Sunday, November 25, 2012

It's a crossbill winter!

Here in Cincinnati we're excited because crossbills have dropped down from the north for a winter visit (and it's not even winter yet). Both Red and White-winged Crossbills are being reported daily at local cemeteries, so since Matty was off school Wednesday, we headed up to Miami Cemetery to see what we could see...

A White-winged Crossbill was waiting for us when we got out of the car! 
We didn't even have to look for the birds. As soon as we stepped out of the Jeep, three White-winged Crossbills flew in the huge Eastern Hemlock tree right next to us. Their chittery flight chatter gave them away, and we quickly focused in on them with binocs. This was a life bird for Matty, so he studied them carefully. "Wow! You really can see their crossed bills!" was the first thing out of his mouth. "I know..." followed out of mine. We watched them in silence as they moved from cone to cone, separating the bracts and extracting the seeds with their tongues. "Wow..."

While we watched them, we tried to figure out how they were cracking open the cones to get to the seeds. We could see them working the bracts apart, but had no idea how they were using their crossed bills to do it. Later that night, I got a few of my birds books down to see if I could find out. The answer was easy to find and was in the first book I opened. Bernd Heinrich, in his book Winter World, offered an explanation. He wrote that a crossbill's upper bill is two centimeters long and crosses over a one-half centimeter shorter lower bill. To open a cone bract, the bird inserts a partially open bill into a bract, then closes its bill. When closed, the bill tips separate the bract laterally by about 3 millimeters, just enough for the bird to open its bill slightly and use its barbed tongue to dip in and grab the seed (Heinrich, Winter World, page 37).

Eventually, Matty went off looking at tombstones and did a few rubbings to try to figure out dates and names on the oldest and most weathered stones,  and I did a quick sketchbook entry to record our day. We had been to Caesar Creek earlier for a picnic lunch and had seen lots of birds, but the White-winged Crossbills stole the show. In 2009, White-winged Crossbills showed up for a while in Cincinnati, and it was exciting too, but this year, the irruption seems bigger. I can't wait to see what else winter brings!

...sketchbook entry completed in the field. It was very warm that day...65 degrees F. 
To round out the post, I did a quick watercolor of one of the White-winged Crossbills we saw that day. I can't wait to get back out to see if more of these interesting birds are around. If you haven't done so already, you might want to pop over to the ABA Blog to read Nate Swick's post, "Help Monitor the Red Crossbill Invasion" (click here). You also might like Jim McCormac's post (click here) for a photo of a White-winged Crossbill's long tongue as it nabs a seed.

Happy birding, everyone!
      Kelly from Red and the Peanut


  1. a delightful post Kelly and how interesting to learn more of the crossbills unique eating mechanism via Berndt's observations too. I always enjoy your wonderful sketches and watercolours too; really, really beautiful

  2. I love your photos and beautiful watercolor. You are one very talented lady, Kelly.

  3. Both crossbills would be a life bird. Unfortunately, all are about an hour and half to two hour drive from where I live. I checked the very few hemlocks that I know of on the east side of Cincinnati (all in yards) - nothing. Both crossbills seem to be in exclusively hemlock. Hoping to get over to see them!

  4. Lucky you! I would love to see the Red and White-winged Crossbills. Lovely photos and wonderful drawings! Happy Birding!

  5. Great sighting and crossbill info, Kelly! Beautiful photos and watercolor!

  6. Excellent post Kelly! Funny about crossbills and cemeteries. That's where I see them too.

  7. Lovely photography, drawing,s and paintings. It's been so much fun to read about the Crossbill sightings this season. Hopefully they keep on coming! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Carol...thank you!!

    ...thanks, Pam!

    Donald....I know. That's what keeps me from East Fork. Miami Cemetery is 30 minutes from my house, so that's not too bad. We are on opposite sides of Cincy! If you do make it out to my area, let me know.

    Thanks, Adam!

    ...Eileen, thank you! I hope I get to see the Red Crossbills. They are here!

    Mia...thank you!!

    Hilke...thank you.

    Robert...around here, as soon as the crossbills and siskins are reported everyone heads to the cemeteries. That's where the largest groupings of old hemlocks are. Thank goodness they planted hemlocks all those years ago!

    Laurence...I hope they keep on coming too! Thank you!!

  9. Wonderful post filled with interesting information, great photographs and a stunning watercolor! I've always wondered about how the crossbills feed. How lucky you are to have seen these beautiful birds.