Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Two-barred Crossbills, Nercwys, 17 February 2014

I hadn't been back to my old patch at Nercwys for over a year and I was anticipating some good birding. In particular over the course of the long weekend I wanted to see some Crossbills. The various plantations on the hill have held Common Crossbills regularly since the mid/late 1980s and as a young birder my formative years involved flocks chipping and glipping overhead on what seems like an almost daily basis. Occasionally a flock would even pause and pose for close inspection although more often views were of distant birds on the topmost branches of some great larch or spruce. Very rarely I would see birds in the lower branches - such as when newly fledged young with uncrossed bills were being fed in some scrubby saplings. This weekend was going to be different, though. Not only, was I going to get my first decent views of Crossbills for over a year, but I was also going to search the Nercwys flocks for a rarer straggler - a Parrot Crossbill or even a Two-barred Crossbill. An influx of both species into the UK this winter fueled my optimism - the latter species had already been recorded in Norfolk, Gloucestershire, South Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. In addition, since the views from Nercwys extend for 60-100 miles to the North and East I reckoned that there was a good chance that a rare irrupting Crossbill could not help but end up there.

Sunday morning was my first opportunity. A beautiful day, but I did not have much time to search. As the spruce seemed to be devoid of cones I concentrated on larch hoping to find some feeding birds. Disappointingly I only had four Crossbills and they were brief in-flight views. Intriguingly two of the silhouettes had calls that did not strike me as typical and a quick listen to XenoCanto seemed to indicate that they might have been Two-barred. So, nothing concrete but an encouraging enough start to free up time on Monday to have a proper go. After a quick breakfast I was out on Monday at an earlier time than the day before. A much duller day, with heavy skies, I cursed not having spent more time birding the day before. Almost immediately though a flock came over and checking out the larches as I went I headed in the same direction. Instead as I reached the top of the hill a flock of about 20 swirled up from the top of a nearby pine and descended again. I hopped over the gate and pushed along a track to an area with scattered pines. The Common Crossbills were systematically nipping off pine cones and were feeding away contentedly. I settled down to take photos with the aim of trying to pick out a Parrot. The flock was remarkably quiet at times - at times I was watching the wings of the pine seeds floating down to the ground and thinking how easy it would be to miss the birds once they are settled. After about 30 minutes they seemed to become jittery and most of the flock flew to the top of a western hemlock before selecting another pine tree as their next feeding station.

At this point I noticed that they had been joined by a bird with wingbars. With a sudden increase in excitement my photo rate rocketed as I alternated between shooting pics and grilling the bird through binocs. I could see a pair of great wingbars but no tertial spots so I was suddenly filled with horror that the apparent Two-barred Crossbill might be a wing-barred Common or even worse a hybrid... At that point I realised that there were two birds - as the bird had appeared to change sex as I watched it! From my photos it can be seen that there were 3 birds in this tree - and the tertial spots (which are easily worn) are present on one of the females. After 5 minutes the whole flock lifted into the air calling loudly. In flight there were apparently four Two-barred Crossbills - they are noticeably smaller - I only knowingly saw 2 birds while perched, but having seen a third in the pictures I am happy that all of these smaller birds would have been the same species.

Despite my best efforts for the remainder of the day and a few hours on Tuesday morning I could not relocate the birds. Remarkably, there have only been two previous records of Two-barred Crossbill in Wales - ironically, if I had known that I may not have tried looking for them! So, not only a life/self-found/British/Welsh tick for me, but also a new bird for the Flintshire list!

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