|Red Crossbill - Female|
So I decided if the finches weren’t coming to Newton, I was going to have to go to them. So I headed to the John F. Kennedy Library where there have been sightings of large numbers of white-winged crossbills and a few red crossbills. Besides, I told myself, even if there aren’t any crossbills, I will at least be able to enjoy the saltwater loving birds in the harbor.
This first thing I found when I arrived at the library was another birder who had been tracking a flock of white-winged crossbills. We started making our way down the row of Japanese black pines by the entrance to the library, when a bird came up behind us with that big unmistakable crossbill! The next thing that jumped out at me was that this drab gray-green bird was much smaller than I expected (crossbills are completely new to me) and secondly, she didn’t have white wing bars. A female red crossbill! We kept following her as she picked over the pine cones until she led us right into a whole flock of white-winged crossbills.
|White-winged Crossbill - Male|
The female white-winged crossbills looked similar to the red crossbill but the white wing bars were quite obvious and they also had streaking on their flanks that the red crossbill lacked. Just then a bright red male flew down to the ground. He was totally splendid with black wings with white stripes and his torso seeming as though it was brushed in a vibrant pinkish-red powder. I latter learned that when they molt in the fall, the white-winged males have unpigmented barbules on the red feathers that cause them to appear pink. As the feathers wear, the barbules are lost leaving them a bright red in the spring and summer. Unfortunately none of my photos did the male justice.
|White-winged Crossbill - Female|
The crossbills all seemed to be pretty tame and unconcerned about the two birders that were watching them, allowing us a great opportunity to observe them. They seemed to be always moving, either from perch to pine cone, or actively feeding and never pausing even for a second. One of the favorite feeding positions seemed to be hanging upside down while extracting seeds from the cones. Often times the red crossbill would be feeding on a pine cone adjacent to a white-winged crossbill. Apparently crossbills are very efficient at extracting seeds as the curved beak acts as a lever when twisted under a pine cone scale allowing them to grab the seed. There is an excellent video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about white-winged crossbills feeding that I will include below.
|Red Crossbill - Female|
After about 40 minutes of observing these wonderful crossbills, some of the white-wings started to leave the area. Slowly the crossbills all seemed to fade into the pines. Until at the very end I was left with the female red crossbill sitting and calling goodbye at the top of a pine, before she too flew off to join her flock. Then the snow started to fall.
1/6/2013 Update: See the second post regarding identification of red crossbill types, including this crossbill as a type 3.