Cross­bills’ cav­al­cade of colour

Middlesbrough Herald & Post - - HERALD & POST -

CLEVE­LAND has en­joyed a bird­ing splash of bright colour dur­ing the past few weeks.

Cross­bills, which feed al­most ex­clu­sively on conifer seeds, have been seen reg­u­larly both at Lock­wood Beck and at Til­ery Wood, just off the Cas­tle Eden walk­way.

I stood and got neck-ache watch­ing a flock of around dozen of these in­trigu­ing birds at the very top of a group of conifers as they sought out pinecones.

Ev­i­dence of the cross­bills’ suc­cess was clear by the num­ber of cones which dropped to the ground.

The cones are wrenched away from their stems by the cross­bills and held tightly with their feet while the seeds are ex­tracted with their uniquely shaped bills.

You usu­ally need binoc­u­lars to get a good look at cross­bills, but it’s well worth it be­cause the male is ab­so­lutely stun­ning with his brick red plumage. This fine pic­ture of a male cross­bill was taken by Dave Pearce.

The fe­male is pretty im­pres­sive too with her green plumage, which is a dif­fer­ent shade of green from the fa­mil­iar green­finch.

De­spite con­stantly search­ing for food at the very top of the conifer trees, cross­bills are not re­ally shy birds. If you are very lucky, one or two of them will drop down to drink from pools of water right in front of you.

Cross­bills are un­usual in that they can breed through­out the year. They have been recorded nest­ing in every sin­gle month.

So their fam­ily groups usu­ally in­clude the brown and heav­ily streaked ju­ve­nile birds, which give the flocks a strange mix of three sep­a­rate coloura­tions.

Af­ter leav­ing the cross­bills to their meal, I was de­lighted to find a few large clumps of lung­wort grow­ing at Til­ery Wood.

This ev­er­green plant gets its name be­cause it was thought the leaves would cure pul­monary dis­eases be­cause the spot­ted leaves were con­sid­ered rep­re­sen­ta­tive of dis­eased lungs.

Lung­wort is grown do­mes­ti­cally and there is al­ways a chance that any lung­wort which you see in the wild is a gar­den es­cape.

How­ever this species at Til­ery Wood was pul­monaria of­fic­i­nalis, which is the one found in the wild. So I like to think I was look­ing at the real thing – even though lung­wort was orig­i­nally nat­u­ralised in Bri­tain from the Con­ti­nent.

Lung­wort is not com­mon is our re­gion and, with most of our fa­mil­iar spring flow­ers still not in bud, it was won­der­ful to kick start the year with such a find.

Eric would like to hear from read­ers about what they have seen. Email him at eric.pay­lor@gmail.com

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