Sunday, December 2, 2012

It's a crossbill winter!

Once a month, I'm a contributor on the "Birding is Fun!" blog. This was my November 25, 2012 post...
Here in Cincinnati (as in other midwestern cities) we're excited because crossbills have moved down from the north for a winter visit. Both Red and White-winged Crossbills are being reported daily at local cemeteries, so since Matty was off school the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we headed up to Miami Cemetery near Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, OH to see what we could see...

White-winged Crossbill at Miami Cemetery near Caesar Creek and Waynesville, OH.
A White-winged Crossbill was waiting for us when we got out of the car! 
We didn't even have to look for the birds. As soon as we stepped out of the Jeep, three White-winged Crossbills flew in the huge Eastern Hemlock tree right next to us. Their chittery flight chatter gave them away, and we quickly focused in on them with binocs. This was a life bird for Matty, so he studied them carefully. "Wow! You really can see their crossed bills!" was the first thing out of his mouth. "I know...amazing" followed out of mine. We watched them in silence as they moved from cone to cone, separating the bracts and extracting the seeds with their tongues. "Wow..."

White-winged Crossbill (at Miami Cemetery near Caesar Creek and Waynesville, OH) holds an eastern hemlock cone in its bill.
A White-winged Crossbill holds an eastern hemlock cone in its bill...
While we watched them, we tried to figure out how they were cracking open the cones to get to the seeds. We could see them working the bracts apart, but had no idea how they were using their crossed bills to do it. Later that night, I got a few of my bird books down to see if I could find out. The answer was easy to find and was in the first book I opened. Bernd Heinrich, in his book Winter World, offered an explanation. He wrote that a crossbill's upper bill is two centimeters long and crosses over a one-half centimeter shorter lower bill. To open a cone bract, the bird inserts a partially open bill into a bract, then closes its bill. When closed, the bill tips separate the bract laterally by about 3 millimeters, just enough for the bird to open its bill slightly and use its barbed tongue to dip in and grab the seed (Heinrich, Winter World, page 37).

A White-winged Crossbill perches high in the branches of an Eastern Hemlock tree. You can just make out the crossed bill in this photo.
White-winged Crossbill high in an Eastern Hemlock Tree. You can just make out his crossed bill in this photo. 
Eventually, Matty went off looking at tombstones and did a few rubbings to try to figure out dates and names on the oldest and most weathered stones,  and I did a quick sketchbook entry to record our day. We had been to Caesar Creek earlier for a picnic lunch and had seen lots of birds, but the White-winged Crossbills stole the show. In 2009, White-winged Crossbills showed up for a while in Cincinnati, and it was exciting too, but this year, the irruption is much bigger. I can't wait to see what else winter brings!

Pencil sketches and sketchbook entry of White-winged Crossbills by Kelly Riccetti
...sketchbook entry completed in the field. It was very warm that day...65 degrees F. 
To round out the post, I did a quick watercolor of one of the White-winged Crossbills we saw that day. I can't wait to get back out to see if more of these interesting birds are around. If you haven't done so already, you might want to pop over to the ABA Blog to read Nate Swick's post, "Help Monitor the Red Crossbill Invasion" (click here). You also might like Jim McCormac's post (click here) for a photo of a White-winged Crossbill's long tongue as it nabs a seed.

White-winged Crossbill in an Eastern Hemlock Tree. Original watercolor by Kelly Riccetti
White-winged Crossbill in the Hemlock Tree
(watercolor sketch)

This part wasn't in my original "Birding is Fun!" post, but after reading Matty's field journal entry from that day, I thought I'd include it here...
Nov 21, 2012, Miami Cemetery (near Caesar Creek)
I had been thinking as I walked through the cemetery that everybody buried here had a story, but for most, the stories had been lost to time. I knew none of them, but I wanted to, so I set out to identify one of the most weathered and dilapidated gravestones I could find--the gravestone of someone who had been forgotten. I took a rubbing, and slowly a name started to show through, "Wife of Prof. J. W. Stewart." The gravestone next to the little weathered and unreadable gravestone was large and not nearly as weathered, "Prof. J. W. Stewart" stood out clearly. At least I knew a little bit more about the forgotten grave, but not a lot. I wondered what Prof. Stewart taught, so I did a quick search on my phone to see if there were any records out there, and amazingly a reprint of a newspaper article from July 25, 1907 from The Western Star of Lebanon, OH popped up. In the article, I was able to find out 
Prof. John W. Stewart was the first African American mayor of Harveysburg, and his wife was Virginia Singleton of Harveysburg! So the little weathered and forgotten gravestone belonged to Virginia. 
There are always connections, there is always significance to be found in the insignificant.                                   Matthew Riccetti.   

Click here for a link to the reprint of the newspaper article from The Western Star of Lebanon, OH from July 25, 1907 about Professor John W. Stewart, the first African American mayor of Harveysburg, OH.

Angel statue at Miami Cemetery near Caesar Creek in Waynesville, OH--where the White-winged Crossbills were.
Angel statue at Miami Cemetery in Waynesville, Ohio.

20 comments:

eileeninmd said...

Great shots of the Crossbills. I hope to see some this winter too. Your drawings are wonderful. Happy Birding!

Roy Norris said...

Love the watercolour Kelly. I have only seen our species of Crossbill once and got some indifferent images. Lovely bird.

Janice K said...

I great to see something new. Such a beautiful bird, and I loved your watercolor.

You must be so proud of Matty. A lot of maturity in his thinking/writing for someone his age.

Roy said...

I keep looking around here, but so far no luck. Reports from my former home in RI are full of Crossbills and Pine Siskins, though.

Steve Borichevsky said...

What fun! Just last night I changed my banner over to a graphic of a White-winged Crossbill!

Kerri said...

Beautiful crossbills .... but the best part of this post was Matty's writing .... WOW - I'm sure you are very proud!
It gave me goosebumps as I read it .... I always say that if WORDS or an IMAGE can make you feel something - that's the sign of a true work of art.
Kudos to him and to you!!

PS - and your art is always amazing!

Carol Mattingly said...

So beautiful and so is that gorgeous painting. Carol

TexWisGirl said...

matty's entry made me well up. what a wonderful soul he has.

love the pretty crossbills. have never seen one in person.

Robert Mortensen said...

Another one of my personal interests is family history or genealogy. I enjoy the detective work it takes to learn more about my ancestors and most of all I enjoy the stories. Great job Matty!

Montanagirl said...

Beautiful Crossbill captures, Kelly! Last November a year ago, we had a couple juveniles on our feeders. I don't think they were here a day even, then gone.

Tammie Lee said...

such a beautiful splash of color they are! I have only seen them a few times. they seem to like our tiny pine cones. the first time i saw one and did not know who they were... i it's beak had a problem, thank you for sharing.

Betsy Adams said...

Great pictures and watercolor of the Crossbills, Kelly... They look a little like the Grosbeaks, but I can't tell if they are as large as the Grosbeaks. I've never seen one.

Great article by Matty... Makes me wonder why she was just the wife --and didn't have her own identity listed on the gravestone???? In today's world, that would not happen, would it?

Hugs,
Betsy

Elva Paulson said...

What a wonderful post! ... photos, the art, and Matty's entry. Well done.

Randy Emmitt said...

Kelly,
Enjoyed to walk with you and seeing the crossbills:) Sounds like we are in for a very cold winter....

Hilke Breder said...

Fascinating post, Kelly. I was particularly interested in in your explanation how the bill functions. Lovely photos and great sketch!

Elaine said...

Lovely watercolor of the Crossbill! Matty's journal entry was interesting. Not only was Virginia's gravestone weathered and forgotten, but she is only identified as the wife of John. I wonder if there ever was a name there. Sad if that was the only thing she was remembered for. Fascinating that Mattie was able to find out a little about the lives of the professor and his wife.

Guy said...

Hi Kelly

A beautiful post I loved your watercolour and really enjoyed Matt's contribution.

All the best.
Guy

Banjo52 said...

Full of good stuff once again. Looks like Matty's a keeper!

I've wondered about crossbills and what possible evolutionary advantage that could've been. I own and have read some of the Heinrich, but a few years ago. I wonder if his explanation says all there is to say, so far, about the weird bills and evolution.

Bobby said...

I love the painting and the photos. I have never seen a crossbill. After seeing your photos I am itching to see one!

Kelly said...

...thanks, everyone. Sounds like we all like this bird and would like to see more of it! I definitely want to get out and see a few more of these little nomads before they move on! I went twice this week for a quick look but had no luck. They were not up at the Miami Cemetery, but I read they are still down at Spring Grove Cemetery!