Happy Birthday Project FeederWatch

It’s mid-November and once again I‘m engaged in Project FeederWatch, keeping a record of the number and species of birds visiting my back porch feeder area. As a veteran of this citizen science project started by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, both they and I are celebrating our 30th year engaged in this unique program.

A male northern cardinal (Photo by Torindkfit in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A male northern cardinal (Photo by Torindkfit in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

The rewards have been enormous. Not only have I seen as many as 22 bird species at the feeders during the cold, snowy winter of 2014-15, but I have also observed interactions between small mammals and birds fighting for seeds on the ground. Although last winter, which was unusually warm, was not an exciting year for my feeder-watching, other wildlife observations while feeder watching added to my enjoyment.

This morning, for instance, shortly after 7:00, while glancing out at the feeder birds on the two tube feeders hanging from our back porch, I spot an eight-point buck walking to the edge of the woods and making or, more likely, freshening a scrape, pulling down a branch repeatedly with his mouth to leave his scent and then pawing the ground beneath.

Three does foraging at the edge of the woods (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Three does foraging at the edge of the woods (Photo by Dave Bonta)

Only a few yards from the buck, I see one, two, and finally three does foraging at the border between the woods and the flat area. I think I might see chasing and breeding, but he seems to sense that they are not yet in estrus.

When eight mourning doves feeding on the ground below the back porch steps suddenly take fright and fly, probably because they can see me standing at the kitchen door window staring out at the deer, the buck flees too. The does, though, continue eating placidly with no visible reaction to the buck’s retreat.

An American tree sparrow

An American tree sparrow (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Week after week last winter I entered the same bird numbers and species, sometimes seeing as few as 11 species during my weekly, two-day count. But field work often consists of persistence with now and then a breakthrough. Mine came last February 16, when I recorded 18 American tree sparrows on the feeders and ground below, followed on March 3 by 21 tree sparrows. In previous winters my number of these sparrows hovered in the low single digits, and I couldn’t account for so many of these birds.

When the annual Project FeederWatch (PFW) report for the top 25 bird species from 6,498 sites in the northeast was issued, the American tree sparrow was 24th on the list, reported at 36% of sites, and the average flock size was three! All my other feeder birds—black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco, mourning dove, blue jay, northern cardinal, American goldfinch, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse, song and white-throated sparrows and Carolina wren were much higher on the list.

A dark-eyed junco

A dark-eyed junco (Photo by CheepShot in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Chickadee was first at 97% of sites, but that included both Carolina and black-capped chickadees, so dark-eyed junco, second on the list at 94% of sites, continued to be the most common feeder species. The flock size for juncos averaged four, but I’ve counted between 60 and 80 most years.

When I report those numbers, they are flagged during my online reporting as a result of a “smart filter” system the Cornell Lab has developed to root out mistaken observations. Species not usually seen in the area or high counts of a species are questioned. An error message pops up, and I am asked to confirm my number. Then when I do, my report is forwarded for review by PFW staff and regional biologists. Had I reported a rare bird, they would have required more validation, including a description of the site and bird and a photograph, if possible.

Because PFW data is being used by more and more researchers, they had to develop a reporting system that would increase both researchers’ and participants’ confidence in the resulting data. They tested their new “smart filter” system during the three winter seasons of November 2007-April 2010, flagging 50,104 PFW submissions out of a total of 3,924,088 or 1.3%, and reviewers approved 97.7% because a rare species had been confirmed in that region or, in my case, because large flocks of a species occasionally occur here. As researchers concluded in a paper about validating PFW reports, “Our methods ensure that unexpected reports are subjected to expert scrutiny, resulting in a more accurate and reliable data set regardless of the user.”

A pine siskin

A pine siskin (Photo by Hvbirder in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

In contrast to last winter’s mild temperatures, the winter of 2014-15, which began late, was the coldest in decades. It was also a pine siskin invasion year. As they poured south from their boreal home grounds, we saw our first ones on November 9, 2014 when three dozen visited our feeder area. They must have headed farther south because our next siskin visitation happened on January 6, 2015. After that, it was every bird for itself and the mammals also, since pine siskins may be small, but they are feisty.

For example, on February 2, a cold, windy day, a sea of birds covered the ground when I threw out more birdseed in mid-afternoon. The siskins fought off all comers. Two on the large tube feeder fought with house finches and won. They scared off chickadees, tufted titmice, and each other as well as American goldfinches. The blizzard of birds, including siskins, continued through February and into a freezing March, with the siskins paying their last visit on March 30.

A black-capped chickadee

A black-capped chickadee (Photo by fishhawk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

According to a paper about boreal bird irruption, pine siskin irruptions may happen every other year but also may occur in consecutive years or at longer intervals. Using more than two million PFW pine siskin observations from 1989-2012, researchers studied the patterns of pine siskin irruptions from their Canadian boreal homes where they eat conifer seeds to the high elevation Adirondack and Appalachian Mountains.

They concluded that a wet spring in the boreal region leads to a small seed crop, but a dry spring in the Appalachian region leads to a large seed crop. If the winter air temperature is also unusually cold in the boreal region, which even stresses these cold-adapted birds, they will irrupt south where the seed crop is plentiful. “This study,” they write, “is the first…to reveal how climate variability drives irruptions of North America boreal seed-eating birds.”

Tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse (Photo by Cindy Sue Causey on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Using PFW data to track changes in winter bird communities has been useful in studying climate change in our backyards according to Karine Prince and Benjamin Zuckerberg. They maintain that since the 1970s, North America’s climate has been changing especially during the winter season with less and shorter snow cover and more variable and heavy precipitation.

Choosing 38 bird species that winter in eastern North America, they tested the influence of changes in winter minimum temperatures over 22 years and found that the winter bird communities became increasingly dominated by warm-adapted species such as mourning doves, Carolina wrens, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds and dark-eyed juncos, which moved northward about 4.2 miles a year.

Pine warbler

Pine warbler (Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Last winter PFW also received several reports of pine warblers as far north as Nova Scotia and growing numbers of hermit thrushes at northeastern feeders visiting two to four percent of sites.

The latest addition to PFW studies is a plea for us to report bird interactions at feeders. They began this project late last season and received 1,994 observations from 200 feeder watchers. Most were of one bird displacing another, 37 of one bird catching and eating another, and 23 of one bird mobbing another. Usually larger birds displaced smaller ones but sometimes smaller birds turned the tables with house finches displacing cardinals and downy woodpeckers displacing mourning doves.

A house finch

A house finch (Photo by Lee Coursey on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I see many interactions a year, especially the winter of 2014-15. Some are harmonious such as the early January morning when a cottontail rabbit, a gray squirrel and juncos, white-throats, a tree sparrow, two song sparrows and a cardinal pair fed together on the porch and steps. Later they were joined by house finches, and goldfinches. Chickadees, titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches appeared and competed with goldfinches and house finches on the hanging feeders. Mourning doves flew in and out, as many as ten at a time, and a red-bellied woodpecker made several hurried appearances.

But our peaceable kingdom dissolved during a snowstorm two weeks later when four squirrels, the rabbit and 13 mourning doves pushed the small birds from the covered porch floor where I had spread birdseed. Then the birds that only eat from the feeders arrived—nine goldfinches, a couple chickadees and three house finches but goldfinches even displaced the house finches. A pair of cardinals sidled in and scared off as did a female red-bellied woodpecker.

Thus, instead of merely counting and recording my feeder birds I can contribute my observations of such interactions to PFW and help them learn more about what drives the interactions of feeder birds.

Happy 30th birthday Project FeederWatch, and may we celebrate many more birthdays together! A two-minute YouTube video provides an effective introduction to Project Feederwatch.

The 114th Christmas Bird Count

Carolina Wrens by Dave Bonta

The Carolina wren pair that hung around the house in the winter of 2013-14

Last December I watched as day after day brought cold temperatures and more snow. We were expecting our son Dave’s English girlfriend, Rachel Rawlins, and her 14-year-old son, Alex, for the holidays, and Dave had already polished the sled runners.

Rachel, who lives in London, is interested in birds and arranged her schedule so she could be here for our Christmas Bird Count on December 21. It was the 114th CBC, as it’s fondly called, and is the longest running citizen science survey in the world.

Frank Chapman started the CBC back in 1900 to counter the competitive Christmas Side Hunt. On Christmas day folks chose sides, went out, and shot all the feathered and furred quarry they could find, and the team that killed the most won the competition. Chapman rounded up 17 birdwatchers from Pennsylvania to California, and suggested that they count birds instead of killing them. On that first count, five of the 25 CBCs took place in eastern Pennsylvania.

From that humble beginning, the CBC is now continent-wide with over 2300 count circles 15 miles in diameter. Ours is centered on a tiny crossroads in Sinking Valley called Culp. It includes our mountaintop property where we’ve been counting since 1979. For a long time I and one of our two birding sons—Steve or Mark—counted here. When they left home, I soldiered on alone, but a few years ago, Carl and Kurt Engstrom volunteered to cover the steep Sapsucker Ridge portion of our mountain while I covered the somewhat easier Laurel Ridge portion.

Recently, Steve and Mark moved back to the area, and Steve is now the CBC coordinator for the Juniata Valley Audubon Society count circle and is assisted by Mark. Determined to get total coverage of our circle, they have been going down to the valley to places that other members of our group are not able to count.

Rachel sunbathing on the Guest House porch

Rachel sunbathing on the Guest House porch

I figured Rachel and I would have a lovely slog through the snow, but after she and Alex had an invigorating time sledding on the 19th, they watched with us as the mountain turned from white to mostly brown under all night thaws and daytime temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit. Then rain and mist fell the evening before our CBC and into the early morning with dire predictions for the rest of the day.

The Engstroms set out by 8:00 a.m. after Carl reported four eastern bluebirds on our electric wires near the bluebird box and helped to count the meager number of feeder birds—a disappointing contrast to the huge numbers when we had seven inches of snow on the ground and temperatures had ranged in the low teens.

Undeterred by the weather, Rachel and I donned raincoats. I also carried an umbrella and kept my new “waterproof” binoculars underneath my raincoat, which did not make it easy to spot birds quickly. My so-called waterproof boots leaked as usual. Rachel, on the other hand, insisted in her British way that “layers of wool” would keep her warm and dry as did her waterproof boots and wool hat. Still, when the first deluge of rain hit us, like a cold tropical downpour, she didn’t object to sharing my umbrella through the worst of it.

The spruce grove in winter

The spruce grove in winter

Her job was to write down the bird species and numbers while I called out the identifications. At first she didn’t have much to do. We headed up to the spruce grove where I was certain we would find birds. But the birds hadn’t sought refuge there. We did instead, hoping for a cessation of the pounding rain. As we waited, we peered down into the valleys that were white with fog. At least we were above that. Those folks birding there might not fare too well. But we weren’t faring very well either, having neither seen nor heard any bird, not even on the heifer carcass staked out to attract golden eagles in front of a trail cam behind the grove.

On we sloshed to the Far Field. Still nothing.

“Are you game for a longer hike,” I asked Rachel.

Of course she was. As a British citizen, she was used to rain. Lots of rain.

We threaded our way through the trail-less woods beyond the Far Field and finally saw a downy woodpecker and northern cardinal and heard a black-capped chickadee or two.

Red-tailed hawk with vole

Red-tailed hawk with vole

From the Second Thicket, also empty of birds, we took a steep trail halfway down the mountain, stepped over a rivulet, and followed another trail through a hollow I long ago named Ruffed Grouse Hollow because I had once counted 40 ruffed grouse there on a CBC back in the early eighties. Not on this one, though. But we did find a couple of blue jays, a red-bellied woodpecker, and more cardinals and chickadees. And we heard a red-tailed hawk. Or did we? Blue jays are excellent mimics of red-tails.

“Put a question mark beside it,” I told Rachel.

All the while it rained, sometimes hard, sometimes not so hard. My shoes and socks were thoroughly soaked, but I walked fast enough that they felt reasonably warm.

A couple of times we questioned ourselves. What were a 73- and 52-year-old woman doing in this mad quest to count birds? Having fun, we assured ourselves over and over.

At last we reached the hunting lodge, and Rachel photographed the antlers hung on its back outside wall, especially one that held an old robin’s nest in its tines. After that, we took our first rest under the shelter of the porch and watched the rain. I had hoped that the hunters might have put some feeders of deer suet in their yard as they had the last time I had been there on a CBC. Then, I had been alone and in the midst of a snowstorm. But this time there was no suet or birds.

Maybe there would be birds in their autumn olive hedgerow or their cultivated fields. Nothing!

The antler nest (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

The antler nest (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Back into the forest we went in search of the upper trail. And then, at 11:00 a.m., our luck changed. A red-tail flew over even as blue jays scolded.

“Count that red-tail,” I told Rachel. “It’s probably the same one we heard earlier.”

We saw a few more chickadees, downies, and cardinals. Then we plunged into an overgrown area in search of another trail heading back toward the Second Thicket. As I floundered around, Rachel said, “Look.” She pointed up at a cluster of black birches with fruiting catkins that were twittering with American goldfinches. I counted and re-counted and searched in vain for a pine siskin. After numerous counts, I settled on 29.

Just like that we were on a minor roll. Two golden-crowned kinglets answered my pishing and not Rachel’s trilling birdsong, which was her British equivalent of our pishing. I had been hoping for kinglets and was grateful.

“Maybe we’ll see a brown creeper,” I said. “It’s difficult to tell their call from a kinglet’s.”

“Look,” Rachel said once again, this time with considerable excitement in her voice, and she described the location of what resembled the Eurasian treecreeper. Sure enough, it was a brown creeper scuttling up a tree trunk like a tree-borne mouse.

Brown Creeper by Kelly Colgan Azar

Brown Creeper (photo by Kelly Colgan Azar [license])

That ended our short bird rally, although we did add still more chickadees, downies, cardinals, and three tufted titmice to our list, all birds we could have counted at our bird feeders. I did locate one hairy woodpecker in our forest, but after five hours and four miles of slogging through the rain, we had counted a mere 11 species. We also spotted one of the bluebirds Carl had seen earlier as we approached our yard, and with other species at our feeders—white-throated, song and American tree sparrows, mourning doves, slate-colored juncos, house finches, white-breasted nuthatches, and Carolina wrens—we had a grand total of 19 species.

Marcia at the Second Thicket, 2013 CBC (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Marcia at the Second Thicket, 2013 CBC (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Later, at the bird count dinner, no one had done much better, although Carl and Kurt had found one hermit thrush amid the grape tangles on Sapsucker Ridge and our sons Steve and Mark had spotted a rusty blackbird in a large flock of European starlings and brown-headed cowbirds down in the valley. Even though we had dedicated counters, we had one of the worse counts ever—only 43 species in all.

In other sections of Pennsylvania on other days counters did better—155 species statewide with Southern Lancaster County’s 102 species the best count in the state. Still, we know that as citizen scientists, according to the Audubon website, our counting helps protect species and their habitat and has “allowed researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.” With the CBC and other bird counts, as well as other scientifically-based studies in whatever field a person might be interested in, we amateur naturalists can make a difference.


Photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

Year of the Sinking Valley Eagles

Bald eagle with fish by Ron Holmes-USFWS

Bald eagle holding a fish in its talons by Ron Holmes/USFWS (license)

I’m sitting on Alan’s Bench this breezy first day of November, watching for migrating raptors along our ridge top. Since we live on the westernmost ridge in the Ridge-and-Valley Province, I am up here most breezy autumn days.

Suddenly, a large bird flies past above Sapsucker Ridge. It’s a mature bald eagle.

The next day I’m at the same place, but it’s mid-afternoon instead of late morning. Another mature bald eagle flies high and slowly above Sapsucker Ridge. Two bald eagles in as many days seem like a good omen. I wonder if they are migrating or local birds.

Then, on the 30th of January, my husband Bruce and I, along with an enthusiastic young birder, Michael David, who is working on his year-long, Blair County bird list, set out on our Winter Raptor Survey in Sinking Valley. Our mountain, locally known as Brush Mountain, almost entirely encircles this rural valley. Partly farmed by Amish and mostly by English, its rolling fields are open to the winds of January.

We’ve picked a cold (five degrees) but clear day for our count. Ever since Greg Grove started this count, back in 2001, we’ve driven the same route that Bruce mapped out after studying the back roads that wander through Sinking Valley.

It’s a slow day at first for raptors, but Michael points out American robins feeding on staghorn sumac berries and an American tree sparrow amid the dried grasses beside the road. I later spot a pileated woodpecker in a small patch of woodland. We are looking for American kestrels on telephone wires, but all we turn up are mourning doves. On a large farm field in the middle of the valley, we count 26 horned larks so close to the road that we see every marking on them.

Rusty blackbird by Nicole Beaulac

Rusty blackbird by Nicole Beaulac (license)

Near a stream next to a tree I notice a suspicious lump. It turns out to be a seated great blue heron. Just as we are musing over that strange sight, a golden eagle flies overhead. But mostly it’s a day for red-tailed hawks. On every tree line across a field are perched from one to a handful—26 by the end of our 32-mile, three hour, slow ride.

At one farm we stop to look at a large flock of brown-headed cowbirds because Michael thinks there may be a rusty blackbird among them. He gets out of the car and walks down the road to scan the flock which keeps flying ahead of him. I follow half-heartedly, knowing I’m not going to be able to pick out a rusty from the throng of cowbirds high in the trees.

Instead, I notice a huge tree far across a field. In it sits a large bird that looks as if it has a white head. It’s a mature bald eagle. Sitting on a branch above it is a second mature bald eagle. I’m excited and call Bruce, who’s been sitting patiently in the car, to bring our spotting scope for a better view. After several years of seeing one mature wintering bird eagle in the valley, I wonder if they are a pair and nesting somewhere nearby.

Back in 2011, when an Amish youngster who watches birds in his spare time first told us of a wintering bald eagle during our Winter Raptor Survey, I speculated about possible breeding. But I thought that because there was no river or lake nearby, bald eagles wouldn’t nest in a place without fish to eat.

A hard winter and late spring keeps me from returning to the valley until mid-May in search of fresh rhubarb and asparagus from Amish farmers. That’s when I learn that a pair of bald eagles is nesting on the other end of our mountain. My Amish friend has spent time watching them from afar across a steep, wooded ravine on State Gamelands #166.

Bald eagle family

Bald eagle family at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia by Bill Buchanan/USFWS (license)

They have two eaglets, he tells me, and once he saw a parent feed them a gray squirrel.

“It took them exactly 20 minutes to eat that squirrel,” he says.

Returning back across the valley on my usual circuitous route, I pass the tree where I had seen the eagles perching in January. One eagle sits in it. Later, when I take out maps and do the calculations, I realize that the tree is about one mile, as the crow flies, from the nest. I assume it is a favorite hunting area and learn from another resident that he had seen an eagle fly overhead with a rabbit in its talons.

According to Patti Barber, a biologist with the Game Commission’s Endangered and Nongame Bird Section, bald eagles are opportunists. In the winter they often live on carrion, and in Alaska even go into dumpsters. On the other hand, friends of mine who monitored three bald eagle nests in a nearby county saw them feed nothing but fish to the young, although they observed only four feedings. But once, in the middle of a road, they saw a bald eagle eating a dead woodchuck.

All of their nests were in very large white pine trees. Two were on steeply forested ridges and the third on a farm fence row. One was near a river, another near a lake, and the third near a small, wooded stream.

My Amish friend is amazed at the size of the nest.

“I once heard it described as like a Volkswagen upside down in a tree,” Barber says. “It’s the biggest nest of any bird in Pennsylvania.” And they continue to add to the nesting material every year they use it.

Bald eagle by  e_monk

Bald eagle by e_monk (licence)

The number of bald eagle nests in the state keeps climbing. When I contact Justin Vreeland, Wildlife Supervisor of the Game Commission’s South Central Region, he tells me that 15 new nests have been reported in his 12-county region this year, and that our nest is the second one for Blair County. The other one is on a heavily forested slope above the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River near Water Street.

Altogether, Vreeland knows of 70 nests in his region, but when he started working here in 2005, only 12 had been reported.

The number of bald eagle nests in the state continues to climb, Barber says. The 2014 mid-year inventory of nests was 254 in 59 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. But as Game Commission Director R. Matthew Hough said at that time, “The all-time high numbers illustrate Pennsylvania’s bald eagle population is better than ever. But these are only ones we know about. There are more.” And our nest is one of them.

At some point the state will reach a saturation number, but we’re nowhere near that, Barber tells me. For example, along the Susquehanna River in one area are two nests four miles apart. Then another pair nested between the two nests.

I have yet to see the Sinking Valley nest. My Amish friend tells me it’s a steep climb. But before I knew about this nest, we took our granddaughter Elanor to the Nature Center at Bald Eagle State Park in mid-April to watch a nest in a white pine tree halfway up a wooded mountain and across an arm of the lake from the Center. We set up our scope and had an excellent view of one parent sitting on the nest while the other flew low above the water in search of fish.

At a time when so much of the news about the natural world is dismal, the return of the bald eagle in Pennsylvania from three nests in 1983 to 254 and more to be counted in 2014 is a heartening story. If anyone would have told me when we moved here in 1971 that bald eagles would be nesting on our mountain, I wouldn’t have believed them.

Superflight

red-breasted nuthatch

red-breasted nuthatch (photo by Matt MacGillivray, Creative Commons Attribution licence)

It began with red-breasted nuthatches. In early August 2012, one of the largest irruptions of this northern species in living memory started with reports from counties in eastern Pennsylvania. By the end of November unprecedented numbers were recorded in all 67 counties in the state.

In late September the first purple finches arrived in Pennsylvania and 63 counties had them by late November. Common redpolls and pine siskins began appearing in early October, evening grosbeaks by the last week in October, and both white-winged and red crossbills in early November. Even a few hoary redpolls and a couple pine grosbeaks made an appearance.

With so many northern finch species moving south, birders called it a superflight, which happens only once every decade or so when food sources fail in the north, forcing most conifer seed-eating species to fly south for food. I was especially excited that red and white-winged crossbills were in Pennsylvania, because our son, Steve, had had the only sighting of white-winged crossbills on our property eating hemlock seeds here in the winter of 1985 when I was in Peru. And I had never seen red crossbills.

Now that our hemlocks are dying from woolly adelgids, we could only hope to see crossbills in our 38-year-old Norway spruce grove at the top of First Field. By the first of October several red-breasted nuthatches had already arrived there.

white-winged crossbill

white-winged crossbill (OwenMartin12, CC BY-NC)

Then, on November 15, I hiked to the spruce grove. Black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches foraged in the spruces at the base of the grove. But I heard an unfamiliar bird call and wandered through the grove searching for the source of it. Finally, I gave up, walked out of the grove and glanced back at the spruces one last time. At the top of a spruce two white-winged crossbills perched. They remained long enough for me to admire white wing bars on black wings, rosy pink breasts, heads, and backs, and even the crossed bills of two beautiful males. At last I had seen crossbills on our property.

Previously, in early November, I had had a male and then a female purple finch at our feeder area for more than a week as well as pine siskins for three days and, as it later turned out, they were the only pine siskins and purple finches to visit us during fall and winter. But already I had seen four irruptive species, and it was only mid-November.

Then a bout with Lyme disease, followed by a nasty virus, kept me inside for several weeks. It took time for me to regain my strength, and I was grateful when our Christmas Bird Count arrived on December 15, that Kurt Engstrom and his keen birder son Carl, came once again to help me. They covered the much longer and more difficult section on Sapsucker Ridge and up our road while I walked a mile and a half on Laurel Ridge.

In the spruce grove I searched for red-breasted nuthatches and white-winged crossbills, but the grove was silent. I was tired and sank down on Alan’s Bench to rest. After a short wait, I heard the call of a red-breasted nuthatch.

red crossbills

red crossbills in Long Branch, NJ (John Beetham, CC BY licence)

However, I did not recognize the call of another bird coming from the upper edge of the grove. I turned my head in that direction and spotted what appeared to be a dull-colored bird at the top of a spruce tree, continually calling, looking around, and flicking its forked tail. It had clouded over, making it difficult to distinguish any color on the bird. I kept studying it through my binoculars, and finally noticed that it had a crossed bill. When I pished, in an attempt to bring it closer, it flew away still calling.

I had listened to it for so long that the call was seared in my brain. After studying my bird guides, I was almost certain the bird had been a female red crossbill. Still, when Kurt and Carl returned, I told them what I had seen and heard. Carl didn’t say anything. He just started playing a series of calls on an Audubon Birds app on his iPod.

“That’s it,” I said.

“Number 3 type of red crossbill,” he answered. “Exactly the type of red crossbill that should be here,” he replied.

I was ecstatic. A new species—number 171—for our property and, as it turned out, the only crossbill reported on our Juniata Valley Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. My red-breasted nuthatch was also the only one on our count.

Red crossbills live throughout the northern regions and high mountains in Europe, Asia, North America, and even the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Here in North America ornithologists have teased out at least ten types of flight calls by red crossbills north of Mexico that some feel may be discrete species and others merely races or subspecies of red crossbills. Type 1, 2, and 10 calls were also heard in Pennsylvania, although type 3 was the most common. The calling of the lone red crossbill I saw may have been an effort to attract other red crossbills to a feeding source, according to some researchers.

Red crossbills prefer to feed on attached cones, using their feet and crossed bills like parrots to pry open the cones. Then they husk the seed coating by pressing a seed against the lateral groove opposite the side of the lower mandible tip with their tongue. Small seeds they swallow whole but crush large seeds in their bills before swallowing them.

white-winged crossbill (Jean-Guy Dallaire, CC BY-NC-ND)

Both white-winged and red crossbills have straight upper mandibles. Only the lower one curves, and while three-quarters of white-winged crossbills’ lower mandibles curve right and the other quarter left, red crossbills’ lower mandibles curve right half the time and left the other half.

Even though both crossbills eat conifer seeds, red crossbills prefer the cones of pines, including white, pitch, scrub, scotch, red, and even table mountain in our area, but they will also eat hemlock, spruce, tamarack, and occasionally the seeds of deciduous trees.

White-winged crossbills prefer the softer cones of hemlock, spruce, and tamarack, but they will also take seeds from pines with stiff cones and occasionally those of deciduous trees. Researchers claim they eat as many as 3,000 seeds a day.

While both species sometimes visit bird feeders, I never saw either one at our feeders. I had plenty of time to observe them because I no sooner had I gained my strength back in early January than I was diagnosed with a deep muscle tear in my left calf which kept me inside for nearly seven weeks. That’s when I began to refer to last winter as the winter of my discontent.

I did see at my feeders the sixth irruptive species—a male common redpoll that appeared on December 21. He or another male and a female showed up on January 3, and on January 6 and the two following days, a flock of more than 30 common redpolls blanketed the ground and feeders. The bright red forehead and black chins of both sexes and the pink breast of the male are the distinguishing features of these mostly brown-streaked birds. I never did see a hoary redpoll among them.

I similarly failed to see an evening grosbeak at our feeders, even though this species made its best showing in over a decade in Pennsylvania appearing in 33 counties.

Although most were gone from the state by mid-December, up to 150 at a time appeared at a feeder in Marienville, Forest County.

common redpolls in flight

common redpolls in flight (Jean-Guy Dallaire, CC BY-NC-ND)

Numbers of both crossbill species also diminished by mid-December. White-winged crossbills went from 43 counties in early November to 35 in the winter and red crossbills from 30 counties in early November to 20 in the winter.

During similar irruptive invasions of red crossbills in Pennsylvania, most appeared in mid-to-late October and left the state by the end of March. Although they remain paired through most of the year and may breed at any time an area suits them, there are very few verified sightings of breeding red crossbills in Pennsylvania.

White-winged crossbills arrive and leave on the same schedule as red crossbills, and there are no records of breeding here. During one of the largest crossbill invasions in Pennsylvania in 1997-98, over 1,000 white-winged crossbills spent the winter in Cook Forest State Park and were often joined by lesser numbers of red crossbills. But we never saw them on our mountain then, probably because our spruce grove was only 24 years old and not producing a good cone crop. So last winter will remain in my memory as our crossbill winter, my first ever in the 41 years I have lived on our central Pennsylvania mountaintop.