Crossbills Acting Cross-Eyed

August 12, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

It seems that a group of rare two-barred crossbills ‘looked’ at their internal compasses a little cross-eyed since they took a wrong turn and ended up in a remote, windswept outcrop of Scottish islands. No doubt the birds came in search of food but it is unlikely that they’re going to find their favorite snack – larch and spruce cones – this far north.

The rare and colorful two-barred crossbill hails from Russia and usually scours parts of Europe in search of coniferous forests. Their normal haunts stretch from Sea of Okhotsk to the Finnish border – a distance of some 3 500 miles. While they have been spotted in Scotland before, they don’t generally make a habit of venturing all the way to Britain in their travels. This year it seems that not only have they decided to cross the sea, but they’ve done so in large family groups. So far 22 of the birds have been counted in Shetland – the greatest number to hit the island since 1990. The females and juveniles of the species are green and yellow, while the males are dark red. Both are easy to spot in the somewhat barren Shetland Isles and they are attracting a lot of attention. But Shetland isn’t the only place they’ve been spotted. More birds have been spotted in Orkney, Harris in the Western Islands, and on St Kilda – a staggering 50 miles further north than any of the other locations. Some have also been spotted much further south in Kent. In total at least 48 birds have been recorded in the country during a period of just three weeks.

Commenting on the number of juveniles in the groups, Shetland bird recorder Paul Harvey suggested that the birds’ presence is most likely the result of a successful breeding season followed by a shortage of food in their more usual forage areas at the top of Russia. Essentially they were not meant to end up as far away from their homes as Britain, but it seems they’ll get by. Harvey noted that since they’ve arrived in Scotland they’ve been feeding mainly on thistle heads, seeds and sea pinks. He surmised that they will eventually move on in their quest for food. Until that happens, the birds will continue to be hunted by amateur and professional cameramen alike as they attempt to catch the colorful phenomenon on film. It seems they have even caught the attention of a few tourists – many of which can no doubt sympathize with the inconvenience of taking a wrong turn during ones travels.

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