RICHARD WILLIAMSON Nature Trails...March 10

0
Have your say

These crossbills visit my garden bird bath every day. I can only presume they are nesting nearby, but so far have not found where.

Always an optimistic fellow, I may be quite wrong in my assumption.

Earlier in February there were eight birds drinking every day just outside the kitchen window.

They are funny looking birds with their beaks awkwardly crossed over at the tips, and the cocks with bright orange plumage.

You can see why people sometimes think them to be small parrots. They have a prodigious thirst since they spend all day eating the seeds out of dry fir cones.

I have been watching them feeding up in the larch trees near the house.

Sometimes they are very tame and one can approach to within a few feet. This happened 30 years ago when a pair brought up four young and the family lived in the garden for the whole summer. They would splash about in an old frying pan I kept filled with fresh water and they would even allow strangers to within six feet.

There is a lot of fun watching them swinging about among the fir cones too. They hang by their toes upside down, swinging about in the wind, ripping the scale off the cones, winkling the seeds out with a quick twist of those fine-nosed pliers.

Those beaks are mighty strong, as you can see in the picture.

Sometimes, if you walk in the forests where the Scots pines and the Douglas firs grow, these being their favourites, you will see a fine confetti of scales and broken pieces floating down against the sun and you can even hear on a dead still day the patter of tiny seed cases underneath.

The best places to look for this is along the edges of the forests, where the sun shines on the trees. Ashdown Forest, Lavington Common, Black Down, Coates Common and St Leonard’s Forest are all favourite places.

Eggs are laid as early as February, certainly by March, and if the first clutch is destroyed by a squirrel or a magpie, they may make a second brood.

You know if they are breeding by the loud cluck the cock makes, which sometimes can become a volley in agitation.

Birders of old, collecting the eggs for sale to others, used to report how tame the brooding hen could be, sometimes allowing the human thief to lift her off the nests to steal the eggs.

Her mate meanwhile, resplendent in his crimson military uniform, would scold loudly within a few feet of the robber, grabbing and twisting pieces of loose bark in a paroxysm of fear and anger.

Happily today the predator can be controlled with a death penalty.

Even so, with about 200 pairs breeding in the county, the crossbill is not for everybody’s eyes and any sighting however brief makes an indelible memory.

So – out with those frying pans and fill them with water. That is one of the best ways to bring the Sussex parrot down to earth.