If you have a birdbath watch out for an unforgettable sight

Crossbills.
Crossbills.
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THE CROSSBILL is a thirsty bird. Every day I peep from my kitchen window to see if one or two of these curious birds has come to drink. But this is a rare sight.

I had four down in the autumn last, quite a surprise to see suddenly. They look like some sort of miniature parrot after all. I am wondering if 2012 will be a year for them.

In recent times Sussex has enjoyed what birders call “an irruption” about every third year. Irruptions occurred in 2003, ‘06 and ‘09, so perhaps 2012 is the third one. There were others in 1960, ‘63 and ‘67. So there may be some sort of pattern of weather which persuades these comical creatures west to our shore from Sweden and beyond.

Unless you have a little puddle or two in your garden as I have in my old frying pans, you won’t see the scarlet joker in the pack of small brown birds which the finches and buntings tend to be. They are often quite confiding allowing close approach.

A pair once bred in my garden, and brought their young down to feed on the rough old lawn. Although the books will say they feed only on fir cone seeds the young are of course given a diet of protein from the bodies of small insects and caterpillars, in the same way that grass-eating geese start life on a diet of mosquito and other fly larvae.

Those youngsters in my garden then crept about like mice with their parents amongst the long grass stems and I could easily watch them eating insects and miniature fungi and seeds of grass and thistle among others. But once developed, off they all go to the tops of the Douglas firs, the scotch pines or the larch trees.

There again they will creep about among the needles like mice, and you will never know. Unless you hear the patter of tiny bits. For crossbills, with their mighty mandrels can twist the seeds out of the stoutest cones. All you will hear from them, in the pine tops, is a gentle twittering as they talk to one another while they feast.

Watch through binoculars and you will see a troupe of acrobats swinging upside down while they snip the cones from off the twigs. This will then be grasped firmly in the claws as the twist-bit goes to work to prise off the scales. Bits fall continually and on a still day with a flock at work you can hear the rain of pieces and in sunlight see it falling.

Several times in the past 45 years in Sussex I have come across this dusting of cones in the woods at Ashdown, Henley, Lavington and here in West Dean Woods.

This strong food with its turpentine gives them a wonderful thirst and if you have a pond, a puddle, or an old frying pan put to proper use as a bird bath you may well see the rosy-bodied male with his brown wife and that is a sight never to be forgotten.

Above: Crossbills enjoying a drink after their thirst-inducing nibbles

Richard Williamson