It was their call that made me notice them.  Similar in tone to the urgent mewings of the linnet but softer, more clipped – a coaxing, reassuring, peaceful sound.   A foraging flock had settled in the spruce trees to the left of the path.  They were feeding on the cones.  I reached for my binoculars, tucked into the waste-band of my running shorts.  The lenses were misty with perspiration.  I wiped them on my vest before I could focus, but the birds were too busy ‘working the tree’ to fly off.  I trained my attention on the nearest bird.  It was bulky, finch like with a large triangular bill.  Its plumage was brown and densely striated, like a bunting’s, but darker – a juvenile.   

 

Of course, my subconscious knew what these were as soon as I had seen them fly in.  I had the giss.  I had watched them feeding in the pine woods of Majorca and also along the West Highland Way in Scotland.  But what were they doing in a park in Derbyshire in late July?  Another bird flew down.  Its plumage was different; less marked and tinged grey-green – an adult female. Above her was a male.  Such a curious colour; its head was bright orange shading to on the chest and back – blood orange!  Its rump was a much brighter red.  It flew down to feed on the lower branches level with my head.  It was 15 feet away and quite unconcerned by my presence.  I focussed on the beak.  Yes, the upper mandible was long and curved to a sharp and crossed over the lower one – a clear identification. 

 

Crossbills are the parrots of our northern forests. Their mandibles are especially adapted to their specialist diet.  Not only are they sharply pointed and crossed, but they can be dislocated.  Watch how a Crossbill inserts the points between the overlapping seeds of a fir cone and then opens its bill upwards and sideways, prising the gap open so that the kernel can be detached with its prehensile tongue.   

 

But Crossbills don’t breed in Derbyshire.  The Common Crossbill breeds in the New Forest and patches of East Anglia – its Scottish cousin, indistinguishable in the field, much further north.  They have also been seen in Wales and in the Keilder Forest – but middle England?  They must be on migration, but from where to where. 

 

Back home, I consulted the books. Crossbills are distributed patchily throughout Europe, I read. They don’t seem to have distinct breeding territories and winter quarters.  They are uniquely dependent on the fruits of conifers and they, like other birds, follow the food supply.   Shortages in the crop of pine cones can trigger mass migrations, reminiscent of those of the Waxwing.  Crossbill invasions were noted in 1251, 1593, 1757 and 1791.  2008?  Well one swallow doesn’t make a summer and one flock of Crossbills in Derbyshire doesn’t make an invasion – but we can dream.

 

The Crossbill is a magical bird.  In Swiss-German, it is known as Krutzvogel, or the Crossbird, prompting mediaeval bestiarists to make links with the crucifixion of Christ.  Legend has it that the crossbird deformed its mandibles trying to remove the nails from Jesus’ hands and feet, smearing its feathers with blood in the process.  

 

 

 

I too felt I had witnessed something mystical, portentous even. Why else, on a perfectly ordinary, muggy, misty, late summer morning, with the trees darkening, sunflowers in the hedgerows, sheep up to their shanks in waving seedheads and meadows scabby with thistles, would the mythical Crossbird invade Derbyshire?  

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