Moby Beak

White-winged Crossbill (photo by Raymond J Barlow)
White-winged crossbill (photo by Raymond J. Barlow of Grimsby, Ontario)

21 December 2008

Crossbills are my quest bird.  They rarely visit Pennsylvania, moving south only in irruptive years when their food supply of seed cones fails at home.  When they come, they arrive in hordes to pry open spruce, pine, fir and hemlock cones with their uniquely crossed bills.  My quest is to actually see their beaks.

Crossbills come in two species: white-winged and red.  In my experience, which is quite limited, the white-winged variety is more common.  Red crossbills are more prevalent in the West.

The first time I ever saw crossbills was in the irruptive winter of 1997-98 when I traveled to Cook Forest with a group of Pittsburgh birders.  The second time was in September 2000 at Acadia National Park.  That year the birds came early to the Maine coast.  As is usual with crossbills, the flock moved around a lot so birders compared notes every day on where they were last seen.

I was possessed by crossbills that fall.  My husband is too near-sighted to watch birds – or even drive – so he was at my mercy.  As we drove to and from hiking spots, on sightseeing trips or on errands I stopped the car at the least hint of birds in cone-bearing trees.  There’s a heck of a lot of cone-bearing trees in Maine so we stopped a lot.

One afternoon, after the fifth time we stopped in half a mile, he compared my quest to searching the whole ocean for Moby Dick.  “They aren’t the Great White Whale, they’re the Great White-winged Crossbills.” That’s when he named them Moby Beak.

This winter after an eleven year absence the crossbills are back.  Since early December they’re reliably found at Cook Forest State Park.  Last Thursday a flock was sighted much further south at Washington Cemetery in Washington, PA.  This is so far south – and so close to home – that Tony Bledsoe suggested we go find them on Saturday.  He hadn’t seen them for 29 years.  I wanted to see their beaks.  The quest was on.

As I left the house before dawn yesterday morning my husband called to me, “Good luck, Ahab!”   We certainly needed it.  Tony and I walked around the cemetery peering at hundreds of cone-bearing trees, but we couldn’t find any crossbills.  We couldn’t hear any either.

It was cold and windy.  After an hour and a half we were shivering and my fingers were so cold they hurt.  We were about to give up in defeat when we heard them coming.  Just two white-winged crossbills – a male and a female – landed in a hemlock near us.  Soon they were joined by two pine siskins.

We temporarily forgot the cold and watched our little group of northern finches.  The male crossbill was a beautiful rosy color, his mate a greenish yellow.  They grabbed the cones with their feet and looked almost cross-eyed as they examined and pried them open.  The birds were close enough that I could see their beaks.

Good job, Ahab!

I’m not done with crossbills.  I will certainly visit Cook Forest in the coming weeks!

(Thanks to Raymond J. Barlow of Grimsby, Ontario, Canada for his photo that clearly shows the beak on a white-winged crossbill.  Click here to visit his tour and photography website.)

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