White-winged Crossbills have arrived!

Yesterday was yet another great birding day all over the state. On top of a number of rarities still hanging around (Black Skimmer, Western Grebe, Pacific Loon, Calliope Hummingbird), winter finches have really arrived in full force, including more Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and finally, White-winged Crossbills!  Red Crossbills arrived in September and many are currently pushing their way south through New Jersey, but at this point reports of White-winged Crossbills outnumber those of Red Crossbills in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

Early yesterday morning, a homeowner on Waring Avenue in State College, PA, reported that an adult male White-winged Crossbill was visiting hemlocks in their backyard. This sounded almost too good to be true after all the rarities most PA birders have picked up in the last week or so, even though we all have been expecting White-winged Crossbills. The homeowner graciously invited birders to come over for a look, so Alex, Josh and I drove over and briefly scoped out the yard. There was no sign of the bird, so we decided to spend some time at Jo Hays Vista while waiting for more reports of this bird later in the day. Eventually we got a text from Joe Verica indicating that he had the bird in the yard. We promptly made the trip back down into town, picking up our friend Mike Dribelbis at the hawk watch. Ian Gardner and Joe were in the yard when we arrived, and within seconds, the bird showed up and began ripping apart a number of tiny hemlock cones.

White-winged Crossbill pulling out a hemlock cone seed (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

White-winged Crossbill with hemlock seed in bill (photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

White-winged Crossbill with hemlock seed in bill (photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The bird, which was an adult male, had no concern for us at all, and was either completely preoccupied with eating, or just generally very tame from not encountering many people in its life (probably a combination of both). This was a lifer for three of us, including myself! This is the first of this species reported so far this year in Centre County but there are probably a lot more to come. Randy Flament reported a flock of three on the Huntingdon County side of Tussey Mountain yesterday, and there were a handful of reports in other areas of the state.

White-winged Crossbill – adult male (photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Although rare in PA during non-irruption years, White-winged Crossbills arrive in PA in early November and can be seen through January, and sometimes later into May. During rare irruption years, this species can be quite common. White-winged Crossbills nest in the boreal forest of Canada and are mainly found in spruce and hemlock trees over the winter, where they feed on cone seeds with their highly specialized “crossed” bill. The winter of 1997 to 1998 was a major irruption year in PA, as was the winter of 2008 to 2009. From 1950 through 2009, White-winged Crossbills were recorded for only 15 of those 60 winters, so it is a treat to be present in Pennsylvania for what seems like will be a great winter for them (historical data from “Birds of Central PA,” by Nick Bolgiano and Greg Grove).

Here are a few more photos of the bird taken while it was crawling through the branches and feeding on cones.

White-winged Crossbill eating hemlock seed (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

White-winged Crossbill perching precariously as it consumes hemlock seeds (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

The White-winged Crossbill often crawled along the thin branches like a small parrot to reach more seeds (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

White-winged Crossbill pulling out a seed from a hemlock cone (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

White-winged Crossbill pulling out a seed from a hemlock cone (Photo by Anna Fasoli)

Here is a brief video I took of the bird while it foraged low in the hemlocks. Typically crossbills feed high in trees, but this bird stayed low, making it easy to observe its feeding behavior as it climbed through the branches like a small parrot! This video is best viewed in 720pHD or higher, so be sure to change the “quality” before viewing.


Thanks again to the welcoming homeowner on Waring Avenue for letting us use your yard to observe this beautiful bird!