For the Birds: Crossbills worth the chase

Photo by Chris Bosak A red-winged crossbill eats seeds from a cone at Hammonasset State Park, February 2021.

I’m usually not one to chase birds. Over the years, I have made a few exceptions when the bird is not terribly far away.

By “chasing birds” I mean getting in your car and driving to where a rare bird has been spotted. Some people love chasing birds and will drive hours to see the rarity, which is perfectly fine if that is their thing. It just has never been my thing. It makes sense that chasing birds and listing birds go hand in hand. If you are a big lister, then you are probably a chaser. If you are not a big lister, which I am not, then you are probably not a big chaser. The only list I half-heartedly keep is a yard list, and there is no need for chasing with a yard list.

I do, however, like to photograph birds and it is always exciting to add a photo of a new bird. That has been the driving force behind the few times I have chased birds. Last weekend was one of those occurrences. I had been reading about a flock of relatively tame red crossbills that had been seen daily about an hour from my house.

I was up early one weekend morning, so I decided to take a little drive. I figured it was a better use of my time than lying in bed trying in vain to fall back asleep.

I arrived at the park’s parking lot to see a large group of birders standing on a boardwalk. Many had big, fancy cameras on sturdy tripods, others had smaller cameras slung around their necks, and some had only binoculars. It was obvious that they were all there to see the crossbills. At least I didn’t have to go looking for the birds, I thought.

On the way to the boardwalk I was distracted by a flock of horned larks in an open area. I stopped and grabbed a few photos of these birds before heading over to the boardwalk. As I took a few steps toward the boardwalk, I saw a flock of small birds flying out of the spruce tree near the birders. Oh no, there go the crossbills, I thought. Thankfully, they didn’t go far and settled into another evergreen about 30 yards away. I followed the crowd of birders to a spot near, but not too near, the tree in which the birds had settled.

I watched as several male and female crossbills of various ages and plumage variations moved around the tree to find cones. Crossbills get their name because their bills are crossed at the tips, which makes it easier for them to access the seeds inside tough spruce and pine cones. I could hear them scrape the cones with their bills to get to the morsels inside.

About 20 minutes later, the flock moved over to another tree, this time closer to the parking lot. Again, the crowd of birdwatchers followed these tiny celebrities and kept a respectable distance away from the birds.

The birds flew off again about 10 minutes later. This time, I did not follow the crowd but rather got back into my truck and headed home. The photos I got were rather disappointing, but I’m happy I made the trip anyway. I have always been fascinated by crossbills and was happy to get to see them. I did manage to get a few nice photos of the larks, however.

Red crossbills are a northern bird that sometimes irrupt into New England and farther south following available food sources. In this winter of irruptions, I guess it’s not surprising that crossbills are in the move.