Last Thursday, I was co-leading an expedition to nearby Cranberry Glades Botanical Area as part of the New River Birding & Nature Festival. We were strolling the road, when I heard the sharp kip-kip-kips of a Red Crossbill, Loxia curvirostra, flying over. These odd boreal finches are probably the most coveted of the bird species that might be encountered on this trip, and most years we fail to find them. While nearly all of the group heard the bird, and some saw the distant speck as it hurtled overhead, this was not a very satisfying immersion into the world of crossbills, and this would be a life bird for most in our party.
I then went into the center to query the staff about these birds, knowing from past visits that they were familiar with the species. "Oh yes, they've been around all winter and we've got up to 30 coming in each morning" came the report! Turns out the nature center staff discovered by accident that crossbills enjoy snacking on salt, and they were casting the stuff right outside the garage doors.
Well. With this intelligence in the bag, we modified the next day's visit to Cranberry Glades and went straight to the nature center, leaving the glades for later. Sure enough, no sooner than we exited the bus, the distinctive notes of crossbills greeted us. Our gang of 20 stealthily sneaked up and set up shop about 50 feet from the salting station, and were rewarded with stunning views of these handsome birds.
When we returned to the center for lunch, the crossbills were still hanging out, and once again I tried shooting from the door. This time, the birds did ignore me, and I was able to take the photos in this post with my point and shoot from less than five feet, at times. The pair above is a male and a female, the former being the one with the brick-red plumage. Note their large parrotlike bills with the distinctive crossed mandibles. We were quite excited to see at least one fresh juvenile with the flock; a bird that probably has only been out of the nest a few weeks and was still heavily streaked.
This excellent map, produced by avian distribution expert Paul Lehman, depicts the overall distribution of Red Crossbill. The purple areas denote the breeding range.
But there is more to the story.
Red Crossbills are a complex species, and have been divided into nine "types". Some authorities believe that all of them warrant recognition as distinct species; others think that at least a few of the types should be split out; and conservatives such as your blogger feel that the types perhaps merit subspecies level distinction at best.
But it is possible that some carving up of the Red Crossbill may occur in the future. If so, we'll have to work hard to determine which types these southern Appalachian crossbills are. Apparently they are most likely the so-called Type 1 or Type 2 populations. The best - only? - way to separate the types in the field is by vocalizations, so if any "new" species are split, you can be assured there will be many birders trying to master the subtleties of Red Crossbill calls.