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Red crossbills are erratic wanderers

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By Sylvia Brockner

On Wednesday, Nov. 5, our salubrious fall weather came to an abrupt end. Overnight, 12 to 15 inches of snow fell in the high mountains. We had only a skiff of snow here, and the day was bright and sunny, but a wicked wind out of the northwest brought our first really cold weather. Old King Boreas nearly blew us off the mountain.

Ice formed on the still water of the wetlands and no doubt would have skimmed the edges of the lake except for the strong wind, which set up such waves that the lake didn’t freeze over, but it certainly dropped the water temperature enough that it will soon freeze over with the next cold snap.

Birding activity at the lake has been very slow, except for two big flocks of mallards that apparently slept on the water on the nights of Nov. 1 and 2. Loie Evans reported 200 or more each morning before dawn. Both flocks took flight as soon as sunlight hit the lake. They circled the lake once and then continued their journey south. Mallards migrate by night and by day, often feeding by day and flying by night. However, when it is this late in the year and getting cold, they may rest for just a few hours and then move on again.

Red crossbills are found all across Canada in the spruce-fir forest and in the Rocky Mountains and Appalachian Mountains, where the same type of forest exits. We had a big invasion of them in the ‘70s, when almost everyone had them at their feeders. They have nested several times at Genesee. One year I had young at our feeder that could barely fly, so they must have nested somewhere very nearby. Another time a nest was found on the Christmas bird count. This nest had four eggs in mid-December, which hatched into small naked young. The female brooded these birds until they developed enough feathers to keep them warm, while the male fed both the female and the young. Unfortunately, this nest was blown from the tree one night, and all of the young were lost. On the same night, the weather station on Squaw Mountain registered winds at 75 mph before the anemometer was blown away.

As we predicted a few weeks ago, red crossbills have begun to appear in the area. These erratic wanderers are apt to appear, and sometimes nest, any month of the year wherever there is a good cone crop. Helen Swem reported a small flock of 10 or so at her feeders west of Evergreen.

We first knew crossbills from the mountains in the east, where we saw them in Maine, the Adirondacks and the Great Smokey Mountains. They are known by their large, curved, crossed mandibles. This makes it possible for them to slip the tips of their beak between the scales of a pinecone, hook the seed and bring it up out of the cone. They have now subdivided crossbills into some eight different forms or races that occur across Canada from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. There is considerable pressure from scientists to see these divisions recognized as separate species. However, that has not been done yet.

The races vary by size and color and by the length and curvature of the bill. Most male crossbills appear to be a dark brick red with a vermillion rump, but in good bright sunlight they may appear to be a brilliant strawberry red. The immature and females are a yellowish olive green. Both males and females have the hooked crossed beaks, but the bills of the nestlings are not crossed until they fly and begin to feed on their own. This makes the streaked brown young birds difficult to identify, for they look much like a sparrow, as indeed they should, for they are both in the big finch family. Another interesting bird showed up in Evergreen about three weeks ago. Seen first at the Swem feeder in Evergreen west, it then appeared next door at the Inman feeder. A curve-billed thrasher is more of a desert bird, found from southern Colorado southward. We saw one along Route 25 just north of Colorado Springs several years ago, but there was at least a few cholla cactus growing there to make it feel more at home. For one to be in the spruce fir forest west of Evergreen seems preposterous, but perhaps it was blown in by a front from the deserts to the west. At any rate, it seems to have found two well-stocked feeders and may just spend the winter if it is not too cold.