Year of the parrot crossbills could be on the cards for birdwatchers

The mature conifer plantations surrounding Yorkshire's reservoirs are ideal places to look for crossbills.

A parrot crossbill, pictured by Richard Stonier.

On Sunday a check through a small flock of common crossbills at Howden reservoir just to the west of Sheffield revealed some rarer visitors were among them, six parrot crossbills, pictured, which were photographed and have continued to be seen this week.

With flocks of these rare visitors from Scandinavia already found in Norfolk, Suffolk and Berkshire it looks as if this could be an irruption year in which large numbers of parrot crossbills move south and west in search of food away from their normal range in the vast pine forests of the northern taiga belt.

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Parrot crossbills specialise in pine seeds which seem to be a more reliable crop than spruce because irruptions of parrot crossbills are much less frequent than those of common.

They are bulkier than common crossbills and with larger bills, as deep as they are long, which they use to snip off cones and carry them to a nearby perch.

They then hold the cones with one foot before using their distinctive crossed mandibles to lever open the scales and extract the seeds.

Parrot and common crossbills are difficult to observe and to separate from each other, when they are feeding quietly but betray their presence by the sound of cones dropping when they have finished with them.

When they fly out in a flock the calls of the parrot crossbills are deeper and louder than those of common crossbills.

These are not the first rare crossbills to be found in the area. In the winter of 2013/14 seven two-barred crossbills were found at nearby Broomhead reservoir, the same winter as the last major irruption of parrot crossbills into this country.

The crossbill irruption has followed that of hawfinches, still being reported all across England including a flock of up to 13 at Worsbrough village, South Yorkshire.

Other sightings in the region included a first-winter lesser yellowlegs at North Field, Kilnsea, a first record for the Spurn area and the latest in a run of American waders that has included American golden plover, long-billed dowitcher, buff-breasted sandpiper, two white-rumped sandpipers and three pectoral sandpipers.

Another visitor from across the Atlantic, a drake American wigeon was first reported at Bank Island in the Lower Derwent Valley between York and Selby at the weekend and remained there this week.

Other sightings along the coast included a large flock of at least 40 snow buntings in winter wheat fields at Aldbrough and 20 plus twite at Sunk Island on the Humber. Eleven snow buntings were seen on Danby Beacon on the North York Moors.

Strong northerly winds blew a few little auks southwards and one was taken into care after being found in a garden in Bempton village.