Coastal Crossbills

Crossbills are finches with specialized offset bills that excel at harvesting the seeds of various conifers.  While not common in New England most years, White-winged and Red Crossbills have been seen in decent numbers locally over the past few months.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to encounter both species in Westport, MA. The first flock I saw were White-winged Crossbills hanging out in short pine trees near the gate to the causeway of Gooseberry Neck. Here are a few photos I was able to take:

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While watching the White-winged Crossbills, I overheard another group of birders who mentioned seeing Red Crossbills just down the road at the Horseneck Beach State Reservation Campground. Within minutes, the group I was with drove to the campground and parked outside the entrance gate.  After walking into the summer parking area, I picked up on some finchy sounds coming from nearby pines. Circling around them (to get the sun to my back), I was able to identify the chatty flock as Red Crossbills. They hung around long enough for me to take some close-up photos and to record some audio.

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It turns out that Red Crossbills can be separated into numerous types (see eBird article: Red Crossbill Types), but identification to type in the field can be tricky. Using a short audio sample that I recorded at the campground, Matt Young at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was able to conclude that both type 3 and type 10 birds were present. Both types typically breed on the west coast, but are known to wander widely during irruptive years (which certainly includes 2012).  Some or all of the types may be split into separate species someday, but that remains to be seen.

Here's the audio clip and accompanying spectrogram (which is a sort of visual representation of the sounds) of Red Crossbill call notes (Type 10 followed by Type 3):

 

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It may be off-season for New England campers and beach-goers, but it is certainly in-season for Crossbills visiting from afar.  I hope you get to see some this winter -- there is no telling how many years will pass before they visit the region again.

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