It’s only Dec 1, and already reports of crossbills and siskins in central Ohio have been overwhelming. These winter invaders followed a strong Fall for Red-br. Nuthatches, many of which are still around, and Tree Sparrows, which seem to be everywhere. Despite the relatively mild weather so far, this could be one of the biggest winter finch invasion years of the past 2 decades.
The stars so far are clearly the crossbills. Birders have started to look for them in any location that has hemlocks or spruce trees, and the numbers of sightings has spiraled up. Both White-winged and Red Crossbills have been seen as far south as Cincinnati and Athens, and they’ve become almost expected in some areas around the middle of the state. Most mind-boggling was a report from Mohican State park that spoke of them in the ‘hundreds’. This could be remembered as the ‘Crossbill Winter’.
Where are the best locations to search for them in central Ohio? Clearly, any spot that has lots of hemlocks and/or spruce trees. In Columbus, that has meant Greenlawn cemetery, where generous numbers of both are in the plantings. Both Red and White-winged Crossbills have been seen there since early-mid November. There are other sites, though: Walnut Woods, a new Metropark near Groveport, sports an old nursery with lots of spruces, and I found White-wings there several times. Several areas around Hoover Reservoir have Spruce plantings, and they’ve also been there. Other areas with lots of Spruce trees include north-central Dublin (along Dublin Rd north of I-270) and old Worthington (between High St. and the Olentangy River), and they should be listened for in those locations. Almost any sizeable cemetery will have a few Spruces, and might be a tempting spot for them, especially in open rural areas west of town like Plain City, West Jefferson, and London.
If you do go looking for crossbills, you should become familiar with their calls. Of all the crossbills I’ve seen this year, almost every one has been a fly-by, where I heard them calling as they flew over. White-winged have a very ventriloqual “weet weet weet” that’s very distinctive once you hear it.
Red Crossbills are more than one species, and calls are the only reliable way to ID them currently. Research pioneered by Jeff Groth and Craig Benkman show that these call types are associated with subtle morphological differences and distinct seed preferences. Now, calling a bird a red crossbill is kind of like calling a small flycatcher an empidonax. You can do it, but why not learn the calls and get ahead of the game. There are apparently 8-10 different red crossbills scattered across North America. Fortunately, most of them are in the Western U.S.. The ones that we are most likely to hear in Ohio are the Appalachian Red crossbills (call type 1), Pine Red Crossbills (call type 2), and the Hemlock Red crossbills (call type 3). The calls are not that difficult to master; you can find a good sample of them here: http://ebird.org/content/ebird/news/recrtype/ If you’re still uncertain, make recordings using either a digital recorder or a smartphone. Once you have a digital recording, there are tools on the Web to convert it into a sonagram, which is easier to compare with the Type calls.