The Red Crossbill: An Unusual Beak

This beak is not deformed. Nature intended it to be thus. It is an adaptation for the opening of cones. While useful for that purpose, it does make the bird into a specialist and whether the beak crosses to the right or to the left runs about 50-50. Crossbills must have coniferous forests in order to survive and because conifer cones may last on the tree up to 20 years, there is no need to migrate out of an area of good cone production. Therefore their movements are irregular and controlled by cone availability.

There are two species of crossbills in North America: the Red Crossbill and the White-Winged Crossbill. The red variety is hard to “spot”, but is very abundant in the Cassia and Twin Falls mountain areas. The more glamorous White-Winged one is an inhabitant of boreal (northern) forests.

These interesting birds may not come to seed feeders, but water can be a major attraction. They are very gregarious and will come in to drink in large groups. The all-red, mature male is pictured. Immature birds are boldly streaked brown. The females are yellowish-olive and may show patches of red. The species is 6 ¼” long, with a large head, and a short, notched tail.

Different strains of the species are each adapted to a specific tree type (i.e. Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, etc). Other species such as finches, chickadees, and siskin benefit from the nuts not consumed after a cone is opened. Crossbills are also quite vocal and will call while in flight. Each individual’s calls may vary somewhat from other individuals, giving that bird a character of its own. It gives a rapid series of harsh “jip” notes, started with several two-note phrases and followed by a warbled trill.

The female lays three eggs, but only two individuals usually fledge and there is about a 12% survival rate of the young into the second year. It is enough, however, to maintain the bird’s population numbers.

The crossbills of our south hills have the largest beaks of their kind. They are an isolated population and researchers are thinking of denoting them as a separate species. When camping, the presence of crossbills gives one a true flavor of the mountain experience. It is a truly unique bird!

Summer Tanagers: Totally Red

This is the only completely red bird in North America. Its plumage is a brilliant, fiery red. The Summer Tanager is a species of southern forests and is considered a bee and wasp specialist. It catches its prey in flight and then kills by rubbing the catch against a branch. Before eating, it will remove the stinger. Besides bees and wasps, larvae are also eaten. This diet is followed in the USA, and in Central and South America during our winter months.

There is another red bird that could be confused with the Summer Tanager. It is the Hepatic Tanager. However, the Hepatic male is a duller red and has dark wings, tail, and face patch. The females of both species are a dull yellow. Male song birds are the ones that do most of the singing, but the female Summer Tanager will sing a brief, garbled version of the male’s cheery song. When agitated both genders give a loud clicking call. Because this bird will build its nest high up in a tall tree, there are few studies of its nesting behavior.

Where other tanager species overlap the Summer’s range, the Summer will nest at lower elevations, in shorter woodlands, close to a stream. This long distance migratory bird must put on large amounts of fat, which allows for continuous flights of up to 550 miles.

Our experiences with this beautiful bird have been in Texas. First in west Texas in the Fort Davis Mountains, where I’ve sat in my blind for long periods in order to get a shot, and also on South Padre Island off the southern tip of the state.

The bird that loves the bees.

Woodpeckers Favor the Color Red

Most male woodpeckers have some red on their head. The RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER takes the color scheme even further. Their total head is red, as well as their breast.

This species is an inhabitant of the forests of the Pacific Northwest, where they prefer coniferous trees. They drill nest cavities in these trees: Homes to provide shelter, refuge, and to incubate a batch of four to seven white eggs. Conifers produce much sap, and the birds drill holes in the tree trunks in order to feed upon that sweet liquid. Hummingbirds readily follow this bird’s activity and also feed at the sap wells, as will a few other species. The sweetness is something that many birds can’t resist. Besides sap, the sapsucker’s diet includes insects (especially ants) and fruit.

Red-Breasted Sapsuckers will oft-times cross with other sapsucker species. The resulting offspring can be difficult to identify. Sapsuckers are a most interesting group of woodpeckers, and the attractive red of the Red-Breasted makes it a favorite of mine – one that I wanted in my files.

We sought it in the eastern Sierra/Nevada’s, but it was not where we originally looked. On the chance that we’d see Blue Grouse, we traveled up a steep, spooky road from Big Pine, California to a place called Glacier Lodge. No grouse were there but sapsuckers were abundant and afforded me many pictures. Later, at a campground just west of Lee Vining, I got much better photos. Carolyn discovered a nest cavity at chest height. A sapsucker was at the hole and didn’t seem to be concerned with me. What excitement it was to fulfill the major thrust behind this excursion!

Red head and chest gleaming in the afternoon sunlight

Red head and chest gleaming in the afternoon sunlight

Summer Tanagers: Totally Red

By Dave Hanks

This is the only completely red bird in North America. Its plumage is a brilliant, fiery red. The Summer Tanager is a species of southern forests and is considered a bee and wasp specialist. It catches its prey in flight and then kills by rubbing the catch against a branch. Before eating, it will remove the stinger. Besides bees and wasps, larvae are also eaten. This diet is followed in the USA, and in Central and South America during our winter months.

There is another red bird that could be confused with the Summer Tanager. It is the Hepatic Tanager. However, the Hepatic male is a duller red and has dark wings, tail, and face patch. The females of both species are a dull yellow. Male song birds are the ones that do most of the singing, but the female Summer Tanager will sing a brief, garbled version of the male’s cheery song. When agitated both genders give a loud clicking call. Because this bird will build its nest high up in a tall tree, there are few studies of its nesting behavior.

Where other tanager species overlap the Summer’s range, the Summer will nest at lower elevations, in shorter woodlands, close to a stream. This long distance migratory bird must put on large amounts of fat, which allows for continuous flights of up to 550 miles.

Our experiences with this beautiful bird have been in Texas. First in west Texas in the Fort Davis Mountains, where I’ve sat in my blind for long periods in order to get a shot, and also on South Padre Island off the southern tip of the state.

(The bird that loves the bees)