Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hammonasset Adventure, Part 1: Crossbills!

Yesterday was a day for adventure! I packed a lunch and boldly set off for Hammonasset Beach State Park, a large park which attracts lots of swimmers and campers in the summer, and lots of birders in the winter, and which sits about 25 miles east along the Connecticut shore from the parks that I usually visit.

I had two main reasons for wanting to visit this park, besides the fact that I've heard a lot of great things about it and never been there before (OK, three reasons, then). Reason #1: Crossbills! These wacky northern birds are not at all common in Connecticut, but they've been hanging out at a particular stand of pine trees in Hammonasset for weeks. Reason #2: Seals! I had no idea (until recently) that we even had seals in Connecticut, but apparently this park is a great place to see them resting on rocks in the winter. Luckily, my trip was wildly successful on both accounts, and I even saw lots of other cool creatures, too. In fact, I saw so many things (and took so many pictures!) that this account is going to have to be two posts.

First things first! When I got to the park, I headed over to the pine trees where I knew (yay, the internet!) that the crossbills had been hanging out. I walked around for a minute or so, until I came to a few trees that were literally crackling with the sounds of breaking cones, and up in the branches were dozens of feasting Red Crossbills!

Crossbills are a type of finch, and they are perfect pine-cone-cracking machines. These birds' beaks are bizarrely crooked, and they actually use those weird mouths to leverage open pine cones and get at the seeds inside that other birds can't reach. And strangely enough, crossbills' beaks can go either way! On some of the birds I saw, the top mandible bent to the right:

And for other birds, the top mandible bent to the left:

And yes, their beaks really do cross!

The Red Crossbills were so intent on eating, and the trees were so low, that I got really excellent views of these amazing birds doing their conifer-specific thing. I love those grappling-hook feet!

If you look really closely, you can see this bird's little pink tongue as he raids the cone:

The Red Crossbills made a really quite beautiful bouquet of colors, with dark reddish males and paler yellow females (these birds dropped down from the trees for a quick drink):

This male was a lovely burnt orange with subtle spots of greenish yellow:

But my absolute favorite were those deep red males -- they had such gorgeous patterns on their backs... and what a color!

Yes, you are a very pretty bird indeed, even with that strange, strange mouth:

I'm pretty sure this stripey and patchy bird is a juvenile -- hello, awkward teenager!

There were a few White-winged Crossbills sprinkled in with the Red Crossbills as well, although I didn't get as close of view of this other species of birds. One juvenile came down to the ground near me, but the rest mostly stayed up in the trees:

Lots of other small seed-eating birds were in these same trees as well, probably taking advantage of the crossbills' cone-cracking abilities. Several opportunistic Red-breasted Nuthatches were hanging around, including this paler individual which I think must be a female:

And this darker, flashier male:

There were a bunch of Black-capped Chickadees, too -- the trees actually seemed to be raining chickadees, because these birds were constantly flying from the cones on the trees to the dropped seeds on the ground. This one had its acrobatics rewarded with a nice meal:

The crossbills decided to move camp after a while, and they took off in a big flock -- probably heading to another group of pine trees in the park. This picture doesn't show the birds in any great detail, but you can at least get an idea of the numbers, and see the cool finch flight style (which Paul says makes it looks like there are fishes mixed in with the birds):

So that was amazing, to say the least.... But the trip isn't over yet! Stay tuned for Part 2, which features distant seals and more totally weird birds. :D

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