Crossbills in Pennsylvania!

Nomadic winter finches are always fun. Their wandering habits, often beautiful colours, and northern allure make them a huge draw for birders. Aside from the usual siskins and purple finches, winter finches are usually almost entirely lacking from Pennsyvlania which makes them even more appealing to birders when they do show up. The last big irruption of finches into the state was the winter of 2012-2013 when both crossbills en mass and smaller numbers of evening grosbeaks and common redpolls covered the state. Since that winter however, reports have been few and far between. However, a couple weeks ago, a flock of red crossbills were found foraging at the relatively unknown Trough Creek State Park in Huntington County, Pennsylvania. Naturally, this drew a large number of birders and one Sunday I couldn’t help but give chase.

Gathering a group of young birders from Pittsburgh consisting of CMU student Sameer Apte and UChicago student back on break Jack Chaillet, I headed east towards the mountains and the crossbills they coveted. We got lost a few times in a couple different places but eventually did arrive in Huntington County. However, before we even got to the crossbill spot, we couldn’t resist stopping on a bridge crossing Raystown Lake (which Jack informed me was the largest lake entirely in Pennsylvania). Below and around the bridge was pretty much the only area of open water of the entire lake and consequently it held a solid group of common mergansers, 88 in all. However, even such a large number of mergs couldn’t keep us occupied for long, as the thought of finches drove us further down the road.

Arriving at the crossbill spot, we got sidetracked once again, this time by a huge concentration of rather friendly red-breasted nuthatches tooting away happily. Trough Creek seemed to be a place of avian abundance as we quickly tallied about 15 nuthatches and large flocks of blue jays and slate-coloured juncos passed through, with single yellow-bellied sapsucker and brown creeper to boot. The red-breasted nuthatches in particular drew our attention as a species not commonly seen in Allegheny County. Red-breasted is the far superior nuthatch to white-breasted we all quickly decided.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch

Making life easier for us, we ended up not even needing to look for the crossbills as we heard some flight calls coming overhead while still admiring the nuthatches. Soon we spotted two birds in the tops of some spruces. However, these quickly flew off. A bit of wandering and birding later and a flock of about 20 descended from the heavens upon the spruce cones. Over the next half hour we watched the flock move from tree to tree cracking open cones for the seeds inside.

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Unusual red crossbill foraging behavior — they were creeping along like nuthatches and eating something along the tree limb

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Red Crossbill

Better yet I was able to get some recordings of the birds calling to identify them to type. Initially after looking at spectrograms, I was pretty sure the birds were Type 2s. However, I emailed the recordings and spectrograms to Matt Young who studies crossbill types at Cornell, who identified them as likely being the very similar Type 1 since, among other reasons, the highest point in the calls falls above 2.5kHz, they show faint upticks, and Type 1 is the most common in the Appalachians.

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Red Crossbill Spectrogram (http://www.xeno-canto.org/350977)

Altogether quite a good morning of birding, spending some quality time in a lovely spot I hadn’t birded before and with some even lovelier finches.

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