‘Best year of the century so far’ for white-winged and red crossbills in the Adirondacks
By Megan Plete Postol
The Adirondacks is sparkling with the tune of white-winged and red crossbills singing this winter, in what is being called “the best year of the century so far,” by bird experts.
This has been the best winter between 2000 to 2022 to see both species of crossbills, red and white-winged. For just white-winged crossbills alone, there have been better years, such as the winter of 2001-2002. But for the two species together, this is a bumper year.
A type of finch, adult male white-winged crossbills can be identified by their bright red coloring with black wings that have two bold white wingbars on the side. Females have a yellow-ish coloring with brown-gray streaking and also have two white wingbars, although one is often concealed from view. Both males and females have a crisscrossed bill used for prying open cones to eat the inner seeds.
Adult male red crossbills are red overall with darker brown wings. Females have yellow-brown coloring with streaking and brown wings.
Both species are attracted to road salt and gravel, so Adirondackers might notice flocks gathering in the middle of roads in the winter.
From Jan. 28-30, volunteers from the Finch Research Network surveyed portions of the Adirondack Park to document the conifer cone abundance and finch breeding activity. One of these volunteers was Ryan F. Mandelbaum, a science writer and volunteer for the Finch Research Network and the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas. Mandelbaum made the trip with Matt Young, Finch Research Network president.
“We observed dozens of white-winged crossbills undergoing breeding activities in appropriate habitats—those with lots of native spruce trees,” Mandelbaum said. “We observed places where a half dozen white-winged crossbills were simultaneously doing their courtship song flights.”
More to explore
Writing in the Adirondack Almanack, the Explorer’s community forum, retired forest ranger and bird expert Gary Lee writes about:
- Rescuing a crossbill and taking part in the annual Backyard Bird Count
- Crossbill observations now and in the past
Photo of a male white-winged crossbill by Larry Master
“At times it felt like we could hear or see either white-winged or red crossbills every time we pulled the car over, and we often found ourselves having to avoid flocks of crossbills sitting in the road,” Mandelbaum continued. “These spruce habitats make up only part of the Adirondack’s forests, however, and in other habitats red crossbills outnumbered white-winged crossbills.”
Birders began noticing record numbers of white-winged crossbills at Quebec’s Tadoussac Bird Observatory last autumn, alerting birders in the Adirondacks to keep their eyes out for these finches in appropriate habitat. Birds soon began showing up, and as winter progressed, both local and visiting birders began noticing large numbers of these finches.
Joan Collins of Long Lake is the owner of Adirondack Avian Expeditions & Workshops LLC. A New York State licensed bird guide, Collins has had several birders from out of state, including Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, come to the region to see crossbills.
“It is of interest of birders,” Collins said. “The crossbills are boreal birds. We have boreal habitat in the Adirondacks and that draws people here to see not just crossbills but boreal chickadees, black-backed woodpeckers, and Canada jays.”
Work is currently under way on New York state’s third Breeding Bird Atlas, and the Adirondack region is an under-surveyed area.
“If you encounter white-winged crossbills or any birds carrying out breeding activity such as building nests, mating, or feeding young, be sure to record what you saw and where you saw it and enter it into the eBird online database, especially if you’re in wilderness areas that are difficult for more casual birders to access,” Mandelbaum said.
Crossbills have already begun their mating season in some parts of the Adirondacks.
Provided there’s no extreme weather that causes the trees to drop their cones, Mandelbaum said, Adirondackers can expect the birds to continue their breeding activities and begin raising young in the next month or so.