Parrot Crossbill at Wakerley

Lightning strikes twice and a thirty-year wait comes to an end.

It’s been almost thirty years since the last Parrot Crossbill was seen in Northants. That was in March 1991. But it’s exactly thirty years to the month, November 1990, when the first one for the county was found. Between those two months a male and a female were seen on and off throughout the winter of 1990-91 and a flock of 10-12 was seen on just one date, 22nd November 1990. All these birds have one thing in common: Wakerley Great Wood.

So, with history repeating itself during the past 24 hours, Wakerley has turned up trumps again, producing another Parrot Crossbill in the area of larches which surround the car park and routinely favoured by Crossbills.

Captured on film during a hardcore Crossbill photography session by Tom Green yesterday, a male was subsequently identified from a photograph posted on Twitter and this led to it being seen ‘live’ early this morning, by Gary Pullan and Neil Underwood, as it fed with three Crossbills in the larches by the car park toilet block. Hopefully it will remain there for some time to come, although it is flighty and there are at least 40 Crossbills to wade through …

Male Parrot Crossbill, Wakerley Great Wood, 15th November 2020 (Tom Green)

Parrot Crossbills, UK, 1st October to 16th November 2020 (BirdGuides), the Wakerley male (Tom Green) and location at Wakerley.

To set it in context, this current autumn has seen a mini-influx of small numbers of Parrot Crossbills across the eastern part of the UK, from Shetland to Kent, suggesting that there are more out there if we make the effort to look.

A little Mealy Magic

A morning spent with the Stanford Ringing Group produced some interesting birds, top of the bill being a Mealy Redpoll. After a local ‘species drought’ over the past year, significant numbers of Lesser Redpolls have been recorded across the county over the past ten days or so, including a Mealy Redpoll seen but not trapped, at Stanford Res on 10th October.

Out of 108 birds trapped and ringed at Stanford today, 33 were redpolls, including two which were noteworthy. The first of these was an adult Mealy Redpoll, aged principally by tail feather shape. This one stood out initially because of its pallid, lightly streaked appearance and closer examination revealed features consistent with the species. However, it was not the bird seen there two days previously. Basically, pale face and supercilium, pale and finely-streaked nape, contrasting with rear crown and mantle, tramlines on the latter (buff, not yet white), pale grey rump with darker streaks and larger bill compared with the Lesser Redpolls trapped at the same time. It also weighed in at up to 2 g more than the Lessers being trapped.

Adult Mealy Redpoll, Stanford Res, 12th October 2020 (Mike Alibone)
Adult Mealy Redpoll with Lesser Redpoll, Stanford Res, 12th October 2020 (Mike Alibone)
Adult Mealy Redpoll with Lesser Redpoll, Stanford Res, 12th October 2020 (Mike Alibone)

While all these are ‘good’ characters, the clincher was the wing length, which was 74 mm, which is just outside the range of that given by Svensson’s Identification Guide to European Passerines for Lesser Redpoll (68-73 mm for male, 67-71 mm for female) but see below … The fact that there was a total absence of pink in the plumage suggested the bird was a female and the buff tips to all the secondary coverts is consistent with a freshly-moulted adult (complete moult July-September) before they fade to whitish during the winter.

‘Long-winged’ Lesser Redpoll, Stanford Res, 12th October 2020 (Mike Alibone)
‘Long-winged’ Lesser Redpoll, Stanford Res, 12th October 2020 (Mike Alibone)

Another redpoll trapped showed typical Lesser Redpoll characteristics but its wing length was measured at just a fraction beyond 76 mm. This one is currently under investigation, although it is not likely to prove to be anything else …

A ‘large-billed’ Crossbill at Wakerley

The last few weeks have seen various numbers of Crossbills found at six localities, one of which is the stand of larches immediately adjacent to the car park at Wakerley Great Wood. For many veteran county birders, this area will no doubt bring back fond memories of seeing Northamptonshire’s first Parrot Crossbill, a female, there in November 1990, along with a male Two-barred Crossbill with up to fifty-five Crossbills present at the same time.

At least three Crossbills were there on 1st March and up to twelve were present on 3rd-4th March but they have been mobile and not always on show, with no further sightings until 18th March, when seven or eight were seen by James Underwood.

Among these was a rather large-billed male with a deep, hefty bill, of which James managed to capture a couple of images. At no time was it suggested it was a Parrot Crossbill but the photos portray a Crossbill with a super-large bill, the first image of which certainly sets the pulse racing.

Crossbill, Wakerley Great Wood, 18th March 2019 (James Underwood)

The second image, however, perhaps depicts the true proportions of this individual, which enables a more balanced assessment to be made. The bill appears shallower (but still very large) and the head appears to be in ‘correct’ proportion with the body, i.e. it does not seem to have an overly large head like that of a Parrot Crossbill. Additionally, the visible depth of the lower mandible at its base does not appear to be deep enough for Parrot Crossbill.  But these are simply two images and how accurately do they convey the true dimensions of the bird and its bill?

Crossbill, Wakerley Great Wood, 18th March 2019 (James Underwood)

According to Shirihai and Svensson’s Handbook of Western Palearctic Birds (2018), the bill of Crossbill overlaps in size with that of the larger-billed Scottish Crossbill which, in the past, has been mooted as a race of Parrot Crossbill. Crossbill taxonomy is, however, far from straightforward. The IOC checklist (now adopted by the BOU) recognises nineteen races of Crossbill (Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra) with the nominate race curvirostra occupying northern, western and central Europe, including the British Isles and Scottish Crossbill is retained in the list as a full species, Loxia scotica. Shirihai and Svensson, however, regard the latter as simply a race of Crossbill but recognise the British breeding population as an additional race ‘anglica’. So, during periodic Crossbill irruptions, are we seeing local movements of British birds ‘anglica’ or are they continental curvirostra – or both? Furthermore, does the supposedly sedentary scotica ever move south? And if so, how far? Only time (and DNA) will tell …

White Stuff

Albino House Sparrow – or at least a white one, anyway. It appears not to have pink eyes but this juvenile is from a small colony at Easton on the Hill. Comparatively rare but not without precedent. Many thanks to Jeff Davies for the image.

'Albino' House Sparrow, Easton on the Hill, July 2014 (Jeff Davies)
‘Albino’ House Sparrow, Easton on the Hill, July 2014 (Jeff Davies)

Daventry Snowbie

Snow Bunting, Daventry Country Park, 3rd April. A great find by Gary Pullan. This species has become rather erratic in its appearances in Northants over the past few years and now seems to be appearing here less frequently than it did in the last century.

Snow Bunting, Daventry CP, 3rd April 2014 (Bob Bullock)
Snow Bunting, Daventry CP, 3rd April 2014 (Bob Bullock)

Snow Bunting, Daventry CP, 3rd April 2014 (Mike Alibone)

Until 1992 it was recorded annually but, since then, it has been recorded in only seven out of the last twenty years. There have been forty-two records during the last thirty years with twenty-five (60%) falling in the month of November but only one of these was found in April during this period.

Snow Bunting, Distribution by month over the 30 years 1983-2012
Snow Bunting, Distribution by month over the 30 years 1983-2012
Snow Bunting, Daventry CP, 3rd April 2014 (Alan Coles)
Snow Bunting, Daventry CP, 3rd April 2014 (Alan Coles)

This bird appears to be a female on wholly dark primary coverts but it may be a first-year male (contrasting blackish mantle with white ‘shawl’).

Redpoll ‘Lite’

Following the occurrence of a pale redpoll sp. (Mealy or Lesser) in my garden recently, Neil McMahon offered to come along and set up his mist-nets in an attempt to trap and identify the bird. If he didn’t trap it then no problem as there are plenty of other finches – mainly Siskins – visiting the feeders, providing an opportunity to ring a good quantity of birds.

Neil arrived on Monday (25th February) and netted eleven Siskins and ten Lesser Redpolls during a four-hour stint. Unfortunately the pale bird did not reappear, although two similar, less striking birds put in an appearance on a couple of subsequent occasions so, as I was working from home, we decided to give trapping another go today. I left Neil to it, occasionally popping out to see how it was going. Fewer birds were trapped but they included this relatively pale individual.

Lesser Redpoll, East Hunsbury, 1st March 2013 (Mike Alibone)Looks a little cold and frosty, doesn’t it? It also has a good white greater covert wingbar, apart from a couple of light brownish outer feathers but the supercilium, although not buff, is not particularly prominent.

Lesser Redpoll, East Hunsbury, 1st March 2013 (Mike Alibone)

From the rear, the mantle and rump have a whitish ground colour, although the sides of the mantle and scapulars are warmer and the upper tail coverts are tinged buff. The nape is also very pale.

Lesser Redpoll, East Hunsbury, 1st March 2013 (Mike Alibone)

In an oblique side view the bird looks more extensively brown but, from the front, there is sparse flank streaking and none of the strong buff hues we normally associate with Lesser Redpoll. The supercilium also looks more prominently white; it just goes to show what a difference viewing angle makes! Many of these features are shared by Mealy Redpoll but this bird, on biometrics, is indisputably a male Lesser Redpoll and the pointed and slightly abraded tail feathers indicate it is a first-year. I have seen ‘worse’ Mealy Redpolls than this but the above images serve to illustrate the difficulty with identifying redpolls when confronted with something which deviates from the standard. Lesser Redpoll is very variable (and so is Mealy) and this fact should not be underestimated when observing birds in the field.

Neil McMahon processing Goldfinch (Mike Alibone)

Neil at work, processing a Goldfinch. The back of a four-wheel drive doubles in this instance as a mobile ringing station!

Many thanks to Neil for his time and efforts this week.

A not so Mealy Redpoll

February is ‘Redpoll and Siskin time’ and every year I find the numbers visiting my feeders build throughout the month. At present up to two dozen Siskins and twelve Lesser Redpolls, along with Greenfinches, Goldfinches and Bullfinches, are emptying the feeders daily. Yesterday they were accompanied by one redpoll sp., which I have left unidentified.

redpoll sp., East Hunsbury (Northampton), 19th February 2013 (Mike Alibone)
redpoll sp., East Hunsbury (Northampton), 19th February 2013 (Mike Alibone)












It has some plumage  features associated with Mealy Redpoll and it may indeed be that species but, on balance, I think it is probably a pale first winter/female Lesser

as it has an extensive buff wash in greater coverts and supercilium (not readily apparent in the video) and the size and structure does not differ from Lesser Redpoll,

a male of which also presents a nice comparison in the second of the two videos here. Note the paleness of this individual is accentuated in the accompanying image and video; in life it was a shade darker.  I would welcome any comments.

Mealy Redpolls at Summer Leys

Earlier this week, Doug Goddard captured images of two Mealy Redpolls feeding on seed heads close to Mary’s Lake, adjacent to Summer Leys LNR. This species can often be tricky to identify as both Lesser and Mealy Redpolls can vary considerably in appearance according to age, sex, moult and feather wear, with some practically defying identification altogether. Most Mealies first attract attention as a result of their being rather pallid and colder toned compared to Lesser Redpoll but this isn’t always the case as some Mealies can be quite dark while, conversely, some Lessers can also take on a rather bright and cold-toned appearance.

First-winter Mealy Redpoll, Summer Leys LNR, 5th November 2012 (Douglas Goddard)

Good views of a suite or ‘checklist’ of characteristics is normally required before a safe identification can be made. This individual appears to tick all the boxes: wholly white ground colour to under parts (no sign of Lesser’s strong buffish wash to flanks and breast sides); broad white (not buff) supercilium; large white spot below eye and whitish ear-coverts with darker streaking; white ‘tramlines’ on mantle (although Lesser can show these); strong white (not buff) tips to the greater coverts, median coverts, tertials and primaries. The tips to the outer couple of greater coverts are buffish, indicating unmoulted juvenile feathers indicating it is a first-winter and this is further supported by patchy/restricted amount of black on the throat and around the bill base which will become more extensive with feather wear. Compare the above with a typical Lesser Redpoll, also at Summer Leys.

Lesser Redpoll, Summer Leys LNR, 6th November 2012 (Douglas Goddard)

First-winter Lesser Redpoll never shows such clean white wing bars so early in the autumn (i.e. before wear). The red ‘poll’ of the Mealy is also rather pale, almost orange, which is a characteristic frequently shown by first-winter and female redpolls but ‘poll’ colour can vary greatly across the board, even becoming yellow in some instances (see here).

Finally, here’s the other redpoll which was accompanying the above Mealy.

Mealy Redpoll, Summer Leys LNR, 5th November 2012 (Douglas Goddard)

Again, this appears to be another Mealy Redpoll and gives the impression of being large, long and big-billed – which they are …

For more on redpoll identification see Andy Warr’s excellent online guide.

What the … ??!!! The answer.

Referring to What the … !!!?? posted on 29th October. When I first saw the image below I was initially intrigued. It looked kind of familiar, of course, but the pink upper breast and light streaking reminded me of Linnet, which it clearly wasn’t.

The second image – the one in the original post – depicted a largely brownish finch with yellow outer edges to the primaries. It was now looking distinctly Greenfinch-like but it still had a pinkish breast and, although the bill looked large, was it really as large as that of a Greenfinch? My initial thinking was that it could be a Linnet x Greenfinch hybrid but the final image, sent subsequently by the photographer, poured cold water on everything: yellow in the outer tail and on the rump made this a Greenfinch beyond any shadow of a doubt and you would have identified the bird as such from this one photograph alone. But what about the abnormally coloured breast? It could be pigmentation but closer scrutiny shows a diffuse and uneven distribution of pink on the breast, which suggests that this has been acquired by feeding on fruit of some kind, possibly blackberries as suggested by Bob Bullock, whose analysis appears to be spot-on. Take away the pink breast colouration and the bird is a typical female Greenfinch, possibly a first-winter, and it was photographed in Walgrave by Pete Gilbert on 28th October 2012. Thanks to everyone who commented on the original post. This was just a bit of fun but it just goes to show how one anomalous feature, combined with restricted views, can conspire to fire the imagination in any number of different ways!