Sunday, 7 January 2018

Parrot Crossbills, Wishmoor Bottom, Camberley January 1st 2018

The last few weeks of 2017 had seen a small influx of parrot crossbills into the UK with flocks being seen in Derbyshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. Closer to home 16 had been found at Wishmoor Bottom on the Berkshire/Surrey border and had been showing reasonably well.
   We headed down there on the 28th December to see them, or so we thought. We arrived at the designated parking spot around 08:30 and working on directions gained from the internet made our way to the birds supposed feeding area. We spotted some other birders, made our way over to them and were greeted with the dreaded "they were here but have flown off away over the heath"! No worries though since they regularly return to their favoured Scots Pine trees to feed. Except they didn't! Not on that day while we there anyway. Mrs Caley and I stood by the trees for over 5 hours and apart from 3 parrot crossbills flying past we saw none. Still flypasts do count as sightings and a tick. We left at 14:30 and drove the hour or so home only to be rewarded with the news that the parrot crossbill flock "had returned at 15:50". Grrrr....!!!!
   We did have good views of some dartford warblers, which have always been one of my favourite birds, although they were camera shy and it was hard work to get any images.

"hide & seek" dartford warbler

There you are!

   I checked the sightings history and there didn't seem to be any regularity to the parrot crossbills appearances since they had been reported at all times of the day and on some days not at all. But we resolved to return the next day in the afternoon in the hope that they would fly in and roost in the trees at the very least. The 29th though dawned with stormy skies so we held off travelling anywhere until the wet weather had passed. On the way through to Camberley, I detoured to Swyncombe Church near Nettlebed, where some hawfinches had been spotted. Sure enough we found a single hawfinch perched in a bare tree in the churchyard almost immediately, took a quick snap and leapt back into the car since it had started chucking it down again.


   It continued raining heavily all the way to Camberley and with no let up we dived into a marvellous fish & chip restaurant next to the A30 thinking we'd stuff our faces and see what the weather did whilst we there. To our gratitude the rain abated and the sun came out so with very full bellies we made our way back to the heath. Owing to the rain the ground was now very wet indeed and many of the tracks had puddles far too deep for us to navigate, lacking as we were in suitable footwear (must get some of those posh insulated wellies). So we circuitously walked our way to the pine trees. No other birders were around so we were going to have to find the birds ourselves. It was about 14:00 so we'd have a couple of hours for the crossbills to show. They didn't! Not a peep, not even a flypast this time. Double grrrr......! We had, however, seen some more dartford warblers but even that compensation was wearing thin!

   I was at football on the Saturday and New Years Eve was extremely wet so no birding on those two days. I stayed sober that night so that we could get out early on New Years Day and although we hadn't agreed where we would go, I had already decided. Just wasn't sure if Mrs Caley would go for it. But she knows full well by now that I don't like giving up so when I suggested that it was worth another try she (reluctantly?) shrugged her shoulders and said "why not".

   We left home at 06:30 and I drove the now familiar route to Camberley. It was only just getting light when we parked up but we knew the way by now and 15 minutes later arrived at the "usual" spot. A surprising number of birders were already there (year listers!) and nothing had been seen but it was only just getting light. At 08:20 a chorus of "kup, kup, kup" calls erupted from the dingy sky above. I couldn't see anything but I knew that they were the parrot crossbills (I had done my research into crossbill calls) and that they'd landed in the tree right next to where I stood and beneath which Mrs Caley sat! I quickly located a female parrot crossbill right at the top of the tree and blasted off a couple of shots in the gloom. Calling Mrs Caley over to make sure that she saw it we shared a sigh of relief. Phew! The bird stayed at the top of the tree, looking around,  for just a couple of minutes before taking to the air and departing. It was joined by 5 other birds that I hadn't noticed but the various "kup" calls signified that they were all parrot crossbills. They flew away over the heath and were lost to sight.
Parrot Crossbill (female)

   We chatted to a local birder (well met Jerry) and he told us that the crossbills had become far less reliable in recent days (tell me about it) and were ranging over a far greater area and often disappearing for long periods. We decided to wait another couple of hours before accepting that we had at least seen some and me accepting that my ropey shot in the dark would have to suffice! After an hour just 2 parrot crossbills flew northwards and out of sight, yet another tantalising glimpse, and then just after 10:00 the whole flock of 16 appeared flying towards us but turned tail en masse and vanished again! This was becoming very frustrating! At 11:00 we gave up.

   We did have all day though so we decided to walk the long way back to the car, heading first north then east and finally south (and into Surrey), generally in the direction of where we'd seen the crossbills fly to. For half a mile or so we saw very little despite checking every suitable looking pine tree on the way (and there are a lot!). Then suddenly and taking me totally by surprise (well almost) some finches flew right past my head and landed in a small tree close to the path. Crossbills! Yay!!! I lifted the bins had a quick look and then fired off a few shots. Then looked through the bins again and the two most prominent birds in the tree revealed themselves as common crossbills (a male and a female) and not parrots. Just our bloody luck! 

Common Crossbill (male & female)

Common Crossbill (male)

Common Crossbill (female)

Common Crossbill (male)

Common Crossbill (female)

Common Crossbill ( male)

   I noticed that 3 (of the 5 birds) had dropped to the ground beneath the tree and were feeding on a bare patch of ground there. I took aim with the camera again and this time I had parrot crossbills in the viewfinder. Thank goodness. There were 2 males and a female scurrying around below the tree and they were soon joined by the 2 common crossbills. We had found some of the birds ourselves! To say we were delighted would be an under statement. The males are a red colour with browner wings and a brownish stripe through the eye while the females are greenish with a yellowish rump and more olive coloured wings. The two species are very similar looking except for the bills and head shape. Whereas the common crossbill has a fairly slender bill, the parrot crossbills is bigger with a distinctly up curved lower mandible. However the angle of the view can distort the appearance of the bill so care has to be taken before assigning species. Parrot crossbills also have a far bigger head and are "bull" necked so look much more robust. There is also the difference in vocalisation with the parrots having that deeper "kup, kup, kup" call as opposed to the commons higher pitched "jip, jip, jip" call. You need to hear both side by side, as we did, and you'd realise the difference.

Parrot Crossbills (males)

   All of the crossbills flew back into the tree and this time I was able to get some pics of one of the male parrot crossbills. 

Parrot Crossbill (male)

   The 3 parrot crossbills then flew to a nearby puddle and drank until flushed into a nearby pine tree by a dog walker and his dog (dogs and their handlers are becoming a birders nightmare) and the common crossbills joined them. 
Parrot Crossbill (female & male)

Parrot Crossbill (male)

   We studied the tree and were amazed to find more than just the 5 birds in it. There were at least 10 crossbills fluttering around the branches. After a short time 5 birds flew out of the pine and departed strongly south. By the calls we identified all of the departing birds as common crossbills meaning that the pine tree now held at least 5 crossbills of which 3 were definitely parrots. In fact a few minutes later 6 birds flew out and, thankfully relocated to another tree 50 yards away, where they showed very well as they fed on the pine cones. These birds, 3 males and 3 females were all parrot crossbills! We now had sustained views of these birds and I set about trying to get some decent images. I say try because it was now raining and the light was dreadful but I attempted to make the most of it by ramping up the ISO setting in order to get a faster shutter speed. The results were far from brilliant but at least we have some acceptable frames of these fine birds. For some reason the camera finds it easier to focus on the green female birds rather than the red males. I've no idea why! We stayed with the birds for 45 minutes during which time they fed voraciously on the pine cones. They would snip a cone off by the stem and then manoeuvre it into a position whereby they could extract the seeds. They are called parrot crossbills because of the bills but as I watched them hang upside down on the branches and stretch right out to the branch tips to get to the furthest cones it would be easy to consider that they had been named because of their acrobatics.

Parrot Crossbill (female)

Parrot Crossbill (male)
Parrot Crossbill (male & female)

  A few other birders had cottoned on to the fact that we were looking at something so we no longer had the birds to ourselves and Jerry rejoined us and was very grateful that we'd found them. At one point they moved tree again in order to survey another puddle which they duly visited for a drink. Obviously devouring pine seeds is thirsty work! But, whereas they are happy in the trees despite close passers by, they are easily disturbed when on the ground and once again they were flushed by a dog walker and his charge. This time they flew high away and over some distant trees and that was that.

Parrot Crossbill (female)

Parrot Crossbill (male)

   So it had taken tree trips to get proper views of these fabulous continental invaders but alls well that ends well! So pleased to have finally got good views and I hope that some make it into Oxfordshire at some point in the near future.

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