Back to Blog

Crossbill City

  • Sun 31st Mar, 2019

April is a great time to look-out for common crossbills in the North York Moors National Park. Here’s a story hot off the pine press! Natural discoveries on our YCN birding tours at the end of March this year.

We are all ears as we walk silently through the Great Yorkshire Forest, straining our drums for the first ‘chip’ call. It doesn’t take long for us to find our first billy. “Listen…” the still air creates a wonderful atmosphere and we hear that strong social call under an oak tree. A bright orange young male crossbill sits at the very top of the tree, on the lookout, scanning the view across his city.

Female Common Crossbill in the Great Yorkshire Forest © Chrys MellorFemale Common Crossbill in the Great Yorkshire Forest © Chrys Mellor

We just manage to focus our telescope onto the male for a few seconds before he flies, vanishing into the trees beyond. We continue along the path listening again. Standing under a pine tree we hear the distinctive sound of cracking cones. Without realising we stop under a female crossbill feeding on cones in a Scots pine tree. She is very close so we can hear her snipping the cone sheath with her scissor like bill. Flakes fall to the ground under the tree. This is a perfect close encounter, she isn’t really interested in us, allowing us to soak up the experience.

Female Common Crossbill in the Great Yorkshire Forest © Chrys MellorFemale Common Crossbill in the Great Yorkshire Forest © Chrys Mellor

I have watched crossbill in these forests for many years and become fascinated by their annual preference for different trees. An excellent study by The Forestry Commission monitored seed dispersal (coning) by three species of conifer; Scots pine, Norway spruce and Sitka spruce. They discovered an annual cycle of coning in Scots pine but a four-year maximum seed cycle in Norway and Sitka spruce. This may explain why some years I see crossbills favouring other species of tree, but this year everywhere I see them feeding on Scots pine. Perhaps this year is a poor spruce cone year so they are more dependent on Scots pine…

Male & Female Crossbills passing food. A phone-scope grab by Richard Baines and Barry in the Great Yorkshire Forest Male & Female Crossbills passing food. A phone-scope grab by Richard Baines and Barry in the Great Yorkshire Forest

Walking back along the path later in the day we stop again to record phone-scope video of these wonderfully unique birds. A female interacts with a male performing what may be pair bonding, a bit of bill rubbing? Looking carefully at the video it reveals what appears to be the female taking food from inside the mouth of the male, it may be whilst the female is brooding, the male supplements her diet by bringing her seed as she concentrates on rearing her clutch…

Male Common Crossbill in the Great Yorkshire Forest © Richard BainesMale Common Crossbill in the Great Yorkshire Forest © Richard Baines

The recent dry weather has evaporated the puddles leaving very little drinking water for these birds. Crossbills feed mainly on dry conifer seeds, consequently a good supply of water is really important. When the puddles are full of water, we notice how crossbills drink throughout the day with no real peak of activity. Many other birds use the puddles including chaffinches, bramblings and yellowhammers, but these birds mainly arrive during the middle of the day.

Male Common Crossbill in the Great Yorkshire Forest © Richard BainesMale Common Crossbill in the Great Yorkshire Forest © Richard Baines

Towards the end of our walk, we ponder how these crossbills find water in the dry conditions. Suddenly 30 birds fly into a larch tree, they move quickly into the nearby Scots pine to feed. A close ‘chip’ call and we notice a pair of crossbills in the oak tree very close to us. “Aha! look quick” I whisper. A male and a female drink from a hollow in the tree.

This was yet another great insight into how these birds use their city of trees. Older and gnarled trees are great for collecting water during periods of dry weather.

Thanks to all our loyal clients on our Yorkshire Coast Nature birding trips this weekend. Photos and video by Richard Baines, Chrys Mellor and phone-scope video taken on Richard Neville’s and Barry’s phones. To see new dates for our Birding Trips Click Here

Richard Baines

Yorkshire Coast Nature