What are white-winged crossbills doing in Aquinnah in September? What are white-winged crossbills? First things first: a white-winged or two barred crossbill is a member of the finch family. Although they are relatives of American goldfinches, house finches and purple finches, the crossbills are built differently.

As their name indicates, they have unusual bills. They are not thick and blunt like the rest of their cousins, but thin, shear-like and crossed. The top mandible curves down and is pointed and the bottom mandible curves up and is pointed as well. This highly specialized bill design enables the crossbills to do some fancy feeding.

Their food of choice is conifer seeds and primarily spruce seeds. So how to get the seeds out of the cones is the trick. Watching a crossbill feed is interesting. They pry the cone apart with their cross bills and then extract the seed with their tongues. Crossbills have also been seen picking cement out of brick walls to get a calcium fix. As with other seed-eating species, the crossbills will feed on insects when raising their young.

White-winged crossbills are a boreal species that spend most of their lives in extreme northern United States and Canada. However, they are very nomadic and tend to walk about frequently when the spruce cones are not abundant in the north, or when there is a crossbill population explosion and there isn’t enough food to go around. Excessive logging may also cause a movement of crossbills.

The male white-winged crossbill is handsome with a wine-red body, dark tail and wings which sport two distinct white wing bars and a black crossed bill. The females and young of the year are brownish yellow with a streaked breast and back. If you have any spruce trees with cones, check them out, and maybe you will see one of these amazing birds.

Bird Sightings

There are no records of white-winged crossbills on the Vineyard in September so this is a first. The earliest fall record is in October; most other records are in November through March. We have one interesting and good record of white-winged crossbills in May of 1966.

Bob Shriber spotted the white-winged crossbill first on Lobsterville Road in Aquinnah on Sept. 1. Luckily it was joined by two more and Lanny McDowell, Allan Keith and I were able to see the birds on the next day. On August 20 Lauren and Matt Shweder Biel spotted an American woodcock on Fulling Mill Road in Chilmark.

Chris Albright sent me a nice photo of the two black skimmers that were at Norton Point on August 15.

Warren Woessner spotted a single red knot at Norton Point on August 28. Laurie Walker and Katharine Colon were at Chilmark Pond on the same day and had a good number of shorebirds including a spotted sandpiper and both least and semipalmated sandpipers. They also had laughing gulls.

Flip Harrington saw a huge flock of laughing gulls between the Gay Head Cliffs and Noman’s Land on August 29. At Quansoo we spotted two great blue herons, a peregrine falcon, a northern harrier and six eastern bluebirds. We also watched as a young osprey landed on one of our sheds expecting to eat the fish he had in peace. The family of barn swallows that used the shed kept dive bombing him until he left in a huff. Lanny McDowell spotted an eastern wood pewee and a red-eyed vireo at Aquinnah the same day.

Rob Culbert and group had a great day on August 30. At Mattakesset Herring Creek they spotted an American bittern, and both black-crowned and green herons. At Crackatuxet Cove they saw a pied-billed grebe and a white-rumped sandpiper. At Herring Creek Farm they spotted an upland sandpiper perched on a fence and at Wilson’s Landing they had a piping plover, short-billed dowitcher, American redstart, yellow and yellow-rumped warblers. At the Farm Institute they had two American golden plovers and many bobolinks. On Sept. 1 Bob Shriber counted five golden plovers at Katama and a sharp-shinned hawk at Aquinnah. He had a white-rumped sandpiper at Lobsterville.

Steve Allen called from Felix Neck and reported the birds he had seen August 29 which included a solitary sandpiper, greater yellowlegs, least sandpiper and an immature yellow-crowned night heron. Warren Woessner went looking for the yellow-crowned night heron and found a whimbrel later the same day at Felix Neck.

On August 31 Keith and Savannah Dubay were kayaking in Black Point Pond and spotted several species including a great egret, three great blue herons and three American oystercatchers. The same day Warren Woessner spotted an American kestrel hunting the fields at Katama. The group I took birding from the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury went to Aquinnah. We were totally amazed at the number of laughing gulls loafing on the oyster rafts off Lobsterville. There must have been over 500 birds. Lanny McDowell went to the Farm Institute and found the five American golden plovers, the upland sandpiper, a horned lark and least sandpipers in the plowed fields. Tim Simmons spotted an American woodcock, a barn owl and a short-eared owl at Black Point in Chilmark as well as three black-crowned night herons on August 31. Laurie Walker and Katharine Colon went to Aquinnah and Lobsterville on August 31 and their best birds were three wood ducks, a chimney swift, bobolinks, three ruby-throated hummingbirds and Baltimore orioles.

On Sept. 1 I joined Lanny McDowell and Allan Keith at Katama and Edgartown Great Pond. At the Farm Institute we spotted northern harriers, golden plovers, upland and buff-breasted sandpipers, killdeer, horned lark, and bobolinks. At Edgartown Great Pond we spotted greater and lesser yellowlegs, solitary sandpiper, short-billed dowitcher and white-rumped sandpipers. After the word went out, Allan and Lanny both went to Aquinnah and saw the white-winged crossbills in the afternoon. Allan also spotted red-breasted nuthatches, two Cape May warblers, two Baltimore orioles, a red-eyed vireo a pine warbler and a Cooper’s hawk.

I joined Allan Keith and Lanny McDowell on Sept. 2 and spotted a green and great blue heron at Hariph’s Creek and then on to Aquinnah to see the white-winged crossbills. We also saw a Cooper’s hawk, laughing gulls, a chimney swift, three ruby-throated hummingbirds, red-breasted nuthatches, warbling vireoes, yellow, Cape May, black-throated green and prairie warblers, common yellowthroat and bobolinks. Warren Woessner went to Lighthouse Road to find the white-winged crossbills on Sept. 2 and was unsuccessful, but did find a Western kingbird. Not bad.

Please report sightings to the bird hotline at 508-627-4922 or e-mail birds@mvgazette.com.