Bill please.

I crawled through the rush hour stuff, tootled over Snake Pass and then turned off to Lady Bower and Dambusters territory in the Peak District this morning.
Time to huff and puff up an unreasonably steep 500m worth of mud and pain out of the trees, and scan the larch edge above Howden Reservoir.

Up to 12 Parrot Crossbills have been dropping in to drink at a puddle on the track high above the 7km marker here this winter, and I wanted to catch up with them before they cleared off for spring.
Once my heart had travelled back down from my throat into my chest, and eased off on the thrash metal beat (that is one steep walk) I settled down and watched the area from 10am to 2pm.
After 15 minutes or so, a single male Common Crossbill came in calling loudly to perch above the pools for a few minutes, but cleared off.
Shortly afterwards crossbills began arriving in numbers, so that there were at least 27 in the branches above the pool.
This happened three times in the four hours I was there, and each time the single Common Crossbill came in first, as if he was checking the place out before getting his mates.

There were clearly several larger, thicker bull-necked birds, with much heavier, deeper bills and gently sloping foreheads – through the ‘scope they looked good for Parrots.

As a chilly, but highly enjoyable bit of birdin’ progressed I was joined by Garry Taylor from Spurn et al, and he explained that the birds have been very approachable all winter.
I felt a bit daft having hung back all morning for fear of disturbing ’em, so we worked our way around the clearing to look down on the puddle and trees from about 20 feet away.
We got superb views of the crossbills as they swept in calling on several occasions, bringing Siskins with them.

It was a wonderful crossbill class – at least four birds were obviously Parrots, but some weren’t so straightforward as Commons and Parrots dropped in to drink.

Answers on a postcard…
It was a great opportunity to compare the loud higher pitched Common calls with the deeper notes of the Parrots.
Sometimes the latter called almost like a “chucking” Blackbird does at dusk (not the loud alarm “chink, chink” call, the softer one).
Some bird had wingbars, some didn’t, structure and jizz changed as the birds shifted position in the branches – fascinating stuff.
The Parrots often stripped bark from the upper rotting branches (apologies for the lousy shot below) – they seemed to indulge in this more than the Commons…
Can someone with better knowledge of crossbill behaviour explain these antics to me please?

As the bone-numbing sphagum damp crept up my legs, I pondered – on a hillside surrounded by huge expanses of water like Lady Bower and Howden Reservoir, there must have been many similar puddles for the crossbills to drink from – so why are they so faithful to this pool?
Perhaps the decaying trees allow them to perch up safely and keep an eye out for predators in between slurps at this particular watering hole.
Why are these wanderers so tied to a single puddle?
Imagine if your diet comprised of foraging almost exclusively on larch and pine cones, just think how thirsty you’d be.
You can experience it for yourself of course – simply quaff a bottle or two of resiny Retsina tonight – I bet you drink LOTS of water tomorrow morning…
It’ll be like being a crossbill, except with a hangover.
Any crossbills are great to watch of course, especially so close, but I’ve been trying to catch up with the big boys for a number of years now, so it was a thoroughly satisfying morning all round.
Gotcha, you parroty b*stards.
(If anyone is tempted by the Howden Res Parrot Crossbills, I am informed that the access road to the site is closed to vehicles on Sundays and on Saturdays from Easter to October – so that’s a 14km walk AND a certain muddy slope to negotiate to get to the birds if you go then).

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5 thoughts on “Bill please.

    • Thanks Patrick – handy to know you can avoid a route march on Saturdays too! Just checked and apparently its closed to cars on Saturdays and Bank Holidays from Easter to October…will edit entry.

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  1. Great report on your trip to the Parrot Crossbills John. I was up there on 13th January and I remember the climb from the car park as if it was only yesterday!!!
    Like you I wondered “Why are these wanderers so tied to a single puddle?” I think it could be that the puddle appeared to be fresh water, it being in the middle of a very slow flowing small stream coming from higher up the hillside – just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

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