details


I changed ISP provider some time ago, and although I thought all my mail was being forwarded, including from other sub-accounts, it has been brought to my attention recently that this is not the case ! So, if you have contacted me over the last year and have had no reply from me please accept my apologies, but I have not received your mail. Some have got through, however, so it appears sporadic depending on which route the mail is forwarded.

I will be putting updated contact details on here soon, possibly a specific hotmail account. However, I am very wary of doing this as I will no doubt receive requests for information on where to see Scottish and Parrot Crossbills, as well as general Spam ! I NEVER give out this specific information as these locations are sites where I or two of my colleagues in Grampian Ringing Group ring Crossbills and are thus very sensitive. So to avoid potential offence (by being ignored) please do not ask for this !

I can also be reached on (ahem!) BurdForum - I keep a very limited profile on there specifically to gather and respond to Waxwing colour-ring sightings on behalf of GRG. My handle is "Bombycilla". Please note I rarely log-in to pick up PM but the email address on there does appear to work. Now I have put this out, I will probably be banned again....... I also have limited presence on Twitter ( see column to the right).

Coming soon on LF, a short article on Crossbill Wing Moult:

What A Load of Bull !


Following on from the post several days ago I have now got some pics, audio and revelations to share about 'unusual' Bullfinches....or perhaps just 'Bullfinches'. Might be worth reading Mark Lewis' recent post on his 'funny' Bullfinch as well.It is worth re-iterating here that not ALL Northern Bullfinches give trumpet calls - there is another type that sounds very like our British sub-species pileata.Okay, here goes, lots of pics, sonograms and audio ( a first for Loxia Fantastica) !Wednesday 22 December 2010We managed to find 3 Bullfinches feeding on nettles at the same location a the previous day. They were all males, including this 1st Winter bird:The photograph shows it has only replaced an innermost greater covert ( grey-white tipped contrasting with buffy tipped ones). Interestingly, like the bird yesterday ( most likey an adult following reappraisal) this specimen also has a white edge to P9 (outermost large) and the other adjacent PP are edged white below the emarginations. Notice that is has the 'stuck on' beak rather than the 'howker' that Northern birds would have ( however, the bird is puffed up which could diminish the proporations of the mandibles). There is a pale line beneath the eye.Also present was this larger, bright male:The alula looks like it might have grey-white edging so possibly and adult. The outer-most greater coverts, although not extensive in their white-grey tips, nevertheless appear more adult than short, buff  juvenile ones ? Like the juvenile above, this specimen also has the white edging (quite extensive) to P9 and the adjacent inner PP are also white edged on the emarginations:And here too:That outer greater covert looks a bit dodgy in this pic ( but still too extensively grey-white tipped - possibly a retained adult feather ?). Alula looks very brown here as well - again adult retained or possibly juvenile ? If it is a 1st winter bird it has undergone an extensive post-juvenile moult (unlike the first bird above). Based on this and these other features I'm sticking with adult. Pale line under the eye with this one too - is this as a result of the feather tracts being displaced by the bird puffing up ? Mark's last post mentions primary projections - not sure how consistent that would be in the field but possibly useful enough to distiguish between pileata and pyrrhula combined when with other factors. On that basis, these two have short primary projections consistent with pileata.The birds were not very vocal but I did manage to get some recordings (with Sennheiser ME67 and Fostex FR2). This recording has "tip" contact calls ( often given in flight or pre-flight), some "pee-u" calls and near the end a "buzzy" toot call ( not like Northern, but similarish): A14h18m30s22dec2010y by Loxiafan A sonogram of the muted contact calls and a typical (?) pileata "pee-u" (timings don't necessarily match the events on the recordings):Notice the strange component under the main descending note ? From the same recording here is the muted contact call followed by a single buzzy whistle note ( appearing as a horizontal line on the sonogram below):The other decent recording I got had pileata type contact calls: A14h32m15s22dec2010y by Loxiafan On the sonogram these appeared to be two elements super-imposed over each other, but nevertheless giving the pileata descending structure:So, a summary of birds seen this day (3 males):All three had white edged primaries.All had "stuck on" bills.None had white on tail.None gave 'trumpet' calls, or it seems the other 'Northern' type call ( which is similar to pileata but lower piched and more 'mournful' sounding - think Chaffinch v. Willow Warbler).= none were pyrrhula !The Pennington/Meek BB article is quite right to highlight some of these shar[...]

Northern Exposure and Northern Bullfinch ?


The very bad recent snow has, just like last year, considerably hampered Crossbill activities so birding has been confined to whatever is withinin walking distance of the house. My last couple of local walks have produced several Bullfinches and Bramblings which is always nice in the absence of Waxwings (or Crossbills).Today on the Old Deeside Railway Line by our house we had a male Bullfinch (British) pileata type "pee-u"-ing and feeding on dead nettles. Further along a female Brambling was associating with Chaffinches near to someones garden feeders (why do they go to someone elses feeders and not mine ? !). A walk through Allenvale Cemetery produced not at lot other than Common Buzzard being mobbed by gulls and crows.We decided to go home back down the railway line and I am glad we did. WARNING ! - there are some photos to follow and I must add that they are not great quality having been shot in poor light with a consumer compact, however, they do show the diagnostic features that I would like to discuss.The first bird we saw on the way back was another small pileata British type male Bullfinch with a narrow wing bars and giving the soft Brit "pee-u" call. However, it was associating with this striking male, and the first thing that alerted me something was different was the size, very obvious seeing the two birds together - this male appeared massive compared to the male that was feeding nearby. I would liken it to a Common Crossbill v. Parrot Crossbill eg. a significant size difference. Here is the 'big' male:All photos are as they came out of the camera - no contrast or colour editing has been carried out only a slight unsharp mask. This bird is clearly a 1st winter male - juvenile 'brownish' primary coverts and alula can be seen in the photo.The other thing that was noticeable in the field, and can be seen in the photo, was the fairly wide white wing bars on greater coverts, and that these were 'saw-toothed', as well as pinky breast and pale grey upperparts and white that extended well up on to the belly and a very white and extensive rump, all good indicators of Northern Bullfinch. The black 'cap' also appears not to extend so far back on to the nape, and consequently the grey nape appears more extensive. I am not sure if this is a feature of Northern Bullfinch but Mark Lewis photographed a bird that looks identical to our one at Girdleness - could it even be the same individual ? ! :                                                                    © MarkLewis 2010A much better photo than ours - hope it's okay 'borrowing' it Mark ! Possibly our one doesn't have quite as 'saw-toothed' greater coverts and there is a deeper black chin bib on ours, but the 'cap' looks the same and Mark's also looks like a 1st Winter male. Ours maybe has more grey around nape, though this could just be the angle ?On getting home I dug out the comprehensive article on Northern Bullfinch invasion 2004 by Pennington and Meek and sat down to look at the photos that we had. For those that don't have the Pennington and Meek British Birds article (BB, January 2006, Vol.99) a good discussion of Northern Bullfinch features is available at on primaries can also be good for Northern Bullfinch and ours seems to show this ( and see first photo above), click on photo to enlarge:And here too ? [...]

Watch Out ! 'Ere Comes The Old 'Bill ! EDITED


Apologies for paucity of posting lately - catching waxwings, catching up with work, catching colds yada yada...After my revelatory "new" Scottish Crossbill call announcement, which to my dismay has not yet featured on the front of "Time" magazine, "New Scientist" or the Graham Norton Show, I thought it would be helpful if I posted an 'old' Scottish Crossbill call (click to enlarge):This flight call was recorded at Glen Tanar NNR on 8th August 2004 with my then trusty Monocor Shotgun mic direct to Sony 710-MD. This call is very much per the literature (Summers et al, 2002) in that it matches frequency and structure for Fc3 = Scottish Crossbill. Note that it appears to show the all important trailing element behind the main "up-down" components of the first element. This is the feature that is generally used to categorize scotica. However, it is very different in visual spectogram appearance and in sound to the 'new' type one I posted on here ( a few posts down). The "new" call is higher piched and the second element is usually higher in energy than in the "old" one. It is as if the call has evolved ....or perhaps it is the crossbills that have evolved ? ! My view ? Well I am not for one minute saying that the example of the "old" Scottish Crossbill from Glen Tanar is not a 'Scottish Crossbill'....except that it seems consistent with birds that I have handled and sound recorded that would be classified as Parrot Crossbill, albeit at the lower spectrum of minimum bill depths (11.9 mm upwards). It also doesn't sound like the 'new' call types ( which appear to biometrically match scotica) - if we take away the second element, which possibly appears to be a harmonic trace of the main call, what we effectively have is a Parrot Crossbill call = Fc2, in fact many caught and released Parrots give a call that contains these type of 'traces':Not all Parrot Fc's are inflected in the main downward component ! The harmonics here are admittedly much fainter than the Glen Tanar example above, but in terms of sound this is negligible (compared with the new Scottish call). In Parrot, most of the energy is in the main downward component of the first element and it is this, and the lower overall frequency, that avoid confusion with the Fc1 variant I call the "parroty" Fc1. Here is a Common Crossbill call, a Fc1 "Parroty" type that also contains the harmonic artefact:In essence the'trace' element appears and sounds as an artefact not a feature of the call. In the 'new' Scottish call the second element cannot be a 'harmonic trace' because, if you look at it closely, it modulates whereas the intial element (that it would be tracing) doesn't:This may be as a consequence of the bird using its double syrinx ? You can really see that these calls look nothing like anything else on this page ! I should add, that although I refer to these particular Scottish calls as 'new' I have actually recorded them since 2004, they are new in that they don't seem to have been described proviously and certainly not matched to biometrics. In the 'new' call the second element functions as a feature of the call, ideed it is the most important structure in giving the call its particular timbre and resonance. To me, this new call sounds completely different, and more importantly it matches the bios and ecology of Scottish Crossbill. However, some Common Crossbills here in Scotland may also give di-syllabic calls that closely resemble these 'new' Scotbill types - the clincher here seems to be that the second element is higher in frequency in relation to the first element with Scottish, though this is pers.obs based on in the hand bios. Time will tell. A final word on harmonics if you use fine microphone[...]

Waxy-Tastic !


As most readers will know there has been a big influx of these fantastic winter vistors over the last few weeks with numbers soaring to the thousands and widespread distribution. As members of Grampian Ring Group we are pre-conditioned to target these birds as Aberdeen is the Waxwing capital of the UK and by colour-ringing the birds we get fantastic re-sightings that describe the movements of these berry munchers (without the need to re-trap them). Birders and photographers seem to like the winter challenge of checking birds for rings so this is a mutually beneficial activity.You could also add to this that Waxwings are simply fantastic birds to handle and work with, so you can see that we don't need to be asked !I am perfectly placed as I live right next to a city cemetery that attracts Waxwings in numbers, and often can see hundreds wheeling about out of my back window, and occasionally in the trees at the bottom of the garden. Last year was a no go for me as there were no birds at the site, but I was hopeful this year given reports in advance from the Northern Isles and Scandanavia.On Friday 29th October I speculatively set up a fixed net at a preferred feeding tree and caught a single Waxwing within two minutes, the first mainland caught and colour-ringed bird for the winter. This tree was literally 100 yards from my back door !On Sunday 31st October myself and a couple of other Grampian ringers caught 43 Waxwings at the same tree, and other GRG members caught 15 elsewhere and 43 at Ballater the previous day, so quite a haul and great team effort !Numbers of birds increased and by Tuesday 2nd November there were over 1000 at Kincorth, south of the river Dee. This was quite some sight especially when they were in the air ! With up to 400 visiting the cemetery efforts continued from Tuesday 2nd through to Saturday 5th with a further 49 Waxwings caught in the south of the city near my house. Undoubtedly, the highlight on Friday 5th was this Swedish ringed juvenile (which we subsequently colour-ringed Left Leg Orange-Lime-Orange):This is apparently only the third Swedish control for the UK ( Riksmuseum have been contacted with catching details but I am still awaiting information as it appears a recently ringed bird). It was the first bird caught on a slow morning though we went on to catch another 16 and a very reddy-brown female Sparrowhawk ( that chased a Waxwing in to the net before it too got caught - both unharmed). This Swedish ringed bird, like approx 90% of the birds we have caught, was a juvenile in its first winter:Sadly, on Thursday evening I was informed that this bird had been found dead on 10th November after striking a window about 3 miles North of where it was ringed. Waxwings are apparently notorious for flying in panic into windows and strikes are a common occurence, often resulting in death. We were all looking forward to receiving sightings of this bird as it made its way south over the winter and the fact that it is a Swedish ringed bird would have no doubt created more interest. Oh well, such is life.We have continued to catch on a limited basis this week and managed another 9 birds over two mornings - much harder going as the flocks have dispersed and the birds change feeding trees. So my total (on my rings) is 102 from the overall current total of 205 birds GRG have caught to date which is a pretty good total. This should result in numerous reports of colour-ringed birds as they move through the country so do keep checking and report sightings to us via our site at: to Euan, Callum, Walter and Derek (who came all the way up from Fife !) for help catching and proces[...]

Scottish and Parrot Crossbill Catch and Variant Calls, Tuesday 12th October


After all the wet and windy weather in September (frustratingly coinciding with my days off) finally some moderate sucess ! With light winds and an overnight frost, ringing conditions were favourable and at 12.30pm this cracking female was caught at one of my drinking pools in upper Deeside:This bird, an adult female had nearly finished its primary wing moult up to P9, though interestingly no secondaries had started moulting yet, and was aged as a 4F ( female hatched before current calendar year). I am beginning to think that some Parrot and Scottish Crossbills don't moult all (or possibly in rare occasions any?) of their secondaries depending on when they finish breeding ? The only other possibility is that it could have been a second year bird that has had an extensive post-juvenile moult where it has replaced it's primaries, but not the secondaries. However, the lack of any old (juvenile) greater coverts, adult type alula and and adult primary coverts discounted this possibility.The minimum bill depth was bang on for Parrot type. It was also 'big-headed' in the hand and was over 50g in weight (typical for Parrot Crossbill). However, though this bird gave a classic Parrot flight call on release (Fc2) it's excitement call (which it gave when it landed) sounded more like Scottish Crossbill ! Indeed, on the sonagram the excitement call (or toop) was somewhere between Parrot and Scottish Crossbill. So, should we all be concerned by this anomaly and earnestly start burning our copies of "Sound Approach" and "Summers et al (2002)" ? Well no, hold off on the matches and lighter fuel, at least until I offer this explanation. To start with, a fact - Crossbills are social finches, and social finches, have been known to 'learn' calls (see Mundinger). Variant calls, or more specifically a call that appears to contain features of two crossbill types, do not necessarily infer that the individual giving it is of that mixed parental lineage eg. a hybrid. I think it is way too simplistic or convenient to say that because a call appears "half Parrot and half Scottish" on a sonagram that this explains the provance of the bird. The 'white-coats' (crossbill speciation sceptics who constantly cite the lack of gentic divergence between the forms ) as well as cynical crossbill call sceptics will love this bird that I caught - it gave two calls, or a mixture of two, so which call gets precedence, Scottish or Parrot ? How can I call it Parrot when it gave a Scottish type call ? Well, as I said the excitement call had features of both Parrot and Scottish - to me it sounded Scottish-ish, especially the short duration harmonics, but the fundamental note (the lowest note) could easily be interpreted as Parrot in shape. The flight call was a stone-waller Parrot - a big resounding "Ch-oop". If we are going to discuss which calls are more useful diagnostically, flight calls or excitement calls, then I would say flight calls, for two reasons, though this hasn't always been my position:1) In my studies of the new "Scottish" type calls that appears to have emerged since the last big studies in the 1990's, but picked up by me when I started recording in 2004, I have noticed that the coresponding excitement calls (Ec's) are quite variable - some look like normal Scottish EcC (excitement call C) with typically only one harmonic and the main note either being inflected or not, whilst others give a cross between EcA and EcD, both Common and Parrot type calls respectively. Biometrics collected through catching and ringing individuals have proven the intermediate bill depths of this 'new' call type are consistent w[...]

Parrot Crossbill Predation


Eurasian Pygmy Owl and Parrot Crossbill (from

I thought that photo might get your attention ! No not from my Deeside site but rather somwhere colder and much further East ! Apologies to the anonymous photographer (as no name was attached to it) but I have linked to the original website.

Crossbills are strange birds; they are very wary when coming down to the ground to drink, get grit or bones (for calcium) yet when they are feeding in trees you can stand only a few feet from them and they are oblivious to your presence (helpful for reading rings !).

Even with my 1000's of hours field time I have never witnessed Crossbill predation per se eg. an actual kill, though I have observed unsucessful attempts by Sparrowhawks on several occasions, and Merlins (twice), both aimed at Parrot Crossbill flocks. Clearly Pygmy Owls have some adaptation for catching Parrot Crossbills ! Predation by avian predators it would seem is a rare occurence.

In Scotland there are several species that can predate Crossbill nests (eggs and nestling predation): Red Squirrel (Greys don't tend to occur in Pine Crossbill habitats), Corvids, Pine Marten, Great Spotted Woodpecker (and Green Woodpecker at one of my sites) and Sparrowhawk ( I have witnessed the latter though the chicks successfully 'exploded' and evaded predation). However, this said, the severity of the weather, particularly wet, snow and wind combined with the availability of cones (and how 'open' the cones are) will have far more impact on productivity than all the predators combined.

"Last Catch", 30th August 2010


This is my last catch of crossbills, from August 30th in upper Deeside. I caught two Common Crossbills (and a Meadow Pipit !), that were lured in to the vicinity of the drinking pool with a taped call - they were trapped in an area of natural/semi-natural Scots Pine. Common Crossbills have been present, feeding on the pines (which are closed) and nearby Larch and Spruce for the last two months:Female Common CrossbillCommon Crossbills are usually fairly recognizable in the hand being much smaller bodied than Parrots and a bit smaller than Scottish. The key measrement however is bill depth. This one was quite big with a minimum bill depth of 10.6 mm but still well within range for Common Crossbill.Common Crossbills can sometimes be difficult to age precisely due to an extensive breeding season that can last most of a calendar year (depending on cone/seed availability) and also due to the fact that some suspend their moult (if irrupting and/or breeding in their 2cy) whilst other juvenile 1/2 cy's can have extensive or erratic post juvenile moult - though the former will still often show 3 generations (or ages) of feather and can be aged quite easily. Another factor is that crossbill 'years' don't necessarily conform to our calender years eg. January to December, and as such the age codes ringers use may not conform like they do for other bird species. The dead crossbills that Dougie Preston sent me from the 2009 invasion had examples of arrested or suspended post juvenile moult - these will feature in a later post.The female had adult type wing feathers that were quite worn, no old (or juvenile) greater coverts so was aged as a Euring Age 4 or a 4F. She had also replaced two primary coverts (indicated below, and much darker than the older feathers):Moulting Primaries and Primary CovertsOne of the associated primaries P1, slightly darker than the older feathers, was nearly fully grown and the other was just coming in so this bird appeared to be active wing moult. Another useful ageing criteria was provided by Jenni and Winkler's fantastic Moult book which states that Common Crossbills never replace PC1 and PC2 (primary coverts 1 and 2) or even PC3 as part of their post juvenile moult so the age of a Euring 4 ( born before the present calendar year is safe). This female also had a brood patch score of 4 meaning she must have bred some time over the Summer and would explain the commencement of wing moult with the first two inner primaries.The male's bill depth was 0.1mm bigger - positive assortative mating ? ! This bird was also in wing moult with two new primaries and associated primary coverts. Quite a big billed curvirostra, though overall bill is 'rectangular', culmen is not steeply downcurved and the tip of the lower mandible is at a shallow upward incline:Male Common CrossbillNotice how the bill appears big relative to the size of the head (which was small) ? After releasing the two birds one after the other, and recording their flight calls (both Common type Fc's) I noticed a colour ringed crossbill feeding in a Scots Pine tree right by the ringing station. I got the scope out and it took some time to get the positions of all 3 colours and the metal but I eventually confirmed it as Parrot Crossbill that was ringed 15/10/06 at the same site. This bird was on its own and I took the opportunity to collect and measure some of the cones it was foraging on. The first one it dropped was this cone:Parrot Foraged ConeThe above cone resembles the shredded appearance of a Scots Pine cone that has been worked by a Scottish or Common Crossbil[...]

Culbin Sands, Sunday 22nd August


Some of you may have gathered from my tweet that I was at Culbin Sands near Nairn a couple of Sundays ago. For those that don't know it Culbin is a massive Scots and Corsican Pine plantation on the sand dunes south of Nairn. It is home to Corsican Pines, Crested Tits, Scottish Crossbill and Southern Hawker (the target for the day). Below is just a brief summary of the day.Spot The Corsican Pines ?On arriving Common hawkers were patrolling the car park and there was an abundance of Scotch Argus butterflies which was a good start. All the way to the main Dragonfly pool Crested Tits were calling and we got great views - even one bathing at around 10 feet (though too shaded for a photo shot). I have heard recent reports of people missing Cresties at Culbin - my advice is to really familiarise yourself with the calls as you will hear birds long before you see them ( a bit like crossbills actually). With so many about you really would have to have been walking about blindfolded and ear plugs in not to have encountered them this day.Arriving at the main pool Common Hawker males were patroling but within a minute or so a Southern Hawker male appeared followed by another and a dog fight ensued. S. Hawkers, very Common in England, are very scarce in Scotland and only seem to have a hold on this NE corner of Scotland - the area from Banff through to Beauly- and I understand that they are now dispersing South through the Great Glen and are at Fort William. Perhaps like other species of odonata they have been unintentionally ( or intentionally) introduced ?Male Southern HawkerWe found a cracking Southern Hawker exuvia about 3m out from the bank on a stem. I decided it was worth getting my feet wet so waded out to claim it. It turned out to be a perfect female SH exuvia. More Cresties were calling and moving around the dragonfly pool, but suddenly a Crossbill flew over and Remembird recorded this:Pants Common Crossbill SonagramNow, to my ears this sounded almost cross between a Fc4 (glip) type call and a Fc1 (parakeet), but this is not clear on the sonagram, where the call looks more Fc1 ish. However, though it looks like a Fc1 "parakeet" type ( or 1B) it is possibly slightly too low in frequency for most Fc1 calls and is similar in frequency to Parrot ! To be honest it is like many of the vague calls I get sent by other people and in those cases I often shrug my shoulders, so I am going to practise what I preach with this call I made and call it as "can't be sure" ! What I will say is that aurally ( in the field) it was not Parrot ( which I have much experience) and it sounded 'clippy' so possibly a Fc1 afterall, but just a low pitched one. I think if it was a Fc4 the last ypward component would have shown up.On the way back to the car, we came across the massive catepillar for a Goat Moth scrabling about on the path:Goat Moth Catepillar.....Yummy !Apparently these are quite unusal and scarce so a lucky find. The other Dragonfly pool had 4 Spot Chasers Emeralds and Common Blues but no Common Darters which were present there last year.If you are up in the Inverness area Culbin is very worth a visit and could easily produce Goshawk as well as the goodies we had. Definitely more Crested Tits than Abernethy from my experience.[...]

Getting All Excited About Scottish Crossbill !


I am in process of re-evaluating some of my early recordings for a couple of upcoming papers (finally), one of which is now drafted and just needs the supporting sonagrams and pictures compiled and added in. Raking through the material I came across this sonagram, probably one of my best ever of a Scottish Crossbill, recorded near its nest at Glen Tanar on 11th April 2005 ( yes I really have been doing this stuff since then ! EDIT: actually, since 2004):

Scottish Crossbill Excitement Call

A fantastically clear sonagram of a typical Excitement Call C (EcC) diagnostic of Scottish Crossbill per Summers et al, 2002. The really amazing thing is this was recorded with my Czech Monocor short gun microphone (which was as noisy as hell) and my first Mini Disc recorder a Sony MZ-710 ! Not a Telinga or Fostex in sight ! Just shows you what you can do with a bit of fieldcraft (and field time) and the right conditions ( there was no wind and the bird was alarming about 12 feet away from the mic). In those pre HiMD days I had to re-record ALL the tracks  from the line out into Audio Lab via the computer and then process the sonagrams using a program called GRAM32.

I should add that this call type is now quite rare, having only recorded it in this form a few 'handful and footfall' times. Some interesting material regarding the call structures of Scottish Crossbills is imminent.....all is not what it seems, keep tuned.

Catching Pine Crossbills, Upper Deeside, 21st June 2010


Crossbills are notoriously difficult to catch in order to ring as you cannot bait sites like you can for other finches - they are specialised to feed primarily on various pine cones and there are usually millions of them about so no joy there ! Usually crossbills are caught when they come in or out of drinking pools. I believe Dutch ringers use 'artificially' created drinking sites and also use caged decoy birds to lure crossbills in which sounds very efficient ( and interesting). Here in the Scotland we only tend to use sites that the crossbills themselves visit naturally on their own accord and we don't use decoys ( though an endorsement to allow this can be applied for). Many man hours can be spent finding and reconnoitring these sites which is why I, and others, are quite guarded about where we are operating and catching birds. Last year one of my pools was compromised twice by photographers (the worst kind of disturbance) so don't take offence if I don't disclose sites, it is nothing personal !Crossbill's drink obviously to sustain themselves, however, there is also a more 'cultural' purpose to the process. The birds will often sit in a perching tree near to or directly above the pool and the dominant male will sit right on the crown of the tree, sometimes singing or preening. There is a 'pecking' order to how the bird are organised within the tree, with more dominant birds asserting their authority, and often these birds will drink first. One often finds that these birds may actually drink twice - I have observed this several times thanks to colour ringing individuals. However, sometimes extra keen juveniles bail in first and these are often caught more easily. I refer to such pools as 'cultural' pools that is they are long term historical drinking sites where social behaviour and interaction can be performed. This is opposed to sites where they drink 'ad hoc' or opportunistically eg. near to where they are feeding and are thirsty at a particular moment, a puddle below a tree for example. All of this makes them exceedingly difficult to catch in any sort of numbers.Monday 21st June had near perfect conditions: warm. overcast, and very importantly, little wind. Whilst setting up at dawn several birds came in to one of the pools I was hoping to catch. I backed off and let them down to drink - they could be trapped later when they came back ! I set up two nets and settled down very nearby so that the nets could be monitored constantly.Only an hour had passed and I caught some birds, a family of Parrot Crossbills and a Siskin (other birds drink at crossbill pools). The Siskin was processed first and released quickly.The male Parrot Crossbill was an adult and was in post-breeding moult ( inc.wing moult):Parrot CrossbillAgain, the bill structure to me is clearly Parrot, but for many birders this would be classified as Scottish. The minimum bill depth was in excess of 13mm so not Scottish !The female hadn't started moulting her primaries but some tail feathers were being moulted. She also had a brood patch score (BP) of 4 (meanind she had finished brooding/breeding). The bill structure was Parrot:Parrot CrossbillThe juvenile had a rather 'clean' look to its bill structure, almost Scottish in appearance but still too deep biometrically to be anything but Parrot Crossbill:Parrot Crossbill juvenileThese birds were colour-ringed and processed quickly and released into the same tree whilst sound recordings were obtained of their flight calls. The colour ring sequence is unique[...]

....Results just In


Well, that was a disappointing turnout given the apparent 'interest' in crossbills and the amount of crossbill sonagrams that are being posted on blogs etc. I don't think there is going to be a rush of contributions so well done to Dougie Preston and Stephen Menzie for being bold enough to have a go, and not a bad go at that, getting the species correct.

I guess people just don't want to appear "wrong" in public and perhaps this goes to demonstrate that identifying crossbills from sonagrams is just as difficult, possibly more so, than identifying them through a scope or images ? Or maybe my example was too difficult ? Well hey, it is a 'real life' snapshot of crossbill behaviour afterall !

Okay, there were two species, Common and Parrot Crossbill and of which there were 4 Common Crossbill individuals of the same 'type' (1A) and only one Parrot specimen. So a total of 5 Crossbills. Only the Parrot gave both a Fc and an Ec. Admittedly the actual numbers of birds was easier to ascertain from the recording which neither Stephen or Dougie had, though it can be seen on the sonagram.

So, here is my analysis ( all timings given are approx.):

1.0 secs = 2x Fc1 types. I call these "parroty" Fc1's as they are easily confused with Fc2. However, they much higher pitched than Fc2 Parrot and the descending element is much weaker ( thinner on the sonagram). Notice one individual is slightly lower pitched than the other, but still higher than Parrot.

1.3 secs = Bird "two"  of Fc1. Continues through sonogram faintly.

1.4 secs = EcA Variant, bird "three". Fundamental has an initial down turn or upturned 'horn' appearance. The harmonics are slightly different from typical EcA.

1.6 secs = Bird "one" of Fc1.

1.9 secs = EcA variant, bird "four".

2.0 secs = Fc1, bird "one".

2.2 secs = EcA bird "four".

2.6 secs = EcA bird "four".

2.8 secs = EcA bird "three".

3.3 secs = EcD Parrot Crossbill. There is no coinciding Fc here ( sorry Dougie) it is a feature of the excitement call structure (though may be related to a fc?). Notice how the Parrot EcD is lower piched and of a considerably shorter duration than the Common Crossbill EcA ( which they can be confused with aurally).

3.8 secs = EcA bird "three" and "four" together.

3.95 secs = Fc2 Parrot Crossbill - same individual as 3.3 secs. Compare with Fc's at start of sonagram, notice the Parrot calls are lower in frequency ( I call it pitch cos I hear it) and are a much stronger in amplitude. This gives a "choop" rather than "cheep".

4.1 secs = EcA bird "three".

4.2 secs = Fc2 Parrot ( same bird as 3.95 secs).

The appearance of a seemingly extra component on the Parrot Fc's at 3.95 and 4.2 secs can be misleading and may in the past have led to examples of this call being classified as Fc3 Scottish ( all will become clearer soon !). It is a harmonic of the main trace in my opinion. Only large billed birds I have handled have given this call on release.

So well done lads, other than the Scotbill reference, you got the right answer ( though the working out may not agree with my own analysis).

Just shows what information you can get from a sonagram. And there are people that say Crossbill calls are baloney ! Their loss.......

S'on-ly A Game !


Many interesting revelations to come in the crossbill world very soon so keep posted but meantime a bit of fun ! If Menzie can put up blurry, dodgy pics of his Spanny birds and ask "how many species" then so can I with Crossbills. To make it easier though rather than photos of crossers, which most people seem to get wrong or concede "they just don't know", I have this sonogram instead:

It was recorded on 16th April 2009 in upper Deeside, native Scots Pine habitat (using ME67 and Sony HiMD). So, how many crossbills and of what crossbill species, and more importantly how many call types ? I bet Menzie gets them all correct, he always does !

Posts are moderated, but I will put the non Chinese spam ones on honest !

Spread the crossbill love.

"Northern Exposure", Crossbills in Northern Isles....Again !


For the past few weeks (since approx. early/mid June) Common Crossbills have been trickling in through Orkney, Shetland and North Ronaldsay. Readers may recall that last year there was a biggish influx of type 4E Common Crossbills to mainland Scotland ( and presumably UK). I picked up  birds in decent numbers in lower Deeside by early July, where they had not been present previously that Winter/Spring.

Okay, guys and gals in Orkney and Shetland, what call types are you getting this year ? It would be very interesting to know. Colleagues in Grampian Ringing Group had a ringing recovery of a Common Crossbill in April near Dufftown. This bird was ringed in September 2009 in lower Deeside so had moved Northwards somewhat in the six months since ringing. Was this a bird returning 'back' to where it had come from ? My instinct is 'no', it was possibly part of a nomadic post breeding flock that was seeking a decent cone crop. But the possibility remains, especially given the accepted view is that birds move south and westwards.

So if this years influx of Commons on the Northern Isles is giving 4E calls does this mean they are last year's birds going home ? Maybe and maybe not. Maybe, for the scant evidence cited above and 'not' because some 4E's may have remained in Fennoscandia where there was a localised food source and are only moving now after breeding ( there are juvs in the recent photos I have seen of birds on Shetland). This is this 'lag' effect I spoke of last year, and this would depend on how far from the East the birds were erupting. However, if the calls of this years irruption is different from 4E then at least it rules out the 2009 population returning or a new one of the same type irrupting. As I recall there were some 1A's and 1B's last year also, though in much smaller numbers than the 4E's.

4E Common Crossbill

The other intruiging possibility is that of small numbers of Crossbills trickling in during the winter months and early spring. I have had Common Crossbills at coastal sites in November and December and two flew over my garden this April ( there is no substancial viable food source near me and I am less than a mile from the coast). These may also have been birds moving Northward back up the coast. However, I would expect the legions of Vismiggers to have picked up such movements if they were happening with any regularity ?

If anyone wants to post comments please do - I have not completely disabled the comments but am unfortunately having to moderate them due to the chinese spamming that seems to be more and more prolific on blogger these days !

14th June 2010, Catch Me If You Can, Deeside


Today started off too windy to catch crossbills with mist nets, so it was frustrating to watch the little beggars come in and quench their thirst at drinking pools:However, later in the afternoon the wind dropped and I managed to get the net up for an hour and caught an adult (4F) female Parrot Crossbill:And she was in wing moult, in the process of replacing her first two primaries P1 and P2 ( and associated primary coverts already renewed):This bird's bill structure is typical of so many on Birdguides and in publications that are labelled as "Scottish Crossbill". However, the bill depth on this specimen was 12.7mm which would make it more likey a Parrot Crossbill - it is the 'minimum' bill depth that is measured as this apparently provides the most consistent measurement within and between ringers. Some might argue it is a 'big' Scottish Crossbill. However, it also gave Fc2 on it's release, identified first aurally, then confirmed by sonogram analysis. So, what do we give prevalence to, the biometrics or the call structure ? Some ringers are happy to classify on biomterics alone and for many crossbills this is possibly safe, but there will always be those iffy ones in the overlap zone. There has been some recent chitter chatter in the crossbill world that the calls are 'cultural' possibly implying that they are not a valid taxonomic tool or diagnostic criteria. Also, calls can be learned or change. So what ? For me, as a musician and a humanties graduate, this cultural aspect, if it exists, is all the more important and may provide some clues and insight within the overlap zone where biomteric analysis alone may struggle.In the end 'local knowledge' formed my diagnosis that this was indeed what is currently classified as a Parrot Crossbill. At this site birds that have bill depths in the region of 11.5 plus or minus a bit give what I would classify as Scottish Crossbill calls. Birds in the region of 12.5 plus or minus some give Parrot Crossbill Calls. Thus there is a positive correlation of biometrics to call structure......for most birds ! There has been the odd 11.9 or 12.1 bill depth specimen that gives Parrot Calls where you might expect it to give Scottish Calls. This, I feel, reflects the limitation of minimum bill depth as a completely reliable measurement on its own. For example, it does not take into account the shape or structure of the bill, often a very large gonys bill mass which is so important for the Pine species in opening closed cones ( and why Parrots often have a pronounced gonys). Effectively, a crossbill can have quite a narrow minimum bill depth but still have a massive gonyal 'bulge', so this measurement may be biased, though as stated, for most it is accurate. Bill width is also important structurally, but a difficult measurement to make consistent between workers. Parrot Crossbills also have thick, chunky necks, the 'bull necked' appearance often referred to in field guide books and these neck and cheek muscles contribute to their feeding preferences. Parrot Crossbills power their way into a closed Scots Pine cone, 'smash and grab' if you will - they use the downcurved culmen to cut into it, large bill width and depth ( the gonys increasing this) to lever 'open' and make the cone split (they do not "slice" it per se, though sometimes "peel" the scales), and the powerful neck a cheek/ jaw muscles to literally brutalize the cone, manupula[...]