Friday, 14 May 2010

Follow the cones

As I stood and stared up at the tree tops in Hepburn Wood in North Northumberland watching a red squirrel bounding through the canopy, I was hit in the face by something.   At first I thought it was a small moth but when I turned and looked I could see a steady flow of seeds helicoptering my way on the breeze.  I caught one and saw that they were winged conifer seeds minus the seed, if you see what I mean - just the wing with the seed gone.  I could hear twitterings from the tree tops by this point but couldn't pin the birds down. Then, eventually, I got a fleeting glimpse of the culprits.

A mixed flock of about 30 Crossbills. 

I thought about following the birders' lead by explaining that this is a 'record shot' but actually it's just a crap photo.  Most of my bird shots are.   I don't even qualify to clean Richard Steel's lenses.  But, to quote someone famous I can't remember, 'I'm cool with that' because I marvel that I can use a pocket digital camera, hand held, in poor woodland light, at a digitally enhanced magnification of 90x (yes that's ninety times) and come out with something reasonably sharp and recognisable with the application of no skill whatsoever on my part.

Crossbills depend almost entirely on the seeds of conifers and as cone crops are very variable year by year the birds move about in huge numbers to follow the cones.  These large scale 'irruptions' occur quite frequently.  The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Northumbria estimates that the county's breeding population can vary between 100 in bad cone years to 100,000 when things are very cone-iferous.

The contrast between the red males and the greeny yellow females made a wonderful sight as they crashed about noisily, pulling cones off and scattering seeds everywhere.  This video clip is worth looking at for a decent close up of the extraordinary bill,  and to see one using its curvirostra on a cone try this.


  1. Nice post - I like your sense of humour! I wonder do the crossbill's worry about what the other birds think of their bills?

  2. Thanks Kevin. They are comical to look at, there's no doubt about that. Though having watched the speed at which the male in the photo unzipped a cone and extracted the seeds you could see just how effective the bill is.