Went for a rather cold but thrillingly autumnal walk up on the beautiful Ashdown forest today; the sky was grey, the air sunk its chilly claws right into your bones, the trees were dropping orange-brown leaves and the holly bushes were dripping in scarlet drupes.

Specifically we (my mum, younger brother and I) were visiting the Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve Old Lodge; a haven of gorse, heathers, pines, bracken, birch and moss which is great for all types of wildlife throughout the year. It was the possibility of seeing two particular bird species which I was very keen to see that made me pick out Old Lodge as the place to go after church. The first of these species did not take long to find.

Ahead of us along the lane it was evident that there was some bird activity going on as small little bodies fluttered back and forth between the trees and the ground. Through my binoculars I picked out a male Bullfinch, then a Coal tit, then perched in a large Beech tree – a Brambling. A little more looking and it was obvious that a sizable flock of Chaffinches and Bramblings were feeding in the leaf litter beneath the Beech and Birch trees up ahead.

Winter Bramblings – 1956

For those not in the know, Bramblings (Fringilla montifringilla) are finches not unlike the very common or garden Chaffinches, except they do not breed in this country (preferring northern Europe) and only visit us during the colder months to escape the intolerable cold up north and feed on our beech seeds. They are very attractive little birds with complex mottled plumage of yellows and oranges and blacks and whites and greys, I have been trying to see these birds each winter for a good many years now without success – until now.

In a nearby birch tree I managed to pick out a small group of Lesser Redpolls feeding quietly and seemingly with great concentration on the ripe catkins full of seeds that hung like miniature corn-on-the-cobs from the otherwise bare twigs.

Further on into the reserve and my attention was diverted by some more Beech trees that were gradually gathering more Bramblings and Chaffinches under their boughs – small groups of the birds were flying in and diving down into the lower twigs. Just around this point I heard some interesting bird calls coming from behind me in a stand of tall pine trees. They sounded a little like – ‘chip, chip, chup, chip chip, chup, chup, chip’ and it was obvious there was a flock of birds calling, I thought that maybe they were Redpolls as they have calls rather like that, but it was a few minutes before the birds showed themselves.

Finally a group of no more than ten or so birds flew over the tops of the pines and landed in a particularly tall tree not far away – but out of sight as soon as they landed. A thought had entered my head and I was determined to make sure just what these mystery birds were so I quickly legged it up the path to see if I could catch sight of them. As I approached I spotted a bird perched at the very top of the pine tree, it was chunky and the second I put up my binoculars to it I could see without a doubt that it was a female Crossbill – my second target bird and the first of this species I have seen in Britain.

Five Crossbills are visible here

I could hear more birds calling in the tree behind so after a good long look at the female I moved around to see if I could see any more – lo and behold I managed to clap my eyes (now like saucers!) upon a group of approx. seven Crossbills feeding on the pine cones. It was a mixed flock of males (red plumage) and females/juveniles (green plumage) and the males particularly were absolutely stunning to look at. My heart was racing with the excitement of seeing this much looked-for and desired species at last and as the birds were busy eating the pine seeds concealed inside the cones I managed to have a really good look and also show both my mum and brother these gorgeous birds.

Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are large finches native to Britain that feed exclusively on pine seeds – as an adaptation to this they have bills with crossed tips which enables them to pry open the scales of the cones in order to get at the kernel within. Despite being widespread they are not especially common and their population is dictated by the pine seed crop – meaning they have a boom and bust cycle and have to keep moving around the country.