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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Where are the Warblers? Here's How to Find Them.

Black-throated Green Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Kentucky Warbler
Cerulean Warbler, male
eBird map for locations now of Black-throated Green Warblers

Where are the warblers? Black-throated Green Warblers are now making it into the northeastern quadrant of the country according to the eBird map, while other warblers are just arriving in the South. You can track the warblers by looking up where they are being seen on eBird. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

My Magical Red Crossbill Experience

 Montague Magic part 1: Harry Potter

There's magic, then there's Harry Potter kind of magic, and that's what I experienced Saturday when I met "the Crossbill Guy" surrounded by Red Crossbills. A five-part serialization this week unfolds my magical experience, introduces you to the most mysterious finch of all, and has some unique photos.
Even though you want to see Red Crossbills, you may not. Crossbills have many mysteries. Because of their gypsy lifestyle, they move around. However, on cue, the magic started the moment I stepped out of the car on Saturday, April 17, 2021, at Montague Plains, MA, greeted Red Crossbill expert, Matt Young, for the first time in person and had crossbills descend around me, my husband, and Matt. We had crossbills everywhere, at eye level in the Pitch Pines, on the ground, and one landed in a puddle a foot from Matt's tire and stared right at us. It was as if they were inviting us to the crossbill party and, for the photographer, me, dream photo ops. The party continued, more magic happened, cookies were involved, and it ended with crazy pajamas.

Red Crossbill, male

Red Crossbill, male

Don, Lillian, Matt

Montague Magic Part 2: True Grit

As a former psychiatric social worker, I am deeply aware of birding's powerful benefits on a mental, emotional, and even spiritual level. So it was a given that I ((like many of you) should turn to birds during this Covid pandemic to find anchorage in the crises. I love all birds and have written 35 books connecting people to birds and nature. What I didn't know was how much Red Crossbills were to influence me. It started in a parking lot and was all about grit.
My Red Crossbill journey began on August 7th, 2020, when a good friend alerted me that a flock of 17 (eventually growing to 40) Red Crossbills were coming to the dirt parking lot of a nearby nature center each morning for grit which helps them process their food. Crossbills mostly eat conifer seeds with their uniquely specialized crossed bill, a tool worthy of a spot in Bob Villa's toolbox. The next morning, fast as a racehorse at the Kentucky Derby, I was on my way to view the crossbills. Over the next month, these crossbills lured me in deeper as I studied, photographed, and importantly, recorded them, bonding with the Red Crossbill flock. Crossbills live in 10 different social groups or tribes in core areas, each tribe defined by a unique flight call, decoded only by experts. Deciphering a flight call can tell you a crossbill's origin. I sent my recordings to Matt Young, a top expert on identifying Red Crossbill recordings to call type, and found I had recorded Type 1, 2, 3, and 10. I then did an article for my nature center on my parking lot crossbills in collaboration with Matt. Since then, I have had many extraordinary encounters with Red Crossbills and the other irruptive finches in this epic finch superflight year. Now I was at Montague, a crossbill mecca. Why were the crossbills here, and why now?

Red Crossbill male, flying off perch

Red Crossbill, male

Red Crossbill, female

Montague Magic part 3: The Mystery Deepens

I stood at Montague in awe of the Red Crossbills. An iconic bird, they are the most mysterious finch of all, possessing a unique bill, a private language, and systematics in flux that defies categorization. Tied to conifer seeds as their lifeblood, their gypsy lifestyle, guided by genetic knowingness, will lead them to survival in times of seed shortage. Uniquely of the 10,000 bird species on earth, Red Crossbills, and only four other crossbill species, have a bill that crosses. Forged on the anvil of evolution with the precision of a Swiss Army knife, the bill is designed to force the seed from an unyielding conifer cone, especially a closed one.
Extraction begins with the Red Crossbill holding a closed cone in the foot on the opposite side from where the lower bill crosses the upper, like a dance move from the Argentine Tango. The powerful bill, tips strengthened by curvature, is bite-like inserted into the scales of a closed cone. In a thrusting outward motion of the lower bill, the scales are spread; if not far enough, deeper thrusting and spreading continue until the bounty surrenders to the crossbills tongue. Then the tongue lifts the seed, securing it in a cradling groove in the upper palate, while the lower bill undresses the seed from its seed coat to become crossbill DNA. Organism, food, predator, and prey, we are one. The dance of co-evolutionary forces dictates morphology and shapes a species' destiny.
Many of the Red Crossbills that bred in winter and spring 2020 in the Maritimes and Northeast moved into southern parts of New England and the Northeast in summer and early fall, taking advantage of the White Pine extraordinary, generational cone crop. Once the pine cones opened and dropped, Red Crossbills moved elsewhere, searching for conifer cones that still retained their seed. Some crossbills were here because Montague Plains, with its large acreage of Pitch Pines and cones with seeds, provided a haven for these crossbills in a time of food scarcity. But would they stay and even breed?

Red Crossbill, male

Red Crossbill, female

Red Crossbill with seed on its tongue

Montague Magic Part 4: Brown Sugar

When you go to a crossbill party, what do you bring? Cookies, of course, and my secret ingredient was dark brown sugar (recipe at the end of the post). Because what's even better than doing one of your favorite things is doing two of your favorite things at the same time, watching Red Crossbills and eating chocolate chip cookies! And I was with two guys whose favorite cookies were chocolate chip (mine too).
Hoping the crossbills would be waiting, I baked the cookies, put them in a party box, and set off. With somewhat luck and somewhat the pixie dust magnet of two loxiafiles (crossbill lovers, the name for Red Crossbill is Loxia curvirostra), the crossbills arrived on cue the moment I stepped out of the car. Large bags of chocolate cup cookies were distributed, crossbills were celebrated, and we were practically never without crossbills the whole time we were there as they flew over, called, and landed for photos. I often noticed a male and female in very close contact? Were these pairs?
Crossbills are strongly monogamous, and birds of a specific call type appear to mate with birds of their own flight call type, choosing them from their feeding flock. Birds initially choose mates whose calls are slightly different from their own but within the range of their social group or tribe. Since young crossbills in the nest imitate and learn the contact flight calls of their parents, choosing a mate with a slightly different flight call indicating it came from other parents could help mates prevent inbreeding.
Interestingly, mated pairs develop very similar sounding contact calls the longer they remain together, even heard when non-breeding. It's as though they create their own private language within an already secret tribal language. Maintaining their pair bond at all times would be a significant advantage to kick-start breeding. If you're a crossbill and you already know how your mate takes their coffee, when conditions are right, you can hit the ground running, ready to make baby crossbills.
Would the Montague Red Crossbills I was watching remain and breed? While crossbills can breed any time of year, they mainly breed in late summer through early autumn or late winter into early spring, provided they can find a sufficiently rich conifer seed crop. From the flight calls of the birds flying over, Matt identified they were primarily Type 10s but also heard a small flock of Type 2s. Type 2 Red Crossbills are most common in the Ponderosa Pine forests of the West. Moderately irruptive, they can occur nearly anywhere. Some might return to their core area to breed.
Type 10 Red Crossbills can occur in the coastal Pacific Northwest of California to central Oregon. Likely though, the Type 10s here bred in northern New England and the Maritimes and moved into southern New England seeking the large White Pine crop, which since has become depleted. A local man said that crossbills had nested the last two summers in the Montague area, so fingers are crossed that I may see them breed here.
Epilogue: Our large bags of chocolate chip cookies never made it home. They were entirely eaten. After we got home, I fell asleep on the couch for a bit, and when I woke up, I realized I had dreamed I was in pajamas covered with a pattern of little green conifers and Red Crossbills all over them! Maybe the result of too many cookies, but not a bad idea for the L.L. Bean catalog.
Coming tomorrow, Montague Magic Part 5: Lillian's Way
Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed DARK brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups (12-ounce package) NESTLÉ® TOLL HOUSE® Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels
1 cup chopped nuts (Optional. If omitting, add 1 to 2 Tbsp. of all-purpose flour.) I did not add nuts.
Preheat oven to 375° F.
Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, dark brown sugar, and vanilla extract in a large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.
Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.
Go find Red Crossbills
Red Crossbill pair, female, l., male, r.

Red Crossbill pair

Chocolate Chip cookies fresh from the oven

Party box with cookies

Montague Magic part 5: Lillian's Way

I have introduced you to mystical Red Crossbills whose mysteries remain. Red Crossbills in North America are comprised of ten ecomorphs (species that live in the same ecological habitat with the same needs having the same morphology and behavior). They live in social groups or tribes, identified by their flight call type, and these tribes do not neatly fit into the category of separate species.
While crossbill types can interbreed, they rarely do. They are nomadic and can wander widely, sometimes coming into contact with other call types, which presents interaction opportunities. But they don't; call types do not generally respond to different call types. They stay with their own. In most cases, for example, when a Red Crossbill Type 2 meets a Type 10, like a reject on it's as though it says, "you're just not my type."
Recently though, one type of Red Crossbill was recognized as a separate species. The Cassia Crossbill is sedentary and lives in only a small Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine area in the South Hills and Albion Mountains in southern Idaho. This species almost always breeds with its own type, and genetic studies discovered it is distinct from other call types. The American Ornithological Society gave it species status in 2017.
What about the other call types? Are they separate species? While these call types usually breed with their own call type, they are not sedentary in one area and live in an adaptive landscape of a diversity of conifers. Aways in motion, their wagon is hitched to the stars of conifer crop abundance, tied to the life survival dance as the obligate species they are. Crossbills speciation is in suspended animation, as slow as tai chi, leaving science to determine the outcome of the dance.
Red Crossbills are one step ahead of our science and leave us standing on the edge of the cliff of our knowledge and soar out past our unknown and into their knowingness. Sometimes they are symbolic of a spiritual connection, a spark that takes you on a different course and can even be transforming. I have become deeply connected with Red Crossbills but also care about the other irruptive finches. In this finch superflight year 2020-2021, I have seen all 8 of the irruptive species, Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, Evening Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak, Common Redpoll, Hoary Redpoll, White-winged Crossbill, Red Crossbill, and had some riveting experiences.
When I left Montague last weekend, I passed a sign that said Lillian's Way, then shortly a sign that said Cross St. It reminds me that we are at a crossroads. With climate change looming, we need to continually make the case to educate the public about caring for and conserving birds. All of the finches are amazing birds. Conservation issues and many mysteries are remaining, even with the highly popular American Goldfinch. Someone needs to speak for the finches as well as other species. Stay tuned for more to come in the future. Follow me on facebook

Red Crossbill, male in flight

Street sign nearby

Friday, April 16, 2021

Pine Siskin, Part of the Epic Finch 2020-2021 Superflight, at our Feeders in Nor'easter

Pine Siskin, top

A Pine Siskin, along with the American Goldfinch flock, has found our feeders during the nor'easter snowstorm hitting NH now. This irruptive Pine Siskin finch has been part of the legendary, epic, finch superflight of 2020-2021, defined as when all 8 irruptive finches: Pine Siskin, Red Crossbill, White-winged Crossbill, Common Redpoll, Hoary Redpoll, Evening Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak, Purple Finch flee their northern home because of a food shortage. If you have seen irruptive finches this winter you are a witness to the superflight, congrats.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Red Crossbills are still in New England, will they stay to breed?

Red Crossbill, male
Red Crossbill, female

eBird map showing Red Crossbill locations now.
Dreaming of Red Crossbills, it's what I do. They are still being seen in scattered locations in the Northeast and other areas of the country. Lots of Type 10s entered the northeast from the Maritimes and upper northeast to feed on the white pine cone crop which was historic but now the crop has been depleted. Some moved south but some may stay and breed in areas of prime food availability. There are still areas of Pitch Pines and Japanese Black PInes that are attracting crossbills now.


Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Pine Warblers Return!

heard a familiar trill recently here in NH, and said "welcome back!" A Pine Warbler was singing in, you guessed it, our grove of white pine trees. Every day is like Christmas this time of year with exciting migrants returning. (photo from another time)

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Belted Kingfishers have returned to NH, Welcome!


They're back!! The new arrival is a Belted Kingfisher. This is an exciting time of year as migrants return. Welcome!

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Red Crossbills, Easter Magic

 When you have a deep and meaningful experience with birds it's magical. My Easter gift was I got to spend an hour with a flock of Red Crossbills watching the intimate details of their life as they drank from puddles, ate, watched for danger, did sweet subsong, and constantly communicated with their jip-jip call notes. Their crossed bill is perfectly adapted for extracting conifer seeds from closed or open cones. In the third photo, you can see where the crossbill had inserted its bill into a Pitch Pine cone and deftly extracted a seed. You can see the seed in its seed coat on the tip of the crossbill’s tongue. It will then cradle the seed with its tongue in a special groove in its upper palate, then remove the seed from its coat and swallow it, yum.

Red Crossbill male

  Red Crossbill female

                                                        Red Crossbill with seed on its tongue

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Northern Flickers Have Returned

New arrivals after a recent rainstorm, two Northern Flickers were in our field. This is the female of the Yellow-shafted subspecies group, the male of that group would have a black moustache line. One of my favorite views of flickers we see here is the red V on their nape.