I wouldn’t have any pictures of these Red Crossbills if it weren’t for Dave and Andi.
The Red Crossbill is an unusual bird. Not surprisingly, it gets its name from its bill. The upper and lower bill appears grossly misaligned, as compared to other finches. It is not a defect in the Red Crossbill ancestry; it’s an evolutionary advantage. He uses this unique bill to pry open the ‘pine cones’ of spruce, pine, Douglas fir and hemlock…his primary food.
Placing his bill on the cone he bites down, prying apart the cone’s scales, exposing the seed inside. His is a highly specialized seed diet, so they evolved this method of extracting seeds from cones. The prying action of a crossed bill works quite well, even if it is upsetting to think of your teeth similarly mismatching. You will find Red Crossbills in conifer forests, often in flocks, foraging near the tops where the pine cones are numerous.
Fred, a fellow birder, and I went looking for this particular bird, at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve, Port Washington, Wisconsin without much luck. I called Fred at 6AM after I saw a rare bird alert on the Internet stating a flock of Red Crossbills was spotted at the preserve the day before. He was awake, but just barely…coffee…no shower. I was in his driveway in fifteen minutes and we were staged to start shooting at 0700 hours. My enthusiasm waned by 08:30 hours.
After an hour and a half of seeing nothing but LBB’s (little brown birds) and a tree full of starlings, we were about to leave in disappointment. Then a hawk appeared over a hill. Fred, whose camera is set-up for flying birds, squeezed off ten frames, but the hawk was flying away from us and was distant anyway. The hawk disappeared over the parking lot. Fred’s shots weren’t great, but the last frame included Dave and Andi.
As they walked towards us on the path, I knew what they were going to say. Dave was equipped with camera gear that meant he was only looking for birds. “Did you see the Red Crossbills?” he asked predictably. We sadly said, “No”. Dave asked, “What are those?” pointing to the standing dead tree we had just passed. I said, “Starlings”. Dave looked through his binoculars and said, “No, they’re Red Crossbills!” I said again confidently, they were starlings, but he was right. When the hawk flushed the starlings, the tree was quickly refilled with Red Crossbills.
BINGO…we went to work!
The crossbills cooperated with us nicely for a half an hour, posing on branches, probing the muddy water’s edge for delicacies and prying open pinecones. We took photographic advantage of every opportunity they granted us. We got our shots.
The trees were heavy with cones and the crossbills ate their fill. It wasn’t for lack of food that they eventually left, but they disappeared one by one, backwards into the dark pinewoods of Forest Beach Migratory Preserve. They retreated as secretly as they arrived, but we all left satisfied.