We stood at the intersection of Briery Branch Road and 85, near the summit of Reddish Knob, watching and listening to the red crossbills feeding all around us. Crossbill flocks roved about the mountaintop, chattering and singing constantly. Some birds dangled from the cones of table mountain and pitch pines, using their long, sturdy, crossed bills to pry the seeds out from deep within the cones. Other crossbill flocks gathered in the dirt road not more than five feet in front of us, squabbling and moving constantly as they ingested little bits of gravel to aid in their digestion.
Red crossbills are fairly rare throughout most of Virginia — they are most common during irruption years, when large numbers come north during the winter — but they can usually be found in the tall mountains along the VA/WV border in Rockingham County. The crossbills are present all year round, including the breeding season, and have raised young successfully in the Reddish Knob Area before.
The red crossbill is an extremely complex species. Many subspecific taxa, commonly referred to as crossbill “types” have been named, and it is possible that some of them will be elevated to species status in the future. Indeed, just this past year the Cassia crossbill — endemic to one county in southern Idaho — was split out from the red crossbill. One of the most variable features of crossbill types is bill size, as it seems different types have evolved different bills to allow them to specialize on different conifer species. The types also differ in body size and call.
The red crossbills at Briery Branch Gap had previously been recorded and identified as Appalachian red crossbill (type 1), but I wanted to make sure our birds were as well, so I took some recordings. When I got home, I sent my red crossbill recordings to Matt Young, a scientist who’s been studying them. He told me that I had recorded both type 1 and type 2, the ponderosa pine crossbill, which had not been documented in Virginia recently.
Seven young birders had met for the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club field trip to Briery Branch Gap early in the morning at the Rockfish Gap Hawk-watch. The trip to Briery Branch was uneventful until we got to Airport Road, just south of the town of Bridgewater, in Rockingham County. Suddenly, three massive, lightly-colored birds crossed the road in front of us. I only got to see them for a few seconds before they were obscured by the trees, but I had enough time to make out their huge, black-tipped wings, light bodies, tiny tails, and massive bills. They were American white pelicans, a 2nd county record.
We encountered the flocks of red crossbills as soon as we got to the pull off for Briery Branch Gap. It was by far the most I’ve ever seen at once, and the best views. After the crossbill show, we walked up forest road 85 in search of other mountain birds. Pines, hemlocks and oaks grew over a dense layer of mountain fetterbush next to the trail. Blue-headed vireos, dark-eyed juncos and black-capped chickadees sang from the branches. We walked into a field surrounded by red spruce and eastern hemlock. A few more red crossbills flew over our head, accompanied by American goldfinches and pine siskins. Black-and-white warblers sang their whispery, greasy wheel song. Someone flushed an American woodcock, which flew twenty feet and then landed deep in a fetterbush colony. We decided we should turn around so we’d have time for a few stops in the valley on our way home.
For some reason, the field at the end of Lumber Mill Road in Dayton is one of the most reliable places in the valley for the introduced Eurasian collared dove. Why the doves prefer this particular manure-covered field to a million exactly like it all over Rockingham County is beyond me. We found three Eurasian collared doves perched on the powerlines next to the road.
Our final stop of the day was Oakwood Pond, where we found two pectoral sandpipers. We headed home, happy with our morning’s birding.