My survey – Part 2 – flock of crossbills

A female crossbill I at first glance thought to be a parrot!

A female crossbill I at first glance thought to be a parrot!

A male crossbill in the group

A male crossbill in the group

I walked right to the very top of the Grey Craigs track to see if there was a better way round the back of the hill since I was at quite a high point anyway, rather than going downhill and round the neighbouring march. I sat on a rock at the very top of the hill road, having my ‘piece’ and admiring the view.  With the day being so clear I could see in the distance to the west the snow-covered Schiehallion at Kinloch Rannoch. To the south-west I could see the turning blades of one of the 68 huge wind turbines at Griffin Forest in Strathbraan. At 400 feet high, these turbines are twice the height of most. Apart from a small plane that passed overhead, there was not a sound to be heard – apart from an occasional munch as a boiled ham sandwich was masticated!

The hill road I was on degenerated into an unmade track, then a quad bike track, which eventually looped in a direction I did not want to go. I imagined it would be a very short hike through the long heather to the fire-burnt area at the back of the hill. It turned out to be longer than I thought, but not particularly onerous as it was mostly downhill. I passed a rock face on my left, with the midday sun shining on it. I was thinking it would be a great place for a fox to lie up, my thoughts vindicated by the finding of a fresh fox scat. Despite the sunshine, there was still frost on the ground where it was shaded by heather and I noticed round and dainty footprints on the frost on a track; Reynard had slipped away downhill ahead of me.  I scanned the empty hill and suspected that, in the way of a fox, it had deviated either left or right around crags ahead where it would be out of view. I saw its tracks in the frost several times but after I passed these crags they disappeared.

The other side of the hill was more shaded from the sun and I was surprised to put up a cock pheasant just before I reached the burnt heather. It cuck-cuck-cucked in alarm as it swung back over my head to the sunny side of the hill where it would have much more food available in the feeders, but would still need to survive the beaters’ shoot before the season ended on 2 February. Walking was easier on the burnt heather though there was little sign of wildlife. Despite it being almost barren, in some parts thousands of blaeberries had germinated, and these would be followed in a year or so by regenerated heather growth. From desert now, it would turn into one of the most productive parts of the hill within a few years.

I had hoped to see the hen harrier again, but no such luck. I could hear the Mid Hill pair of buzzards mewing, though couldn’t see them. I marched on and re-joined the hill road just up from the pond where I’d disturbed the mallard, then kept heading downhill past Fank Wood and cut across towards High Larches Wood. A buzzard lifted from the wood and headed silently across to Spooky Valley as I made for my rabbit toilet rock, noticing the black rabbit hopping from under an ancient juniper bush at my approach and across to the rhododendrons.  The buzzard settled on a larch tree in Spooky Valley and watched me eat my second sandwich. The Craigmore Face jackdaw clan seemed to be busy behind me, to my right above the big scree face at Spooky Return. They lifted noisily several times before circling and landing in the same place and I wondered if they were taking advantage of grain from the partridge feeders. As I was finishing my piece they came back en masse to their home scree above The Shoulder almost directly ahead of me on Craigmore Face.

I walked along the bog between Low Wood and the L Wood, then crossed the fence on my left to go along the side of Low Wood. This field is a favourite with rabbits and I could see several in the distance, and one closer in that hopped round a dog leg in the fence. The chip-chipping of birds drew my attention to a flock at the very top of one of two small-leaved lime trees at the dog leg of the fence.  I suppose I expected them to be chaffinches, but when I looked at one through the binos I was momentarily startled, thinking I was looking at a parrot. This initial thought changed to great-spotted woodpecker, but because there were several of them I considered the unlikely possibility of a family of woodpeckers. This thought process only took seconds, until I realised I was looking at birds I had never seen before – crossbills. I was surprised how large they looked; even though they were only slightly larger than a greenfinch they somehow looked a lot bigger. The males were orangey-red, with brown wings and a forked tail, while the females were a streaked greeny-yellow with dark wings. The unique feature about them was their large heavy-looking bill with the ends crossed, giving the birds their name of course. They were quite noisy, much more acrobatic than most finches and seemed to climb the branches rather like a parrot or budgie.

Having given me three or four minutes to observe them, they suddenly lifted as a group and flew to my right across to the Henhouse Strip. They chipped away as they flew, with the typical undulating flight of most finches. There were over 20 in the group. I was surprised at seeing crossbills there at all, and amazed there were so many. I am aware there are three separate species of crossbill in Scotland: the common, the Scottish and the parrot. Which species they were I was not sure, though I didn’t think their beaks were as big as put them in the parrot category. Having researched the distribution in Scotland of the three species, it is most likely that these were the common crossbill. I had thought some time ago when I was in Bericky Wood that it was an ideal place for crossbill to breed. I’ll give it some extra attention now as crossbills are often early nesters.

So yet again on the home run I encountered a bird I had not seen before. The sightings of the hen harrier and crossbill now bring the bird species tally to 64. Can I make the 100?

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