Wednesday 14 September 2011

Scottish Crossbill, 19th April 2009

A retrospective example of a genuine Scottish Crossbill to compensate for all those published pictures of Parrot Crossbills on the web and publications. Taken with Nikon D300 and Nikon 300mm f4 lens, upper Deeside Spring 2009.

© Lindsay Cargill 2009

Common Crossbill Calls and Dragonflies, Summer 2011

Been a while but have been really, really busy with work and other commitments - apologies to regular LF readers who may have missed their fix of Crossbill nonsense.

In June I was lucky enough to spend a week over Glen Affric/Beinn Eighe way, primarily to look for Odonata but of course I was on the look out for Crossbills and had recording equipment with me. Turned out to be a really bad year for dragonflies - even seing a couple of Large Reds was a welcome sight some days. That said, in the end the only target species we missed that way was White-faced Darter, but we picked them up at a reliable site in Abernethy on the way home. Dragonfly highlight was Azure Hawkers at Loch Maree:

And even some blue form Azure Dragonfly females:

And a 'blue' form female and male together so you can see the difference (female on left):

There were actually several of these blue form females at this site and we did wonder if it was a result of the particularly cool Summer we had been having up till that point - to date it has been the worst Summer I can recall, winds and wet weather have made it very difficult to do any serious ringing on my days off which has been really frustrating. It is worth pointing out that at this site we had blanked Azures on two previous visits - the day we got them in good numbers was sunny and warm.

Quite a lot of these going around:

And another highlight, Northern Emerald:

I had flocks of Common Crossbills every day arounf the Beinn Eighe Visitor Centre and surrounding woods. Many juveniles were present and the birds were feeding on Scots Pine. Regular reader will already know of my concern at the interpretation of certain crossbill flight calls and here is a good example from Beinn Eighe:

There is a juvenile begging call in there ( "teet-ow") but look at the adult flight call and how it 'morphs'. At the far left it almost resembles classic published Scottish Flight Call (fc3) with its extra trialing component. Then the extra component disappears and the second call in is a typical Fc1 ( choopy or parroty variant as I call them) but the last 4 fcs all have that quite strong trailing component ala Scottish Crossbill, and which give the call a flutey quality when appraising them aurally. These birds were definitely Common Crossbills - I had a really good chance to examine their plumage, body proportions and bill structures.

The flock flying off (14 birds) and clear Fc1 (parroty variants):

On the way home we discovered a really big feeding flock of Common Crossbills at Dinnet in Deeside. These too were feeding on Scots Pine. And, another "morpher":

This bird is a Fc1 Common Crossbill. But, how many would classify it as a Parrot on the second, third and fourth calls ? How many would classify it as a Scottish on the last call ( a two syallable structure) ?

This sequence adds in a variant Crossbill call I have been recording since last year:

The third call in from the left ( and replicants at the end of the sequence) looks like a Fc1B (or parakeet)type on the sonagram, but aurally they sound very like Fc4 (or glip) type Fc's ( due to the higher frequenct trailing tail). The corresponding Ec does seem to be EcB so I am classifying them as 1B types but aurally they really are like Fc4's ! To me 1B "parakeets" sound really "cheepy" whilst these jobbies sound quite "clippy", a big difference. I don't think it is safe to assume these ones above are "parakeet" types, vocally.

A "real" glip to compare, from lower Deeside 31st July 2011:

And on the same day a Fc1 with extra component (ala Scotbill ???):

I am pretty sure that Crossbills add these 'artifacts' as a result of their double syrinx - they can produce more than one note at a time and thus can easily produce two different notes at two different times as above ( I think it may be a 'resonance' of the first note through the second chamber of the syrinx, exaggerated when calling particularly strongly - but this is just a hunch). I am prety sure that in the lexicon of published data this call might have been good for Scottish......

If anyone wants copies of the sonagrams then just ask - don't copy and fob off as your own please !

© Lindsay Cargill 2011

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Birdwatch Crossbill Article....The Truth Is Out There ?

As a subscriber to Birdwatch and as someone who was consulted by David Callahan for his excellent article on Crossbill Taxonomy last year I read with interest the piece “Crossbills: New Challenges” by Andy Stoddart in Issue no.228. As a ringer and researcher spending much of my spare time studying the crossbills of NE Scotland some of the content contained in the article raised certain issues with me and there are also parts of the article that I feel are worth further comment. Firstly, I must state that I have every respect for Mr. Stoddart as an author and as respected and experienced birder whose all round experience is clearly extensive and not open to question, however I do know Crossbills very well so I hope my comments are received constructively and in the good faith that they are offered. My main reason for writing this response is that possibly up to 100 times more people will read Mr. Stoddart’s Birdwatch article than ANY scientific paper on Crossbill research, therefore I feel it is important that the facts and information are presented clearly and responsibly and that any speculation or personal hypotheses are also made clear and also in context.

Mr. Stoddart raises the point that the movements of our native birds “are not fully documented, notably the extent to which Scottish and Parrot Crossbills may wander from their breeding areas”. This is not true for Scotland, which is where these birds are resident, as RSPB have conducted two extensive surveys including a Scottish Crossbill Survey. On a similar point later in the article it is claimed that crossbills have been trapped in England during the irruption of 1990-91 that had measurements that “fell well within the range of Scottish Crossbill”. Whilst this may be true there are two factors worth considering and adding as caveats; first, that individual observer bill depth measurements can vary significantly potentially over-estimating the bill depth measurement, and that this, combined with the fact that some Common Crossbills can have long wings, could make large-billed Common Crossbills appear ‘Scottish’. Secondly, there is considerable variation in crossbill biometrics within ‘types’ and perhaps this was ‘exaggerated’ by a bigger sample size during an irruption. Another important point is that, as far as I know, the all important vocalisations were not taken on these birds. In other words to infer that these Crossbills could have been Scottish Crossbills is speculation without foundation - the article that was referenced actually suggested the opposite eg. that some birds in the study considered to have been Scottish on bill size may actually have been Common !

A 'big' Common Crossbill with Bill depth 11.2mm and wing 99mm....

Another assertion that I strongly disagree with is the statement that the work on crossbill vocalisations that has most relevance to British observers is that of Magnus Robb in particular in Dutch Birding (2000). Not to take anything away from the pioneering work then (and now) by Magnus I feel it was a bit of a major omission not to reference or include (or cite !) the extensive work carried out by Dr. Ron Summers on UK crossbill vocalisations and distributions, and in some cases abundance indices are available for all the various crossbill call ‘types’, though again with a particular focus on the Scotland - we are still part of the UK as far as I am concerned regardless of any recent Nationalist 'sucesses'. Ron and his colleagues also matched biometrics with vocalisations, something that Magnus didn’t and which in part may have accounted for some of the Parrot calls on the Dutch Birding CD then being mistakenly classified as Scottish Crossbill. To recommend this to British birders is therefore somewhat errant as presumably they will want to accurately ID both Parrot and Scottish Crossbills. The Chapter on Crossbills in the “Sound Approach to Birding” corrects the calls for Scottish and Parrot and would, in my opinion, be a more appropriate and accurate resource for a UK based birder than the Dutch Birding CD and is readily available. However, the Common Crossbill material in the Dutch Birding CD is indeed comprehensive and worth owning for this alone, and I concede this point.

Given that a major focus of the article was to be on Crossbill Identification I feel more could have been made concerning the differences between Scottish and Common and Parrot and Scottish but I understand that only a general overview was being given. The moult patterns of crossbills can at times be useful in diagnosis as can the temporal presence of streaked juveniles, though some overlap can occur. There were a few comments on Parrot Crossbill and Scottish Crossbill that I found puzzling and one which I challenge. Mr. Stoddart warns and fears of another irruption of Parrot Crossbill where he “[see’s] a future plagued by arguments over digital photographs and whether the bills ‘look big enough’.” Personally I don’t see a problem with this – it seems to happen with other rarities and anyway separation of Parrot Crossbill from Common Crossbill in any location is relatively straightforward in the vast majority of cases. However, regarding Scottish Crossbill I do not understand why a photograph of a perched Parrot ‘type’ bird was used in the final page montage. If one compares it to the Finnish Parrot directly to its left, to me the bill structures look similar – the Scottish bird has its head and bill tucked down which gives a different postural appearance. I am confident if it was in the same posture as its neighbouring photograph the bill structures would look very similar eg. it is a Parrot Crossbill. I questioned photographer on the identification of the bird in this photograph at the time (2007) on Birdguides when it was posted and received no reply as to the methods of its identification eg. presumably no sound recording. Given that, in my opinion, the vast majority of photographs of ‘Scottish Crossbills’ on the web and in even in some publications (some who should know better) appear to be Parrot type crossbills this action actaully compounds and perpetuates this situation further rather than improves it. I also think the rather flippant comment “this species [Scottish Crossbill] – assuming it is one” is very unhelpful and possibly  a tad cavalier. Scottish Crossbill IS regarded a full species by BOU following scientific research by several different workers - like particular laws some people may not like this fact but it is what it is and again the article perpetuates the scenario of “it’s not a real species” comments on the Birding ‘web’ which almost seem to ‘self prophesize’. When Mr. Callahan contacted me for his article I sent him several photographs of Scottish and Parrot Crossbills both ‘in hand’ and ‘in situ’. These birds were either identified by biometric measurements (and sightings of known colour ringed birds) and/or sonogram analysis of flight/alarm call and thus have some provenance regarding speciation. I would have been happy for any of these to be used in the present article by Mr. Stoddart and indeed could have offered more in the knowledge that an article can cite such facts to thoroughly inform readers and birders. I was not contacted. There are no such facts or information provided for any of the photographs in the article so how do we know how these birds were identified ? This needs to change or the problems that Mr. Soddart indentifies will merely continue to be perpetuated.

On the subject of vocalisations, an area of particular interest to my own studies, I have to raise several points. The article raises the question of whether the key to Parrot Crossbill identification lies in the diagnostic recognition of its vocalisations. Well, this is certainly extensively documented so yes it is diagnostic. But as someone who primarily studies Parrot Crossbills here in Scotland I take major issue (and even offence) at the statement “ ..but few-if any- British birders will be well practised in this art”. As someone who can confidently (and accurately) classify crossbill calls to type or species by ear (where they are classified calls) I invite Mr. Stoddart to come out into the field with me some time to bear witness! Perhaps I wouldn't be regarded a 'birder' ? ! There is also another statement that perhaps shows a lack of understanding of the situation : “Following Robb’s elucidation of the different call types, it is clear that several of these at least are resident or reaching Britain, but a precise elucidation of their status remains a long way off”. Again, there are existing publications and articles which show distribution of Common Crossbill call types, origin of sampled birds using stable isotope techniques and there is work in the pipeline by myself and other workers concerning Common Crossbill call distribution and biometric classification.

A Crossbill being ringed and is being done in UK, honest !

The last point, and arguably the most important, is that the article seriously underestimated the fact that there are already quite a lot of people in the UK sound recording crossbills, either seriously or casually. Two weeks ago I was sent a crossbill call recorded in Glenmore of a call 'type' that I hadn't seen before - sounded quite Scottishy but most likely a variant Parrot call (possibly even a bird call syncing to a Scottish mate - it looked like a blatant Parrot in the photo). This call was recorded by someone visiting the area on holiday from England. I receive many such communications and correspond with recordists as much as I can. Some of these correspondences are actually on this blog - I am not sure if Mr. Stoddart is aware of Loxia Fantastica, but 20 odd thousand other people are...........

New Scottish Flight Call......discovered by actually going out and looking !

So, whilst a potentially interesting opportunity to discuss the Loxia complex, for me the article was a bit of a disappointment and I say this as a fully paid subscriber to the magazine first and as a crossbill researcher second - it wasn't a case of "New Challenges" but rather "Old Hat" or "Business as usual" for some of us !

Saturday 26 March 2011

Toop, Toop, Choop, Choop !

No, I haven't lost my mind, but rather a short discussion of phonetic crossbill calls ! I get many references in emails describing crossbill calls in the field using phonetic descriptions. Most existing phonetic descriptions in the crossbill literature, other than those by Magnus and Sound Approach, are errant or misleading in my opinion, particularly for Loxia scotica. They also may not reflect the 'current' evidence either. Actual audio recordings are preferable, however the following may offer some clues in separating Parrot Crossbill from Scottish Crossbill in the field.

Parrot Crossbill

Flight Calls are a distinct "Choop" or "Chup", emphasis on the "oo" or "u". These can also sound 'flutey' (a term often wrongly used to describe Scottish flight calls) due to a pronounced harmonic that is often present ( and which can make them appear on sonagrams like published Scottish flight calls). Birds may also give a more subdued "tip, tip, tip" call when in 'cryptic' flight (similar to those given by Bullfinch). They sometimes give these on release after being captured and ringed. These can appear as single descending streaks on sonagrams.

Excitement calls are a lower pitched (than flight calls) 'cluck' reminscent of a Blackbird alarm call, or more closely a Jackdaw (and between the two in 'pitch' and timbre). Aurally, Parrot excitement calls sound very similar to Common Crossbill EcA ( or "British" ala Sound Approach) and it takes much experience to separate them by ear in the field. In such cases a look at the bill should help diagnosis, but not always it would appear !

Scottish Crossbill

Recent evidence that I have collected and matched with biometrics shows intermediate billed (Scottish) give a 'di-syllabic' flight call sounding as a "t-reep" or sometimes a 'lispy' "th-reep". This is much higher pitched than Parrot flight call and in fact can not be confused aurally with ANY commonly occuring Loxia in the UK ! NB. THESE CALLS ARE DIFFERENT FROM THOSE THAT HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED !

Scottish excitement calls are much more 'hollow' than Parrot Crossbill, and sound like a "tonk, tonk" or "tunk, tunk" - I think it sounds more stacatto (abbreviated) than Parrot and timbrally similar to wooden claves or woodblocks being struck (for any would be percussionists out there !). In the field it is VERY similar in tonal and timbral quality to Common Crossbill EcE or "glip" excitement call, especially if the harmonics are less pronounced ( which makes the call look very similar on a sonagram too !). This is a RARE call, by far my rarest recorded Crossbill Excitement call, suggesting this call, like the flight call, may be in a state of flux - time will tell.

One word of caution. Often people describe large-billed crossbills giving very 'deep calls'. In cases like this, assuming they are correct, they are describing Parrot Crossbills as both Scottish flight and excitement call are higher pitched than Parrot, and typically much more like those for Common Crossbill. It is worth reiterating that 90% of photos I am sent or see on the web of presumed 'Scottish Crossbills' are in fact actually Parrot Crossbills (in my experience) ! My advice: leave the camera at home, buy a mic and recorder, think about the above, and learn about the vocal dialects of the crossbills in your area.

Friday 11 March 2011

I Don't Just Do Crossbills !

As many readers may know House Sparrow numbers are in sharp decline and the species is now Red listed. In my own garden in central Aberdeen I used to get up to about 60 at once but here too the numbers seem to have decreased in the last few years, and there is maybe a population of around 40 to maybe 60 in the area. Last year I know that they had several broods so juvenile survival must be very poor, either that or the birds are dispersing locally. I have ringed about 90 House Sparrows (with little effort) and have so far only had two retraps, and reckon at the moment there are only two or three metal ringed birds visiting.

So, I have just started a RAS project organized and sanctioned through the BTO to study my local House Sparrow population - RAS stands for ' retrapping adults for survival'. By colour-ringing the birds and reading the combinations in the field it is possible to get 're-traps' without physically re-catching the birds. By ringing enough birds and by getting as many re-sightings of individuals as possible we can deduce the mortality within the population. Over and above this I am going to colour ring as many of the newly fledged juvenile birds as possible to try and work out some numbers for juvenile mortality (and the time scale of this), as well as measuring any localised dispersal. The presumption is that the Sparrows will continue to visit the feeders so should be seen again (if they are not predated or die from disease). Dispersal can be measured by checking feeders and Sparrow perching sites in the neighbourhood. Disease may also be a significant factor in mortality- I rescued a male House Sparrow in December last year suffering from avian botulism, but sadly this bird expired ( horrible stuff, I hope none of you have to deal with that). I should add that this bird was a mile from my house so not my feeding regime causing the problem.

The bird in the photo is an adult male A01, now getting the distictive black bill of the breeding season. I am using Interrex acrylic rings designed and manufactured in Poland. The rings are sealed with cement to safely secure them and to prevent removal and are fitted so they can't extend below on to the foot or above the tarsus 'knee' joint. They are easily read with binoculars on perching birds ( when facing the right way !) or can be image grabbed from digital photo sequences.

I know many birders don't rate Sparrow but I can't understand this - they are very 'happy' social finches, the males striking when in breeding plumage and I for one can't imagine the dull silence that would prevail if there were no House Sparrows chirping in my garden. Let's hope the streets and fields don't fall silent.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Ground Control To Major Tom...What Gear Do You Use ?

Contact details have been added in my profile on the right. This is for use of any genuine enquiries and for colleagues who have been unable to get me at my old email address eg. Ringers, crossbill sound recordists, birders in Northern Isles who are sighting and collecting crossbill call data, people with dead or injured crossbills, or people with sightings of colour-ringed crossbills.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints I can't respond to general enquiries about crossbills or location requests for Parrot and Scottish Crossbill. This includes identifications from photographs so please don't send any - sorry. Such emails will not be responded to so to avoid potential offence please don't waste time writing them ! I also can't spend time writing extensive emails advising on sound recording equipment - I recently did such an email to an RSPB researcher, took me an hour and I didn't even get a reply saying "thanks" so no more I am afraid. There is now plenty info on the web on this, but for those interested I have used the following since 2006:

Telinga Stereo DAT and Twin Science Microphones
Telinga Pro 6 Handle
Fostex FR2LE recorder
Fostex FR2 recorder
Sennheiser ME67 (occasionally)
Sennheiser ME62 (occasionally)
Sony MZNH900 Mini disc recorder (with Telinga Power Box)
Sony MZRH1 Mini disc recorder
Beyer Dynamic DT990 'phones
Raven Lite and Raven Pro Software
Adobe Audition Sound Editing Suite
Misc Leads and connectors  from FEL Communications (excellent stuff btw guys)

Quite an arsenal when you see it written down.....

Sorry I can't respond to every enquiry but I do also have a job running my own business as well studying crossbills in any spare time !


Sunday 16 January 2011

Contact Details

I changed ISP provider some time ago, and although I thought all my mail was being forwarded, including from other sub-accounts, it has been brought to my attention recently that this is not the case ! So, if you have contacted me over the last year and have had no reply from me please accept my apologies, but I have not received your mail. Some have got through, however, so it appears sporadic depending on which route the mail is forwarded.

I will be putting updated contact details on here soon, possibly a specific hotmail account. However, I am very wary of doing this as I will no doubt receive requests for information on where to see Scottish and Parrot Crossbills, as well as general Spam ! I NEVER give out this specific information as these locations are sites where I or two of my colleagues in Grampian Ringing Group ring Crossbills and are thus very sensitive. So to avoid potential offence (by being ignored) please do not ask for this !

I can also be reached on (ahem!) BurdForum - I keep a very limited profile on there specifically to gather and respond to Waxwing colour-ring sightings on behalf of GRG. My handle is "Bombycilla". Please note I rarely log-in to pick up PM but the email address on there does appear to work. Now I have put this out, I will probably be banned again....... I also have limited presence on Twitter ( see column to the right).

Coming soon on LF, a short article on Crossbill Wing Moult: