On the morning of October the 20th, I spotted a small bird on top of a Spruce across the basin. I quickly put the scope on it and realized with delight that it was a juvenile Crossbill. No deep green or red indicative of adult plumage: instead, it was smartly sporting the streaks of a young bird. Even at that distance, I could see the unique bill shape of the aptly named crossbill, but what I didn’t see were the wing bars. A Red Crossbill!!! A first ever for Cabot Head, and another new species, so soon after the Short-eared Owl! And it would also be my first Red Crossbill in Ontario. Not that I keep such detailed lists: I personally do not have interest in listing, except for an occasionally updated Ontario bird list for a very friendly and exceedingly silly competition with a good friend and long-time volunteer of BPBO, Al Woodhouse (who has seen the Woodhouse Scrub-Jay, by the way?).
So, I was watching the bird with great excitement but also with great care. The bird was – as you recall – at quite a distance across the basin and I was watching it through the scope. It was in full view, perched as it was on a treetop, but it was facing away from us. Nonetheless, it turned a few times, not completely sideways: still no wing bars. I could see enough details of its plumage that I noted, for example, the black tertials (the long, wing feathers closest to the body) tipped in white, the clearly notched tail, the streaked upperparts. And then, it flew away, with me following it with the scope as long as I could: still no wing bars. Of course, white wing bars would have indicated a White-winged Crossbill, not it’s red counterpart. However, one should always remember the axiom “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Did I really see the wings well enough to be sure that there were no wing bars? Am I convincing myself that there were no wing bars in the excitement to see and document a new species?
Well, one should always double-check and peruse multiple field guides. And, there they were, exquisitely drawn by Sibley, the black tertials with white tips. Except that they belong to the White-winged Crossbill!!! The National Geographic field guide would concur, actually spelling out in the text, that “All ages have black wings with white tips on the tertials”. “Zut alors!”, if you pardon my French. It was, after all, the much more common and yearly-observed White-winged Crossbill.
It did procure some fun and excitement and also provided a cautionary tale of how easily one can misidentify birds, especially faced with a rush of adrenaline. Never focus only on the most obvious field marks, or lack thereof, but on every part of the bird, and make detailed notes, to permit comparison with field guides. And always, always keep a healthy measure of doubt when seeing a new bird! Being prepared to be thoroughly disappointed is part of the game too.
So, happy birding and happy quest of the elusive Red Crossbill!