Wednesday 30 December 2009

New Found Crossbill ? (updated)

One to engage with trans-Atlantic Loxia Fantastica readers 'over the pond'. Raking through the 50 plus gigs of crossbill recording that I have I came across some interesting ones sent to me by Lester Rees from Newfoundland. A few years ago at the end of the summer months Lester was getting Red Crossbills visiting his garden feeders ( feeeding on sunflowers !) and this occurence happened over several years. Unfortunately the correspondence I had with Lester was 3 computers ago and though it is backed up somewhere, I can't put my hands on it. The gist was that Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) sent Dr.William Montevecchi (a dean at MUN) and Dave Fifield (from MUN) do a sound recording and banding. The recordings were sent to me by Lester in 2006 (I think) - the recordings were possibly made in 2005 ? The initial thought (hope) was that these Red Crossbills might be putative Type 8's the subspecies percna, or New Foundland Red Crossbill which is presumed extinct, hence the excitement of the academics. Some of Lester's pictures of the birds can be seen HERE. Unfortunately there seems to have been little funding to take the science much further and it is in limbo as so often happens.

I produced some sonagrams from the audio and the results were interesting. First up a flight call ( apologies for compressed sonagrams - the files very small and I have scaled them to match others on this blog for comparison. If you click on them they should enlarge):

This looks very much like the Fc's for Magnus' "keep" ( "Wandering") Common Crossbill call, but it sounds a bit 'lispy' or flutely and dare I say sounds like some types I record regularly in Deeside ( though these "look" different on the 'gram). If anyone can let me know how I can upload audio directly on to here please say and I will do it.

Another Newfoundland one:

The one above is similar to Fc2 'over here' in UK, but with features more consistent with Fc1 ( or "British" for Sound Approach readers).
One more flight call from Witbourne, Newfoundland:

Again, very much like the second example. However, this one gives food for thought:

To me this sounded like a toop ( an excitement call): it is lower in frequency than the corresponding flight calls ( as toops are) and has a more "clucky" quality that toops tend to have. Unfortunately the sound clips are small and it is difficult to evaluate the context of the calls to gain a bit more insight. I would still say this one sounds like an excitement call, though I reserve the right to be mistaken here given the brevity of the clip. However, it does seem to closely match the Fc for Type 4 as shown on page 37 of Groth's monograph. Type 4 flight call can be heard HERE. The example Lester sent me, the putative excitement call, sounds nothing like Groth's Fc4, and whilst the bird was in flight ( you can hear the wingbeats on the recording), it is not uncommon for crossbills to elicit excitement calls when flying. The flight calls Lester sent on do not match those for Type 4 either, but equally they do not match the one recording of a putative percna from 1981. If anything they are similar to Type 3. Mixed flocks of types would not be uncommon - certainly they are not over here in the UK. I am no North American Loxia expert but I would imagine Type 3 and 4 are most likely cadidates geographically as they can range from Alaska and British Columbia on the Pacific Northwest right across to Maine and Canada on the Atlantic coast. The fact that they were occuring at the end of the summer suggests a northerly population moving South (and East ?) and that they were feeding on sunflower suggests behaviour of migrating crossbills eg. that they were possibly locally starving with their natural food source depleted - a bit like watching Crossbills feeding on thrift in Shetland ! The fact that Lester photographed some steaked juvenile birds also suggests that this was a post breeding movement. Lester's crossbills may have crossed a considerable landmass to reach Newfoundland ( and the natural barrier of the North Atlantic), or they could have irrupted more 'locally' from nearby Quebec or the Newfoudland mainland. I would imagine there are exciting opportunities to study crossbill movements using stable isotopes given the vast landmass of the USA and Canada.

So if my hunch is correct what Lester had was Type 3 flight calls and what appears to be a different excitement call from those previously described. If I am wrong then the excitement call is indeed a Type 4 flight call variant ( which I don't have access to to verify or compare, that's my excuse anyway). Groth's sonagrams are also displayed in "wide-band" which makes the features more 'blurry' and with a different scale than mine. But what about the fact that for percna there only exists a series of recordings of an individual bird made in 1981 ? Was this a true percna ? Do these crossbills Lester gets every Summer stay on and breed locally in Newfoundland ? Where do they originate from ? Could they be percna ? Is anyone follwing up this rather intriguing case ? If someone can put me up over there I could just about be tempted over to help out - cheap flight to New York and drive up the coast. If only I could get my crossbills over here onto Sunflower seeds, I might just run out of rings ! It would be like catching blue tits on peanut feeders E-A-S-Y ! My first recommendation would be to take feather samples for stable isotope analysis from caught birds and to compare this with historic mueseum specimens from the same region of the USA and Canada.
And just as a final thought prompted from an as always stimulating exchange of emails with Magnus Robb where he referred to the "up till now taboo subject of the potential for New World Crossbills reaching the UK and Europe". Get out with your Telingas folks - more is waiting to be discovered and it might just be you.............

Maybe some for our cross the pond cousins would like to share their thoughts on this ?

Alive And Kicking !

Merry Christmas everyone !

Jeezo things have been hectic lately ! Normal service will be resumed again on Loxia Fantastica I promise. My time has been spread (too thinly possibly) between many things lately, some of them unrewarding it has to be said, some hopefully not so. Please also remember like most people I do actually have a job, which I love, and that (sadly) it is not a full time researchers post for RSPB studying Crossbills (as some people have wrongly thought in the past !). I am, at the moment, drenched in sonagrams - the weather is just too crappy for serious crossbilling, though hope to get out later in the week. I also have a new 'toy' to play with from Santa.

A couple of weeks ago I was down on Rainbow Warrior before it set off to Oslo and then to Copenhagen, sadly not with me on it ( edit: some avid readers of Loxia Fantastica may be interested to know that in a previous 'life' I was in fact a Marine Scientist SO Grade working at the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen. I would do a few months at sea every year on research vessels. My paricular field of speciality was larval fish and micro and macro zooplankton. A long way from Crossbills !). Please sign up to the various campaigns that Greenpeace are undertaking, especially register your dismay at the failure of the UN to agree on legally binding emission controls, even though for once the UK government seemed proactive during and after the summit. A particular disgrace is how several Greenpeace campaigners have been banged up in a Danish prison, possibly in solitary, until Jan 7th for a peaceful and dignified protest - they 'gatecrashed' a state dinner and held up banners. Wow, if that is what happens for a mild "breach of the peace" in Denmark ( and I use the term "breach of the peace" loosely as it seemed a dignified silent and peaceful protest to me) then what would happen for something more serious like your dog crapping on the pavement ? I think the Danes had egg on their face that their security at a State function with many world leaders attending was so pathetic. Actually, make that non existant.

Highlight of my birding journal recently was a collybita Chiffchaff in my garden in first week of December. My previous latest record was 22nd Nov in, not that I keep lists like. I guess the climate is warming after all then....

Monday 16 November 2009

"Read All About It ?"

On Saturday my copy of "Birdwatch" was delivered through my letter-box. Don't ask me why but I always turn to the second last page to see what next month's issue will feature. And behold, staff writer David Callahan is apparently going to be writing a piece on the current state of Loxia:

"Got Your Bills in A Cross? Debate continues as to the true number of crossbill species in Britain, Europe and beyond. David Callahan assesses the current state of the taxonomy and what is yet to come". (Birdwatch, Issue 210, p.69)

Now, clearly I will be interested to read this, as I am sure some of you will, but what exactly can this article say, and, is there really any 'debate' concerning this subject other than on Bird Forum ? Okay, Birdlife lost the plot on Scotbill a few weeks ago.....until the RSPB reminded them of the script. Nothing against Mr. Callahan, who is a good writer, but as a rule I am generally a bit wary of journalists - remember that embarrassing Glasgow Herald article on Scotbill that their 'Environmental Correspondent" wrote ? Sure there are those Scully types that don't believe in Scottish Crossbill as the evidence is flimsy, but us Mulder types continue to observe, sound record and sometimes even catch them. The Scully types are often serious listers, who in many cases rather than buy a sound recorder and microphone to ID crossbills, choose to deny its existence as they can't see any differences and instead blow their money on plane fares to Fair Isle to see a small brown bird that shouldn't be there. The BOU seem to believe in Scottish Crossbill as a species so surely that should be that, shouldn't it ? In Britain we have 3 breeding species - Common, Parrot and Scottish. Two-Barred can occur as rare migrant. So that is the current state of the taxonomy in the UK as I see it: not a pretty sight but it is what it is.

What is still to come regarding the future of Loxia taxonomy ? In UK at least how about this as a guess:

1) Further work on classification and understanding of crossbill vocalisations, with reference to speciation and irruptive populations. More 'new' calls will be discovered (and fact, already have been. One of my main areas of focus). Possible lab based studies on song and call learning (not my thing ethically).

2) More 'refined' genetics esp. for Loxia scotica, but also the others ( Not my field, but I would gladly participate in this).

3) More Stable Isotope analysis of Common Crossbill populations especially given the current irruption ( Not my area, though I have offered to gather samples).

4) Further work on biometric and taxonomic classification of Crossbill species. (I am interested in long term studies of biometric stability of a dormant crossbill population in relation to sporadic influxes from the continent. Other workers doing their own thing with bios also.)

5) Ecological studies on feeding efficiency and 'fitness' to environment ala Benkman - possibly a PhD project ? (I am doing this with field observed wild birds). Possibly supplemented in the lab using captive birds (again, not really my thing).

My participation is only small though hopefully will make a contribution. I have already got a new call here in Scotland. My project has recently suffered some major set backs though.

In USA, well I can't keep track with the number of Red Crossbill 'species' there - I reckon there will be more though......they, so far, are hands down the cutting edge in all things crossbill ( like in so many things !). I reckon they'll possibly discover a crossbill on Mars......or send a crossbill to Mars.....or a crossbill will win X Factor. Something like that.

In Europe, more could be done on the boreal 'natal' grounds of Common and Parrot Crossbills - calls, biometrics, genetics, anything ! So if anyone in Russia fancies taking up the baton, or more precisely the Telinga ? ! I am sure the Med races will be given the same 'treatment' as our own beloved scotica, and some may reach full species status (if any ornithogical body can be bothered approving it).

Roll on next copy of Birdwatch, a fine journal for the discerning 21st Century orni-enthusiast.


Crossbill Taxonomy in Action ?

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Never Forgotten

On holiday in July this year I visited the Commando Memorial near to Spean Bridge and their historic training base at Achnacarry. It was an incredibly moving experience, being there at dusk and with the memorial set in a panaromic landscape in the shadow of the imposing Aonach Mor. Nearby there was a small personal memorial garden with tributes to fallen Royal Marine Commandos from World War II through to the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. It was a poignant reminder back in July as to just how many of these and other brilliant soldiers we have lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of course since then the losses have increased considerably. One is too many. Incredibly brave and determined soldiers from all regiments are learning to overcome and deal with horrific life changing injuries they have received and their resolve never ceases to amaze and inspire me. They too should not be forgotten.

Being an Arbroath boy the troops of 45 Commando based at Arbroath Condor were in my thoughts as they sustained bad loses in Afghanistan last year before returning from their tour of duty. I have fond memories of a fantastic day at the base open day as a young lad when the Marines inspired me to achieve the fastest time on the assault course.

I did not buy a poppy this year, not having had the opportunity. Instead, I write this in memory and tribute to the fallen and injured in all past and present campaigns, as well as those killed or injured in peace time duties.

If you are reading this and wonder why it is on Loxia Fantastica then let me offer this: whilst standing at the Memorial in July a group of Common Crossbills were calling from a small spruce plantation nearby. However, that didn't seem important at the time and nor does it now.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Those That Can, Do, Those That Can't Blog ?

I am tired of reading statements like "time spent blogging is time not spent birding or ringing" or "people spending more time in front of computer screens than birding/ringing". I sit and write this at 1am in the morning watching "Generation Kill". My crossbills have been roosting since 2.30pm. As to ringing, unless I am out dazzling Woodcock or roosting Dippers, forget it. For the record I spent all day on Monday birding and ringing. I can work, bird, ring and blog - I don't have to do them all at the same time, I am a multi tasker. I can even watch TV at the same time. The said same people that come out with this sort of nonsense probably get bladdered every Friday and Saturday night, which I do not criticise, though perhaps they should practise what they preach and stay home scrutinising their ID books or entering their data into IPMR.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Parrot Invasion !

Today saw 47 Parrot Crossbills reported vismigging through Falsterbo Observatory in southern Sweden and last week a staggering 494 passed through there. There have been over 13,000 Parrot Crossbills migrating through since 1st August !!

Now, I am not sure how these crossbills are being identified, but Parrots are generally bulkier and have bigger heads than Commons, so with an experienced observer the ID's and counts are very possibly accurate. This observatory should have experienced 'crew' so I think we can have confidence in these counts.

All these Parrots will have to turn up somewhere - Germany, Holland...... Norfolk ! So keep those eyes (and ears) peeled. I am braced for a Fair Isle or Shetland bird and I keep checking.

Happy Hunting !

Parrot Crossbill:Appearing Soon At a Pine Wood Near You ?

Sunday 1 November 2009

Scottish Crossbill

A nice portrait of a 1cy Scottish Crossbill male, one of two I caught along with two Parrot and two Common Crossbills on Deeside on 12 October:

This bird was identified as a Euring 3 ( 1 cy) by the presence of 4 juvenile greater coverts and a few juvenile type median coverts - the lesser coverts had been replaced with adult feathers. The bill profile and depth is typical for scotica.

It was also the first time I have been 'out-flanked' by a crossbill during its release ( though I still got the call !) :

"A Sky installation engineer attempts to shake hands with a Scottish Crossbill"

The recent wet and windy weather has scuppered all crossbill ringing plans for a bit. Two weeks ago today I was 'enhancing' a crossbill drinking site when all this rain started. I would be amazed if that pool has survived and has not been washed away. Until it dries out many birds will drink opportunistically at any puddles near to where they are feeding, and it will possibly be some time before they return to the habitual/ritualistic sites.

So, efforts are now focussed on fixing holes in nets, cutting nets down into 2 and 3 shelves ( which is ideal for crossbills) and making up colour rings ( to use on Waxwings if and when they arrive).

Saturday 17 October 2009

Time To Eat Humble Pie ?

Kate in 'Oddie-esque' thougthful pose

A lot has been written on a well known birding forum about the RSPB's decision to elect Kate Humble as their new President. Opinions seem pretty divided re the pros and cons - some say she is too opinionated and disrespective of other cultures ( a reference to "The Frankincense Trail") or too 'head girly' and 'gushing', whilst others feel her high profile and professionalism can only be a good thing.

Me ? Well I think it is a very good decision 'cause basically I like Kate. She is not afraid to stand up to the boys, clearly reads up on her subject, is infectiously enthusiastic and is not afraid of getting dirty (her hands that is, come on now behave ). Most BBC journos would be too worried about their career ratings to say anything remotely controversial but I think Kate will speak her mind. There is no such thing as bad publicity remember.

A happy Kate in a documentary about Elephant's backsides

On the BBC's "Frankincense Trail" she was initially critical of the way women were treated in Saudi Arabi, however this was merely culture shock rather than narrow mindedness, and, she is afterall a Western woman ! She soon 'aclimatised' somewhat and was even moved to the point of tears at the incredible atmosphere of the evening call to prayer in Riyadh (?). Is that bad ? I think it shows a deep respect and connection to a culture that is radically different from our own, whilst at the same time not being afraid to voice her own values and beliefs. She is human and not afraid to show it. Poisoned Golden Eagles and habitat destruction, Kate will be there being passionate and emotional and that won't necessarily be a bad thing. Thanks to her image and profile you might even read about it in The Sun, now there's a thought. Who knows, Kate may even become the new champion of Britain's only endemic the Scottish Crossbill, and go and sort out those pesky renegades at Bird Life International ! ?

So all you doubters please give Kate a chance: she is high profile, intelligent and also practical. She learns her subject and commits to it 100% with passion, enthusiasm and verve. She will be good for RSPB and good for birds. Trust me, it is not a career move for her as, frankly, she doesn't need it as it is bound to come with some 'baggage'. And, to lower the tone somewhat, if you still can't get your head around it all, be honest: would Chris Packham look this fetching in that little green and silver number ?

Viva el Presidente !

Saturday 26 September 2009

That's Life

It seems Bird Life International have taken it upon themeselves to de-classify Scottish Crossbill as a species.....and then all X-Files 'n' mysterious they have erased all trace of this unofficial press-release SEE HERE ! At a time when their partners the RSPB have just surveyed the species using a scientific rationale and whilst a new Red Crossbill 'species' has been proposed in USA, this seems a strange decision. Whilst I often hint at sceptisim, or at least an open mind, over the current classification of scotica, I nevertheless do believe that there is at least one crossbill 'species' or type endemic to Scotland. Boffins at BOU can decide on what constitutes speciation, but it seems in some quarters that if birdwatchers cannot see a difference through their Leica's then it cannot be a species. While I can sympathise with birders is this rationale sound ? What exactly made BirdLife International reach this decision ?

Those friendly neighbourhood BF's have started discussing Scotbill again HERE. I am kind of glad that I can't participate as it usually gets a bit silly. However, the comments in post #14 :

"Lack of genetic differences means (for me) that these forms don't exist long and there is no time to accumulate genetic differences. They form when particular conifer seeds occur, and later crossbreed and lump again. "

Not really wanting to single this guy out as he is only giving his opinion, this cannot be the case for the suggested indifference between crossbills, certainly morphologically. Birds selected for a particular conifer type would fluctuate (negatively) in numbers if that particular conifer type failed - this is one of the reasons crossbills migrate. By breeding with other types this would not necessarily ensure their, or in particular their offsprings survival - there is no advantage, quite the opposite possibly ! Even when several types of crossbills breed in the same area they breed with ones that look and sound the same. This is true even for Common Crossbill types. For example, a Parrot female will not mate with a Common male as the Common male will not be able to feed both himself, her on the nest and then chicks during a hard time of the year (Feb-April). Would it be advantageous to the Common male ? Well, if sucessfull presumably some of the offspring may have larger bills and be selected for a different niche, which would fit Jureks argument. My own thought is that he wants to be sucessful in passing on his genes to progeny who have a chance of survival. This would be with a mate of the same type and in an ecological niche that is optimal for that type ( eg. not a native Scots Pine forest in Feb-March). Thus, ecological niche specialisation plays a huge role in the assortative mating between Common and Parrot Crossbill - between Scottish and Parrot, well that could be diferent.

A Common Type 1A female I caught in June this year:

Spruce Muncher

And a Parrot female I caught in August 09, notice the pronounced gonys (used for feeding) and the nictitating membrane on the eye:

Pine Muncher

Still think they are the same species ? Surely not......

Scottish and Parrot Crossbill nest failure can be as high as 40-50% in some Springs. Genetics, in my opinion, is still an emerging science and more refined techniques may show genetic variation between the Loxia taxa. We will see. I guess the sceptics can cite Northern Bullfinch as a case against scotica's or possibly pytyops full status - it is bigger than the West European and UK races, but essentially, as far as I know, it still feeds and behaves as a Bullfinch ? It has a different call from those found in Scandanavia and Britain ( sound familiar ?!). Do these large Northern Bullfinches breed with the smaller forms ? Is there any genetic variation between these races ? For a thing to be half as big again there must surely be something in the genetic code ? Same with Parrot Crossbill in my opinion - it is much bigger than curvirostra. Northern races of birds do tend to be larger, but these are in Scotland. Just because we haven't found a genetic difference yet it doesn't mean it does not exist ( sounds like a IBWO believers mantra, oh no !).

My feeling is that each crossbill 'type' has a natural variation within its population as a whole and in adverse years certain individuals will be better adapted and will survive (in greater numbers)and others will die out. This can be seen on a local level - here in Scotland there was a sitka and larch failure last winter and Common Crossbills largely had to feed on Scots Pine. Only the fitest birds selected for that environment will have survived (or remained/bred) eg. birds with bills that could have coped with opening closed, hard Scots Pine cones. Subsequently, certain call types (and morph types) were not present in the region ! This would perhaps explain the variation in bill morphology of the various cryptic curvirostra types. As far as I know bill plasticity has not been fully explored so this is purely hypothetical on my part but it is something I hope to examine long term by studying a dormant population of large billed crossbills in Scotland as well as invading crossbills of the same call type over several influxes eg. many years. In years of good local larch and spruces one would expect a larger range of bill sizes amongst dormant crossbill populations, with smaller billed specimens sucessfully feeding on the non-native tree species. In years of non-native failures one would expect modal bill sizes to shift upwards.

When we classify Crossbills to species we tend to use measurements like bill, with mean bill depths often cited, but I think this is potentially misleading -Parrot Crossbill (as things stand) can have a bill depth anywhere from around 12.0 (!) through to 14.1mm and Common from around 9.0mm to 11.7 mm. Edelaar, van Eerde and Terpstra found for type A (Dutch) males that the mean bill depth was 10.62 mm with a range of 10.0 to 11.7mm. Again, this is a difference of 1.7mm, which is quite significant within a type (and which overlapped with the other type in the study).

I also think a bit more needs to be done on the inheritability of bill morphology in wild Crossbills. Studies in capativity show positive inheritability of bill size from parents, though personally what I felt that data showed was that a clutch of offspring averaged the midpoint of parents bill depths but exhibited quite a bit of variation matching that of the parent sample eg. range of bill depths for adult male scotica was 11.2-12.4mm, and for adult female 10.2 - 12.1mm. That is 1.9mm of variation for females, quite a bit of variation in crossbill terms.

However, in captivity they (adults and progeny) are not subjected to the pressures of a dynamic natural environment (where food suppy and type and temperature are not controlled), and afterall the catalyst of Darwinian evolution is natural variation within a population: without variation there can be no evolution. Such variation also promotes the survival of the 'species' by increasing it's adaptability to potentially adverse enivironmental conditions that may occur. Even assuming a high inheritability rate, if a particular population of crossbills ( type) has such a natural variation in bill structure (depth/shape), which they clearly do, and birds with similar bills mate with birds that have the same size of bills ( as they have been found to do) then this means that the progeny of the population as a whole will continue to have a range of bill sizes ( that they have inherited). But some will be better selected for particular environmental conditions than others will. Crossbills within that population are thus potentially selected for cones and seeds of various sizes - there will be an optimum, but there is an insurance policy that Nature has provided, one that is occasionally asked to 'pay out' when a cone crop fails. This might be the key with crossbills and why we all have nightmare identifying and classifying them.

This is one of the reasons I like studying crossbill calls, something which (unfairly) takes a fair bit of bashing as being 'pointless' it has to be said. Finches can learn calls from their parents and will also sychronize calls with a mate - the latter is something I have evidence of with Scottish Crossbill on two occasions. Mainly this is between a pair of the same call type or species ( as my examples were), but it has been noted in USA of birds of different types. But surely this makes crossbill taxonomy using calls even more vague: if the birds change calls, or birds of a specific type learn the call of a male in a mixed pair then how do we know who is who ? Well I don't think this is a reason to throw in the towel. It is a bit like being born in England but growing up from a young age in Scotland. You are English as a race but culturally there is a fair chance you will sound (and possibly behave) Scottish ! You may even attract a Scottish member of the opposite sex as a partner. To all intents and purposes you be will identified as Scottish by the Scottish population at large - you are effectively 'naturalised'. Biometrics do not have this 'cultural' focus but vocalisations do. In Crossbill terms, we may not really know what provenance a particular hybrid specimen is, but we at least know it thinks it is Scottish and will presumably act as expected ( if it can).

If hybridisation is a problem (and I am not sure it necessarily is) and is indeed the explanation for the genetic indifference, then surely it is as a result of specimens at either extreme of the bill depth ranges for a given type. Thus, a small billed Parrot may pair with a large billed Scottish Crossbill (at it's upper range) - they will 'look' the same (to each other and us !). They may even synchronize their calls as pairs often do. However, they will still have to contend with that harsh Scottish Spring which will select for the very fitest of individuals sucessfully breeding.........

Thursday 27 August 2009

You Say Parrot I Say Potato

"Shurely a Parrot Croshbill Mish Monneypenny" ?

Following the BBRC decision to remove Parrot Crossbill from the BBRC list as outlined previously on this blog, and also reported in British Birds May Vol.102 p.275, the debate has ensued as to whether or not this is a good decision. There are some sensible points discussed HERE, though I am not sure about posts # 44 and #45 - and there was me thinking I was such a friendly and amiable chap ( which I am when you get to know me.....honest) !

For me BBRC decison on Parrot Crossbill is a kind of revelation, as last year the editor for the North East Scotland Bird report quite correctly insisted that I add a caveat in the text that none of my Parrot Crossbill records had been submitted for review by BBRC. So were my Parrot records credible ? This was my primary concern as, without the blessing of BBRC, these 'unverified' records (all mine !) could perhaps be seen as vague at best - "stringy" is the correct term, as I understand ? However, we all know that biometrically and bio-acoustically "Parrot" type birds have been getting trapped and sound recorded in Scotland for well over a decade. Thus back to the BF debate, which sadly I can't take part in. I sit on both sides of the fence on this one for the following reasons:

My own records of Parrot 'type' Crossbills now gain credibility and there is now an acknowledgement that Parrot type birds breed and are resident in NE Scotland, differentiated from 'migrant' records. Hooray, result !


Presumably all records submitted by other parties will also be accepted without verification ? But,what if these are mistaken or errant - given the ongoing confusion amongst most birders between Parrot, Scottish and even Common is this a wise policy ? Also, what about 'true' migrant Parrot type birds on Fair Isle or the Norfolk Coast - do BBRC not want descriptions of these either ?

Now, this really makes me sound omnipotent and selfish, doesn't it ? Basically, what I can be accused of saying is that I can ID Parrot Crossbills and nobody else can ? Well no actually, that is not what I am getting at, and far from it really. It is not that 'other' records can't be trusted but, in my defence, a lot of pictures I see of 'Scottish Crossbills' on the web, and even published articles, appears to be one of these Parrot type birds. So, if someone reports a specimen as Scottish Crossbill then it is, in all probability, very likely a Parrot Crossbill ! This may work in everyones favour regarding accuracy eg. a big billed bird is most likely a Parrot type, however some Scottish types do appear to overlap with the smaller end of the Parrot size range - at least they are considered as Scottish just now, but may be a modal bill size all of their own. Readers may remember a long since hacked and deleted post on this blog about a large billed crossbill sighted in Wales by Dan Brown ? My advice was that although the bird appeared to have a large mandible this could have been out of proportion to it's body - a small bodied bird with a disproportionately large bill can look 'Scottish' or 'Parroty'. There is a good example in Birds of Scotland of a profile of a Scottish type bird with a HUGE honker of a beak in the photo, yet it's bill depth was bang on for Scottish. It clearly had 'big beak, smaller head' syndrome !

Scottish, Parrots or Common? Ask the audience? Phone a Friend? Final Answer ?

For those sound recording to verify their 'observations' the flight calls are also very confusable, as I see time and time again - according to Knox, and Constantine and Mullarney, Parrot flight calls in Fennoscandia and on the continent can be quite variable, though I am not sure if they confirmed this with biometrically verified birds. Magnus Robb has also recently recorded some variation in Parrot Crossbill call types from several different irruptions into Holland. In Scotland there does seem to be some variation with Fc2. Poor sound signals can result in calls losing important structural features and frequency can vary with distance, and, it seems, simply by natural variation within a call type. Thus, these calls are easily confusable on sonogram. By ear, without much experience or suitable comparison, it would be very easy to confuse Parrot EcD with Common EcA, the latter sounds slightly higher, hollower in timbre and with more obvious harmonics - but what does that actually mean in the field ! ? Parrot Fc2 can also be very easily confused with the thinner "Cheepy" Fc1 of Common Crossbills that are prevalent up here in Scotland just now, both on sonogram and 'by ear'.

However,with tangible physical measurements such as biometrics or a sound recording a record can be updated or reviewed in the future should our knowledge change regarding crossbill speciation. A statement " 5 Parrot Crossbills at Anagach Wood" cannot. It simply infers that there were (possibly) several big billed crossbills there. Photos help to some degree but can be misleading - lots of shots of the same individual from different perspectives are often required.

Back to the Bird Forum debate and some of the comments, some of which mention me personally. James Spencer (Hotspur) writes in post #5 :

"If you adhere to Lindsay Cargill's identifications then most of the Scotsbill in the various bird galleries are actually Parrot Crossbill".

Yes and no James - I have basically suggested this as a generalisation, but I have not identified every single photograph on the web ! There clearly are some Scottish Crossbills on web galleries - there are even some of mine on the dreaded Bird Forum ! Granted a large amount of birds labelled as 'Scottish' would be classed as 'Parrot' type by me using my own experiences and under currently accepted classification and thinking here in Scotland eg. bios and calls as they stand.

In post #25 Richard Klim writes:

"Laurent Raty made the following comment during a recent ID-Frontiers discussion about the recently-described South Hills Crossbill (suggesting that Parrot is now more likely than Scottish at Abernethy):

"... medium-size-billed crossbills in Scotland [Scottish crossbills] are now found largely in alien conifer plantations, rather than in native Scots pine forests where they are supposed to have evolved [and where bigger-billed birds now occur]."

The quote by Laurent, a very knowledgeable and nice chap, regarding medium sized birds is an extent ! Scottish can occur in alien conifer plantations but generally at particular times of the year. This caveat is very important: In February scotica is usually back on territory in either native or plantation Scots pine. The problem being so is curvirostra, though some will feed on Larch until April if it is still present - this winter the Commons, and Scottish for that matter, were predominantly found on Scots pine throughout the year due to a Larch and Spruce crop failure. Scottish will move on to Larch in late summer and early Autumn and will flit between Larch and Scots Pine through the winter. They will aslo subsist on Spruce, particularly Norway if present, and Lodgepole.

However, all of this potentially gets even more complex, and this is my point: how may people are mistaking Common Crossbills for Scottish Crossbill ? Parrot and Scottish are always considered the ones that are confusable, but in reality it is probably Common and Scottish (under current classification criteria) that cause most problems. The female bird in the top banner of Loxia Fantastica is a second calendar year Scottish Crossbill. Be honest: how many of you would have had that down as Common ? The bill shape is not typical Scottish, certainly not from that angle, but the plumage definitely is, though Common's feeding exclusively on Scots Pine may also appear 'dusky'. The bird gave a Scottish type call.

In balance I think the BBRC decision is the right one - a few misidentified specimens of either species will be overshadowed by the hundreds of verified (but not submitted records) that crossbill researchers and enthusiasts collect, that till now have always been in a dodgy 'are they aren't they' area ! Bear in mind most of my records are confirmed by either calls or biometrics (colour ringed birds that have previously been trapped). Actually, in my opinion they still are in that 'dodgy area' for reasons cited in a post way down below regarding the possible identity of the true relict Pine Crossbill of the Great Forest of Caledon ( just my thoughts, half baked maybe), but at least it gives us an position to move on from should classification be altered in the future. 'Parrot Crossbill', in my book, is merely a label for the largest billed crossbills that exist in Scotland and also on the continent. The Scottish 'Parrot Crossbills' may be the 'same stock' as their continental counterparts, though maybe they are not, and are actually the real relict 'Scottish' pine wood species. Certainly food for thought I think

Wednesday 8 July 2009

"Touchdown " - The Eagle Has Landed !

Evidence of Type 4E Crossbills On The Mainland !

Monday 6th July

I managed to get out on Monday 6th July for a bit - it's a long story but things have been mental lately. I will not bore you with details but don't get involved in a car smash even when it is not your okay, car not I am afraid. I am in hire car for 12 weeks.......

First site was East Durris. Many cleg flies on arriving into car park - not a good sign. On goes liberal doses of Autan ( have you ever been bitten by a cleg fly ? Not a horsefly, a Cleg is MUCH worse as it slices into your skin and blood pishes out !). Anyway, as I was doing that two Common Crossbills flyover, both giving a Fc4 ( same as those on Shetland currently). I didn't get a sonagram, but to be honest, and without sounding smart, I didn't need one as to me Fc4 is the easiest of the 'Common' flight calls to do by ear. But a few minutes later they went back over and this time the Telinga got them, and yes they were Fc4 confirmed on computer later that night. The larches at this site were still green ( they do use them like that) but not quite there yet I thought.

I decided to hit a site a few miles to the West just before Strachan ( pronounced Stra'an). Here, on getting out the car a flock of at least 40 went over, and although it was a cacophany I could clearly pick out Fc4 and EcE from them ( the sonogram later confirmed this).

I followed parties of birds around for an hour and a half before a really serious thunder storm and torrential rain curbed activities. All the birds I observed were feeding on plantation Scots Pine cones that still had some seeds. They were highly mobile suggesting that they were being very selective about which cones they were using eg. ones they could open, and there weren't many of them. I saw quite a few males with the faint fringing on the greater coverts, again like those on Shetland. I also saw a courtship feeding between a male and female and these were 4E types ( so they might breed straight away !? ). I should point out 4E types have gone of the radar over the last two years in my area - I have recorded several, but nothing like the 25% or so that was present in 2007. On Monday I also recorded quite a few 1B types, one identical to a sonogram Dougie Preston sent me and also the 1A types that have been all over the place since the turn of the year.

Wednesday 15th July

Same site as second location at Strachan on 6th. Lots of birds and now feeding in the larches. Many singing, some with a song I have not heard............Some 1A types but many 4E's with their very distinctive flight calls ( these really are easy to do by ear, the easiest in fact as above !)

In upper Deeside semi-natural habitat Fc4 was present, so they have apparently penetrated the full Dee Valley. This is the first year where I know for sure the call types of the immigrant crossbills ( eg. are not just roaming or displaced resident birds) and have tracked them pretty much from the coast right up the valley, approx. 80 kms !

With many being reported in the South and East of England just now it would be very interesting to see if these are also 4E types - they may not be. Anyone ?

Sunday 5 July 2009

More Thoughts On Irruptive and Wing Barred Crossbills

Reading through Birding World Vol.21 Number 8 Issue 260 it struck me how many of the Two-barred Crossbills in July and August influx to Shetland last year were juveniles ( in streaked plumage). The consensus was that these 'streakies' fledged in Spring 08, which according the BWP is fairly typical. There were also adult birds accompanying them and these had undergone post breeding moult (from the pictures) eg. they were in at least their second year.

On the other hand, the Orkney 'wing barred' crossbills in June and July this year to me look like birds which fledged very early this year or possibly late last year, typical of curvirostra's breeding patterns. It is unlikely that they would have such 'retarded' wing bars if they were genuine Two-Barred's in their second calendar year ? Even the streaked juvenile two barred's last year had strong white on their greater coverts. It is also unlikely that two barred crossbills that fledged in Spring 2009 would be so advanced into their post-juvenile moult as these recent Orkney curvirostra type specimens, again based on the streaked juveniles last year in July and August. Many of the birds that have been photographed recently in the Northern Isles appear to be these 'first summer' (or second year) types, exhibiting fringes on particularly the greater coverts and some on the tertials, with mottled body moult eg. males with green blotches. A good example of a wing-barred Common that even has broadening fringes towards the body ala Two-barred is HERE - still doesn't look 'right' for Two-Barred does it ?

I have been pondering where all these Common Crossbills have come from and why ? How about these scenerios, and please bear in mind I am just 'thinking out aloud' here eg. I reserve the right to change my options or be completely wrong !

1) The Common Crossbills are from either/and/or Finland, Norway, Sweden and North West Russia. A localised Larch and Spruce failure has meant birds now have to move from there as Scot's Pine will have shed most of their seeds. They are errupting from these (nearer) areas fairly recently.

2) The birds have possibly been moving from much further East or North/East for several months, foraging crops as they go, after breeding (late last year or late autumn) and there is a 'lag' effect. If they were coming from further East, then settling temporarily in areas in Finland, Sweden etc where other crossbill populations may also be present or resident, then we could assume that these would also be moving now for the same reasons - if so, there could be differences in call types, biometrics and stable isotope analysis of feathers for these different populations.

Common Crossbills normally errupt after a successful breeding season and/or coinciding with a poor spruce crop. This means there is usually a high percentage of juveniles. For example, in 2005 there appeared to be a significant proportion of streaked juveniles on rigs, Fair Isle etc.

If the 2009 irruption does not have a high incidence of streaked juveniles (which so far it doesn't seem to) then this possibly implies scenario 2) whereby regionally 'settled' birds have bred ( in the Autumn/Late Winter) and this food source has now become depleted and they are moving westwards over several months. Where they have come from is harder to establish, though stable isotope data should determine this ( to some degree). However, the calls so far appear to be only of one type predominantly 4E with only one 1B thanks to the efforts of Dougie Preston and Hugh Harrop. It would have been interesting to know what the Orkney and St.Kilda ones were. Perhaps 4E is less selected for the crops that are available where they are moving through (possibly Scots Pine which is still holding some seeds, though I have several records of 4E's using Scot's Pine in midwinter in Scotland - nothing is straightforward with crossbills !). If the call types of the influx birds are primarily of one variety then this perhaps suggests only one curvirostra type/morph/cryptic species is errupting the continent. It would be an interesting opportunity to try and understand why this is the case.

What would have been extremely interesting is if anyone had been sound recording the calls of crossbills in these continental regions over the last year or so - we basically need several LoxiaFan's in Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and on each of the Northern Isles ! We would then know what call types were present and also if there were any changes, and if these changes can be 'tracked' and in what directions. I would be particularly interested in comparing call types with deuterium levels in feathers maybe this could geographically map regional 'dialects' in crossbills populations within Europe as has been done in the USA. Knowing the status of the various cone crops in these areas would also be helpful.

I'll sleep on this and see what I think, but really these birds could have come from anywhere, but the significant observation here is the apparent lack of fresh juvenile birds and the call types of those birds that have been moving through Shetland.

I told you I had a feeling about this year and an irruption !

Saturday 4 July 2009

Raising The Bar

Thought this might be of note to those currently interested in wing barred crossbills in the northern isles just now. Many thanks to Stuart Reeves for passing these on to me last year ( or year before ? ) -

I also recall reading something about the two-barreds from last years irruption in either Birding World or British Birds earlier this year or last year.

Hope this helps - if anyone could get me some recordings of any crossbills from up there that would be fantastic !

Friday 3 July 2009

Barred For Life

Following Alistair's comments below about the Orkney wing barred Crossbills, I thought I would post some pics of 'pine' crossbills with similar plumage structures.

First up, a first winter male, photographed in Deeside in October 2005, the picture quality is absolutely shocking ( light was bad and from the looks of it I might have been pointing the camera the wrong way round !):

However, you can clearly see it a male Parrot Crossbill ( first winter) based on the massive bill depth, and it has white fringes to the greater coverts and tertials, with some faint brown fringing on the median coverts.

Next, a cracking first winter male Parrot Crossbill caught in Deeside in October 2006:

This specimen (bill depth of 13.2mm) has light pale fringes to greater coverts, median coverts and tertials. Normally, these fringes if present are more buff brown in colour. An open wing shot of same bird:

I know some people don't like 'in the hand' shots like this but please appreciate these photographs are only taken to record such plumage and bill shape details of individual colour ringed specimens - they are not 'trophy' shots ! If they had not been taken you would not be reading this post ! All birds are processed as quickly as possible and released unharmed - this particular specimen has been re-sighted many times since its capture and release in October 2006 including feeding juveniles in 2007 and resighted again just a few weeks ago.

The Orkney wing-barred crossbills ? Well the female looks like a Common Crossbill version of my birds above. The male is obscured by foliage but I agree with one of the posters that the fringes look brown not white, and that the tertials are not visible. So for me one definite Common Crossbill (female) and one 'most likey' Common (male).

Monday 29 June 2009

"We Come From The Land Of The Ice And Snow"

A Common Crossbill irruption into the UK is now underway with 100's of birds passing through Shetland, Orkney (particularly North Ronaldsay) and the Western Hebridean Islands. A colleague is on St.Kilda just now though I can't get in touch, but I wager he will come back with tales of loadsa crossbills feeding on thrift !

Some individuals and small parties appear to be hitting the Scottish and English East coast as well and I did read reports of birds passing through (and being caught) at a Danish Bird Observatory. Fair Isle do not seem to be updating their site but I guess it must be crawling with pinemunchers just now.

Calls collected from these migrants would be extremely valuable in determing which call types are 'moving' in and how they infiltrate through the mainland when they arrive (assuming they do arrive - they may continue westwards to certain death in the Atlantic). Surprisingly, we are missing this data. Calls collected by Dougie Preston on Unst last week are interesting as these gave Fc4 calls, a call which has more or less disappeared on the mainland, certainly in NE Scotland. The dominant Common call just now is 1A, a particular variant I sometimes call 'the Parroty Common' due to the similarities of the calls with it's bigger 'cousin'. After the 2005 irruption I saw increases in call type 1B, though birds giving this combination were present in some numbers before the irruption. Thus, localised breeding may have accounted for this increase. Birds on Fair Isle or any of the Isles at this time of year are definitely migrants irrupting westwards. The calls they are giving are as important, possibly more so, as their biometrics. Also, and this is maybe just me, a variance in call structure is surely more significant in practical classification than a difference of 0.2mm in bill depth ( though the latter may have some function in foraging efficiency).

If the irruption continues I will be heading to the Northern or Western Isles myself in order to get some sound recordings. If anyone fancies tagging along and sharing the costs of a hire car, or contributing towards the costs of taking my own vehicle, do get in touch - we may be doing pioneering work !

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for crossbills particularly at coastal sites or on your patch where you haven't had any for the last year or so - they may well be all the way from Fennoscandia or even East of the Ural's !

Monday 22 June 2009

I Like You Just As You Are

It is that time of year where (part of) my attention drifts from birds to dragonflies !

A good find today at a site, in Donside. A female Azure Dameselfly, and the rare blue form at that....and in the pissing rain ! Apologies for poor photo due to rain and bad light, but you can clearly see what it is.

My better/other half had found several males at this site a few weeks ago but I got this cracking female one today suggesting an active population.

This is the most northerly population for Azure Damsel in the UK, certainly that has been reported through the usual gateways, so it just shows you what you can find if you bother to look ! Until this year they were unreported for the region, except an unconfirmed record from the 19th century near Aberdeen and one from South Kincardineshire in the early 20th Century.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Scotch Mist: The Scottish Crossbill No Longer Endangered ?

Scottish Crossbill 'stable' and off the UK Red List !

On the news yesterday apparently and also press released HERE in full, summary below:

"Revival of threatened crossbill

The Scottish crossbill is only found in upland Scots pine forests. The Scottish crossbill, which is the UK's only unique species of bird, has been taken off a conservation charity's endangered list. The RSPB said the birds' population was thought to be stable enough to no longer be classed among the country's most threatened birds. The bird is one of the few success stories of the 2009 assessment. The number of species red-listed has risen 5% since 2002 to more than one in five of all the UK's bird species.

.....Last year, the organisation warned that climate change threatened the Scottish crossbill with extinction. Its population is only found in Scots pine forests, both ancient Caledonian forest and new commercial plantations.

The species can be seen in the Highlands, Cairngorms and upland areas of Perthshire and Argyll, according to the RSPB. A survey funded by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage found approximately 13,000 individuals of the endemic finch, meaning it is now amber-listed. "

Now, here was me planning to give you all a nice report on a Speyside crossbill fest and a Parrot Crossbill (rant/essay) but this is too topical to ignore, so apologies. Cue rant.
Right, so there are 13,000 Scottish Crossbills ? !!! And here was me thinking 10,000 was an excessive estimate ! Er, well you certainly can't say they are endangered if there are 13,000 of them in a tiny area such as Northern Scotland. However, it gets worse, much worse; as well as being found in the 'usual' areas, they were also apparently found in......shock horror.......Lodgepole Pine plantations in southern Sutherland ! I had to dig deep for info this gem but it is on the Net. And there was me saying those birdguides 'over the way' didn't know anything about Scottish Crossbills......though maybe they did the survey ?! Note the Beeb's (RSPB) press release states that Scottish Crossbills are only found in native scots pine woods and plantations, this of course is not the case ! I like the fact that a press release in 2008 threatens that Scotbill will be wiped out by global warming unless they relocate to Iceland and the following year it is taken off the Red List. Hardly consistent policy.

A few points:

1) I don't know what sampling methods were used to produce the figure of 13,000. However, I know that in Deeside they apparently didn't find much evidence for Scottish Crossbills in Spring 2008, when in my experience there was quite a lot about - the best year I have seen here. This might imply there are actually more than 13,000 ! The release states "13,000 individuals" were found. I would assume that this figure is in fact an Index produced by multiplying up the number of individuals found at a point sample location by the total surrounding forest area. If they truly did count 13,000 individual Scottish Crossbills then I stand corrected.

2) What calls exactly were classified as 'Scottish'. This is not clear cut IMO.

3) I don't hate the RSPB - quite the contrary I am a fully paid up supporter and think that anyone interested in birds should also support them. I know that will be unpopular with a lot of those 'serious' birder types, but the simple fact is that no organization is better placed to promote the conservation of birds (and other biodiversity) than RSPB. I don't agree with all their 'policies' just like the last political party I voted for ! Doesn't mean you shouldn't vote with your feet.

But I still can't help think this has all been a bit hasty. The results of this survey suggest there should be several thousands of Scottish Crossbills (not my experience here in Deeside at least) and that they have been found in non-native habitat will surely create 'interesting' challenges for their conservation. I understand the need for a census of the species, but I feel the taxonomy of all loxia in Scotland is ongoing, unresolved and, in my opinion, still 'data deficient'. There, I said it.

What do I think ? Well, it's a wildcard and won't win me many friends, but I think they might just have gone and got the wrong crossbill, certainly with respect to promoting the conservation of our native Caledonian Forests. There are (Scots) pine adapted Crossbills resident and thriving in the ancient native woodlands here in Scotland - and you don't get them 'on the (Lodge)'pole' over the winter. I am not denying that there are intermediate billed crossbills in Scotland that, for the time being at least, are specific to the region. However, it is an assumption to say that these 'intermediate'* billed types are the Scottish Crossbill, the relict species of the Great Forest of Caledon. Isn't it ?

A female Scottish Crossbill, one of 13,000.....alledgedly.

* Intermediate between Common and Parrot.

Saturday 23 May 2009

Scottish Crossbill

A reasonable pic of one of my ringed birds (only metal ringed on right leg, and managed to read it in another photo). A pretty good example of what we call a Scottish Crossbill in Deeside at least. Biometrics (and release call) were all typical of currently accepted Scottish characteristics.
Now, go look at some pics of 'Scottish Crossbills' on the web and compare !
More reports to come soon inc. "Speyside The Rematch" (MEGA crossbill extravaganza), plus an 'essay' on Parrot Crosbill status, but very busy with fieldwork, reports and real work etc.
C yiz soon,

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Nest Finding

Awwwwww !
Had a bad day yesterday and my face strongly resembled the gubby (baby bird) on the right !
And here is mama ( or dada ?):

Avid readers of Stephen Menzie's dynamic and fantastic blog (see list to the right) will now be fully aware of the intracies of ageing Robins. The above bird looks like a 5 to me - wee bit of contrast in GC length and outer ones with prominent thorns (though not totally reliable).
A typical 'ringers eye view':

"Aaaaaaaaaargh !!!!"
More controvesial Crossbill stuff very soon, promise !

Thursday 30 April 2009

Speyside, Monday 20th April

A busman's holiday for me today with a quick sortie over into Speyside to see what is happening with all things loxia.

Arriving late morning it was decided to target the woods at Grantown as I had heard from a correspondent that birds were present and nesting. Lots of dog walkers were an ominous sign (sorry, but I can't stand muts running about off the lead all over the place, though I do like dogs). The most abundant species was without doubt Siskin and we even had a female gathering moss and flying up to her nest.

The big open space after the curling ponds produced faint crossbill calls but the birds were very difficult to locate and we proceeded further into the wood. Shortly, 3 Parrots were found ( two males and one female). They flew directly over but muggins had forgot to switch on the power on the K6 module for the Sennheiser mic - twatsville ! I had decided to record on to minidisc as it is a bit more portable than the dish. All my 'other' recorders supply phantom power so I just forgot. Yes, I know it is reall amatuerish, but then, I am an amatuer. How did I know they were Parrots ? Well:

1) Their flight calls were a deep, slow "Choop", not the fast, thin "cheep's" of the commons that are abundant just now in the pinewoods.

2) They were MASSIVE ! They had big bodies and big heids = Parrot.

On we went, especially in search of Cresties for the missus. We reached a quiet area that I reckoned looked great for cresties - lots of pine snags, birches and some plantation. A bit of pishing brought one in and one of us had their day made......for the time being.

About a quarter of a mile on the track we turned the corner and CRRRRASH, a male Caper twenty yards away flew broadside right across the track and gave crippling views. Normally I hear them crash out of trees away from me so this was the closest I have been to a male ( I got really close to a female gritting at Glen Tanar once). It wasn't the first for my missus though definitely the best views. Surprisingly, we saw one flying a mile across a valley at a height of around 200 ft. just two days earlier on Deeside. Surreal.

Just when things couldn't get much better crossbills were calling all around though distant. Most of these were common types which have settled in the woods in large numbers waiting for the larch and sitka to cone. Typical 1A's though the ones with the 'parroty' looking Fc's (Fc's and Ec's present in this sonogram):

On the way back to the car we picked up that group near the open space by the curling ponds. A group of 8 Commons, all feeding happily on scots pine. As the flew off I got these flight calls:

Those with keen eyes will see the Fc4 type call in there. Another recording had a Fc associated with the type that is 1B - this has been the most dominant Common call for the last 3 years in NE Scotland at least, and seemingly wider afield. In late 2007 25-30% of the Common Crossbills we were catching were type 4E, the others mainly 1B and some 1A's of various sorts. With the larch failure and poor sitka crop things have been mixed up and 1A is now the most prolific call in NE Scotland. However, 4E and 1B are still present albeit in very small numbers. Clearly, the birds have been highly nomadic this winter due to crop failure. What is interesting is that 1A appears to have regained it's 'Scottish' Common status and the other types have apparently fizzled out, at least locally - dead or relocated, who knows ? It is going to be really interesting to see what types come in with the big irruption we are going to have this summer ( here's hoping, ringing licence poised and all) !

For anyone going to Speyside this Spring take heed: most of the crossbills in the native pinewoods just now appear to be Common types. Same over here in Deeside. Happy hunting !

Wednesday 15 April 2009

Private Members Bill

A nice bill study of a 'pine' crossbill. Somewhat spoiled by the grass in the way but a real impromptu 'stealth' shot. Will leave it up to the individual for identification.......but, let's just say if it was a 'published' photograph it would be a Scottish Crossbill. You do the math, as they say !

Got much better pics of both pine species but am holding these back for publication.

Thursday 9 April 2009

Well I'm Back..........Back In Black.

Loxia Fantastica is back, at least in some form ! So, you can't accuse me of throwing all my toys out of the pram.... well you can I suppose, but I have just jumped out and bunged em all back in, if you want to think that way. I feel it is important to highlight some of the dedicated work that is (still) being undertaken on the loxia taxa and to at least continue to give it a UK, and dare I say, Scottish profile.

The 'lab' work and analysis/writing up is still well underway and all being well some may be in print later this year inc. some short notes/papers. Some potentially really exciting stuff for next year in the can. It is also giving me an opportunity to see exactly how much stuff I have for the CD project - I suspect I need at least one more Winter and possibly Spring to complete this, not sure - I want it to be as complete as possible but am beginning to accept that this may never happen....something 'new' always appears.

For all those keen bean loxia fanatics who simply can't wait there is an alternative: you can always do your own research/study/project ! But just remember, you will not always be able to identify every crossbill call, and, for every question you do think you answer be prepared for several more to be raised in response. Oh, and expect to spend a LOT of time in the field, sometimes with seemingly not much return. And, without biometric or biochemical data all you have is "this call was here then" and "this call (possibly) matches with this call". Useful yes, but not definitive, if there ever is such a thing with crossbills !

Friday 27 March 2009

Waco Jaco Pastorius

(Sighs deeply) Ahem ! Okay maybe time for something more constructive and less negative ?

Right, well here is the Weather Report ( get the title now ?) for NE Scotland. It is going to snow. When is it going to snow ? Very, very soon. How do I know this ? Easy, Crossbill nests. You see, every year when I am out checking nests and looking for more or recording singing males, there is at least several days where I am wading through two plus foot of snow. So far this year that has not happened. I do have some nests found so just waiting on the white stuff to come along and wipe half of them out. Admittedly they are a bit later this year but in all previous years females were sitting in snow flurries and storms. Hardy things crossbills.

And, if it doesn't snow then that global warming thingy is to blame and we are all dooooomed. But don't worry, the Scottish Crossbills will all be okay as apparently they will migrate to Iceland, said an expert. Apparently.

Thursday 19 March 2009

Wind Of Change ( not the Scorpions)

At last, common sense prevails:

"From Nigel Hudson-BBRC SecretaryJust to let you all know that at last week-ends' BBRC AGM, held at Minsmere, 3 species were taken off the BBRC list as from Jan 1st 2009. The 3 species are Cattle Egret, White-billed Diver and Parrot Crossbill.For Cattle Egret & White-billed Diver please continue to send any records prior to 1st Jan 2009 to the BBRC. In particular Cattle Egret records should not be ignored as we want to have as complete picture of the influx for any future researchers. Parrot Crossbill is slightly different in that very few records have been submitted for a number of years, and BBRC will not be looking at retrospective records.Also do continue to send records for these species to your County Recorder."

This all means that in this year's NESBR 2008 I don't have to justify not sending my Parrot Crossbill records to BBRC for their verification. Hooha ! I don't think they would have thanked me if I sent them every Parrot record I had somehow.

Kinda ironic though as nearly every photo I see of a 'Scottish Crossbill' on Birdguides, Surfbirds, Bird Forum etc is actually a Parrot Crossbill ! Maybe they(BBRC), or perhaps more appropriately, someone else should be reviewing those records after all ?

Friday 13 March 2009

At Last......Jenni and Winkler !

You remember that scene from 'Waynes World' - the one where Wayne is drooling over the 'glass case' Olympic white Fender Stratocaster uttering "Oh, Yes... One day it shall be mine" ? Well I've got two of those, neither White though. You see for me the proverbial 'White Stratocaster' has been owning my very own copy of.... cue trumpets....bam, bam, baaaam :

Yep, good ole Jenni and Winkler's "Moult and Ageing of European Passerines". Well now I do, or should I say as of Wednesday I do thanks to the very nice lady I bought it from sending it out very quickly. I won the recent auction of a copy on ebay bidding £100, the minimum reserve set for it. The closest other bid was £99.99. So I won by 1 pence. Ouch. To that individual I must apologize - it is the bargaining equivalent of a tennis shot that hits the top of the net and flops over at match point. If it is any consolation my maximum bid was much higher than £100. I also got up to put in my final bid at 7.30 am on a Saturday morning, my busisest day, so you see I really do deserve it.

Was it worth it ? Well at £100 it is £150 cheaper than the one currently on Amazon. For an out of print book it is a fair price I think and I am delighted to finally get one, especially in such good condition. It is going to be real handy too in terms of ringing - contrast in GC's with Robin's has always been a bone of contention with me, and I tend to use tail shape and, in Autumn to late Winter at least, the colour of the inner upper mandible. Iris colour useful too ala Dunnocks. This bookie has some nice wing examples of typical, and atypical specimes which put into pictures what Svensson puts into words. Invaluable for a ringer this book certainly is.

However, fear not if you don't have one or can't foresee owning one before the surely necessary reprint. THIS site may serve as decent stopgap meantime. It did for me.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Common As Muck

Howdy all. Appologies for paucity of posting but it is crazy time again for me - birds are nesting and it is all go for the season !

Sunday and Monday this week I had quite a lot of Common Crossbills in mid Deeside. It was difficult tracking them with the high winds but interesting stuff all the same. Most were in parties of 6 to 8 though I did have a flock of 22. The smaller parties are probably fragmented family groups. Birds were singing and displaying which is always great to watch, though no great recordings as the wind was howling !

I have been finding quite a lot of Common Crossbill parties in the native pinewoods and plantations since December 08, particularly in mid and lower Deeside. These birds have all been feeding on Scots pine as there has been little else for them to munch. Contrary to popular belief they can forage from unopened Scots Pine cones - just not very efficiently. This year they have not had much choice. However, most will seek out those trees where the cones have started to open - I found one such tree with a Parrot, 3 Scotties and a Common near Banchory in December (see post below from December).

Last week caught up with some Scottish 'Pine' Crossbills at a native pinewood:

It is going to be all hands on deck for the next 3 months plus I have loads to write up, so will appologize now if the posts are not forthcoming ! Do stay tuned in just incase........

Friday 23 January 2009

The Dangers of Submitting Records

All of this Birse stuff has got me googling and I came up with this Aberdeenshire Council Planning proposal:

Mmmm that's interesting, Scottish Crossbill has been listed as 'notable' Biodiversity in relation to a planning application, which may or may not have been approved - I don't know. Bullfinch as well. Then the penny dropped - are those my records ! ? So I checked my notebooks and there in black and white for 28th November 2004 were Bullfinch and Scottish Crossbill at Finzean ! Now, the Bullfinches were seen in a drive by near to the Manse so fair enough, but the Scotties were actually seen over 2 miles away, though the correct Grid Ref. was given ! So what relevance do they have for this planning application ? None, I would imagine. I do hope the vicar got his new graveyard in the end.

These records must have been obtained from ones I submitted to The Northeast Of Scotland Bird Report. I have been species author for the three Crossbill types we have for the last 3 or 4 Journals but must confess I have not submitted any individual records of crossbills since then, primarily for reasons such as this (which I didn't know about) - basically, your data being used for things, and ways, that you have no control over. Essentially, it becomes 'Public Domain' for any interested party to use as they see fit. Yes, it does kind of make me feel guilty, but one day I will make sure it is all passed on after I have written it all up and done what I have wanted with it. It has, afterall, taken many, many hours of collecting sound samples and observations over these last 5 (!) years. Also, I do summarize my records in the report so at least there is some input ! Most of the locations are supressed as they are vital ringing sites susceptible to human disturbance, as well as being key nesting sites during the breeding season. So, if anyone does think I am a bit off hand or 'covert' regarding these things please bear these factors in mind !

Rest assured though- if it was serious planning proposal that could destroy or compromise habitat and threaten the species I would not stand back.........however, would I even know about it ? This is my problem, and thus the guilt continues.............

Wednesday 21 January 2009

"Breaking The Law, Breaking The Law", January 3rd

Priceless stuff this folks and definitely one for the memoirs ! Unlike that Mr. Von Meinertzhagen chappie everything you read on this blog is absolutely true. Last year's nonsense at Forest of Birse will have to wait for the official biography but here is the exclusive scoop on this New Year extravaganza.

Saturday 3rd January - fabulous day, no work schedule, no breath of wind. Perfect sound recording conditions. So off up Deeside we go to a site near Ballater that is good for Scottish Crossbills. On arriving there conditions were perfect - bright sunshine, snow lying and very cold. Great potential for birds singing as they are getting a bit frisky just now.

On parking the car out comes recorder and parabola, on goes boots. Meantime my missus goes off to photograph some scenery. Just as I was getting the camera out of the car a police Landrover crawls past with the occupants having a 'good look' at me. Ok, maybe thought I was a bit dodgy - dressed in green gear (but not camo) , calf boots, typical 'ringer look' which is, well, dodgy. So I kept getting my stuff together and assembled the parabola. Police Landrover now comes back down the road and this time pulls up. Two PC's get out one female the other male. The female officer started a conversation along the lines of :

"Allright, Sir ? What are you up to ? "

"Birdwatching" is my reply.

Female PC pointing at parabola - " Quite a lot of kit. What is that for" ?

Me - " for recording birdsong, I am recording crossbills in the nearby woods".

Male Police officer - "How far away can you hear with that".

Me, and I paraphrase - " It can pick up a gnats fart at 200 yards".

Them - "Oh" !

Then I was subjected to a full Police check - Car Reg, full name ( including my middle name), mothers name, address, place of birth, favourite band, etc. The male cop radioed all my details back to base awaiting result. I also had to give full details of what I was doing there eg. studying crossbills. They also had a real good look in the boot of my car.

Now, I am a tolerant guy, believe it or not, but this was beginning to wear a bit thin with me and I was just about to say "look I am not going to answer any more questions until you tell me what this is in relation to" when -

Female PC - " You will understand sir why we are doing this ".

Me - " No, to be honest I have not got a clue".

Female PC - " Well, this is clearly a very sensitive area".

Me, in surprise - "What, recording crossbills in Deeside ?"

Female PC - "No, it is sensitive in terms of who might be here".

Me - " Ah, the Royals ?". "I can assure you I am not remotely interested in recording them !".

Female PC - no answer.

Male PC to Female PC " Check has come back a clean slate".

Well that is reassuring at least. I am who I said I am.

I was then advised it would be best if I wasn't still there at 1.15pm and that it would be really nice of me if I did not take the parabola with me. Or my camera ( which had a 18-70mm lens on !). I asked if I could take my bins. Yes was the answer. Well thanks a bunch ! Of course I complied as things can be made very difficult if you don't, and whilst I later felt somewhat 'mugged', I have been told I handled it well. Or, at least as well as you can. To be fair the Cops were actually okay and were clearly only doing their job, however at one point I had visions of me in an orange boiler suit and leg shackles on a Cuban annexe all for being in the 'wrong place at the wrong time' armed with a Telinga parabola.

So, I had my walk and somewhat predictably, and thankfully, I never saw or heard a single crossbill. Nada. Nicht. So, there was some poetic justice ! Hopefully our future heir to the Kingdom enjoyed his walk. Makes me laugh that my missus avoided all of this - talk about perfect timing.

Now, moral of the story: remember the words of the song "If you go down to the woods today......".

Happier times, recording and watching 3 Scottish and 1 Parrot Crossbill with 1 Common Crossbill near Banchory....a Royal free zone apparently. That is frost on the parabola BTW !