How to find crossbills

As spring gets going here in the Cairngorms National Park, I’m starting to ask myself ‘what are the crossbills up to?’ March, April and May can be quite productive months if you want to find crossbills and here I will share some general tips I’ve learned over years of wildlife guiding.

crossbill habitat

Springtime in extensive, open Scots pine forest – ideal crossbill territory.

Crossbills are very early breeders

Because they are well into breeding in March, don’t expect to see big flocks or noisy family groups until early April (depending on the weather that year). In March, parent crossbill’s main activity comprises keeping the eggs and young warm (you still get cold days and nights in March – and potentially heavy snow!) and locating enough food. As soon as the young fledge, there will physically be more individuals flying, the young will be calling for food and the parents will be busy following each other to find it. If you want to more easily find crossbills, get looking during spring.

find crossbills - fledgeling

The heavy streaking on the chest identifies this as a fledgling crossbill.

To find crossbills, learn their calls and song

One thing that stands out to me about all crossbill species is how noisy they are! OK, I should probably qualify that. There are certainly times when I have found myself stood under a Scots pine that is positively jumping with the things and all I can hear is the soft, quiet ‘chup, chup’ contact call and the constant rustle of falling pine cone shrapnel. If you’re not alert, you can actually walk right past a dozen of them! At other times, when they are trying to locate a source of good pine cones, they travel in large family groups, following each other with incessant ‘chip’, ‘chup’ or ‘choop’ contact calls. And I’ve even heard the males making these wonderful toy-trumpet type hoots, or a soft tinkly and whistly advertising song, deep in the forest. In the field, an experienced birder will often find crossbills solely on their call. When you discover a family of half a dozen sounding like this (with begging younsters too), it’s great. When you are overflown by several dozen hungry and excited sounding individuals, that’s pretty cool. Being sociable finches, they communicate a great deal with each other, but do learn the difference between a chaffinch’s ‘chirp’ and crossbill’s ‘chup’. Otherwise you could end up getting embarrassed or frustrated, or both! This is a great online resource for bird calls: Xeno-Canto Bird Calls website.

Good crossbill habitat includes fresh water pools or streams

There are a number of really good biological and ecological reasons for this, which I will go into some other time. For now though, if the weather has been warm and sunny in spring and you find a clear pool in good pine forest, keep your ears (and eyes) open; you will find crossbills are thirsty beasts.

This crossbill perched in a sycamore tree because he was waiting to go to the puddle below.

This crossbill perched in a sycamore tree because he was waiting to go to the puddle below.

Find pinecones and you’ll find crossbills (eventually)

Since their diet is almost entirely seeds from cones, it’s clear that finding productive trees will help you find crossbills. And there lies the difficulty. Individual conifer trees tend to go through cycles of cone productivity – sometimes good, other times poor. Crossbills feed on a variety of cone bearing trees, so Scots pine, larch, spruce and fir species are all worth checking (although they do have favourites). But, warm and sunny weather tends to open the cones, which then drop their seeds, making them a poor choice for food. For the purposes of this article, let’s just say there’s a good chance of finding either Scottish or Parrot crossbills in Scots pine forest, perhaps with a smattering of European Larch. With that in mind, familiarise yourself with how crossbills feed on pine cones.

When they are finished, the cones tend to appear soft, mangled, ripped and shredded – and often reddish in colour because they have been freshly ‘crossbilled’. We often find crossbills by the debris they leave behind!

Telescope and a good viewpoint

You often hear ’em before you see ’em. But if you’re in forest so thick you cannot see further than a few metres, that’s all you might get – the sound of them flying overhead. To find crossbills, your field of view as well as hearing will be crucial. Get into places with a wide, open view so you can see them coming (or at least going 🙂 ). Remember, they are mobile and tend to move together from treetop to treetop (and from forest to forest and, lets face it, from country to country in the case of irruption years!). Here on my home patch in the Cairngorms National Park, we have all three UK breeding species, but many visiting birdwatchers are specifically hoping to find Parrot (Loxia pytyopstittacus) and/or Scottish crossbill (Loxia scotica). So when they do land, a telescope, decent guidebook (eg: Collins Bird Guide ) and an experienced wildlife guide can ensure you have a chance of correctly identifying the crossbill species (I plan to post an article on correctly identifying crossbills soon!).

This American group put up with a lot of rain before getting great views of Scottish crossbills feeding right above the path (see the 'scope on the left)

This American group put up with a lot of rain before getting great telescope views of Scottish crossbills feeding right above the path. I took this picture right at that moment

Persevere…and hire a good wildlife guide!

I’ve spent days looking for crossbills. On one memorable occasion, with a German group, our only sighting was actually the last bird we saw, posing in a tree right above the van, as we got ready to drive back to the airport! They are unpredictable and can be very frustrating. But they are fantastic when you do connect with them. They can be remarkably confiding – you sometimes find crossbills just quietly nibbling on cones, only a few meters away with the occasional glance in your direction. Consider booking a guided wildlife day or two with Arc Guiding to maximise your chances of seeing these brilliant birds.

Have you seen any yourself recently? Or do you plan on going looking? Let me know in the comments, Facebook or Twitter.

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