In Quest of Moby Beak

Male red crossbill at Spruce Flats Bog, Westmoreland County, PA, 26 Dec 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)

2 January 2022

In mid-December Pittsburgh birders were a-buzz with the news of five red crossbills on Laurel Mountain in Westmoreland County. The birds are so rare in southwestern Pennsylvania that many made the trek to Rector-Edie Road in the Forbes State Forest hoping to see those beaks.

Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are conifer specialists whose crossed beaks are specially evolved to pry open the cones of spruce, hemlock, fir and pine. Because conifer seed abundance varies year to year they are naturally nomadic and highly irruptive. Few are resident anywhere, even in their northern forest breeding range. You can see why they’re so fascinating in this 5-minute video from the Netherlands.

Video of red crossbills in De Koog, Netherlands, 2013 via Wikimedia Commons

Crossed beaks are worth seeing and not easy to find so at times I’ve been as obsessed with them as Ahab was with Moby Dick. Unfortunately I was out of town on 26 December when five friends drove up Laurel Mountain to find the red crossbills. In three hours on the mountain they heard the birds at Rector-Edie Road and had good looks at Spruce Flats Bog where Donna Foyle took these pictures.

Zoomed in on female red crossbill, 26 Dec 2021 (photo by Donna Foyle)

The weather stayed warm last week so seven of us met up at Spruce Flats Bog on Friday 31 December. In the warmth we felt comfortable waiting for two hours for the views Donna had earlier in the week. Instead three red crossbills flew over once without stopping. We couldn’t see their beaks. Aaarrg! That’s exactly why they are called …

Despite my quest for Moby Beak I’m not going back up the mountain any time soon. The weather is now icy and the roads are barely maintained up there. Better luck next time.

(photos by Donna Foyle, video from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the original)

4 thoughts on “In Quest of Moby Beak

  1. They are quite a sight and very beautiful. Maybe some of them will decide to come nest in the spring. That would be really exciting.

    1. Kurt, there is a nestbox at Gulf but no camera — and no peregrines since 2017. They have nested elsewhere for the past 5 years.

  2. From the book:

    Little Friends in Feathers by Inez N. McFee (1921)

    The crossbill has a peculiar beak, crossed at the tip parrot fashion. It is the only native bird with this curious crossing of the bills. On this peculiarity hangs a beautiful legend. It seems that when the Savior hung upon the cross, this valiant little sympathizer came and pulled at the cruel nails which pierced His hands, —pulled with all his might and main, until he twisted his beak and dyed his brownish coat a bright crimson shade.

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