The Pine Grosbeak in Essex

Pine Grosbeak: Essex (photo: David Tomlinson).

Pine Grosbeaks have always been a bit of a bogey bird for me. I first visited Finland in January 1986 when I could, with luck, have seen my first, but I had to make do with a fine Hawk Owl instead. Several subsequent visits to both Finland and Sweden at various seasons also drew blank on this, the largest of the European finches. Then, in early April this year, while leading a trip to northern Finland for the Hawk and Owl Trust, I finally saw my first Grosbeaks. The snow was still 6 feet deep in the forest, so there was no chance of going to the birds: the birds had to come to you. So it was from the road that I watched a couple of pairs of Pine Grosbeaks both singing and feeding in the tops of the spruce trees.

Pine Grosbeaks are apparently not uncommon in the forests of northern Finland, but they return to the breeding grounds extremely early in the year when the snow is still deep. By May, when the snow has melted and most birdwatchers are visiting, they are extremely difficult to find. In recent years a couple of feeding stations in Lapland have been attracting Pine Grosbeaks, and this is where most people see them.

Almost exactly three months after seeing those Grosbeaks in Finland I had an email from a friend, Richard, who lives in Essex. Richard is a keen shooting man, but with a countryman's interest in birds and the countryside. He reported that while sitting in his garden that night, eating his supper, a Crossbill landed at his feet and then allowed his son Matt to feed it. "It didn't mind the flash. Are they always so tame?" Richard sent a series of photographs with the email. A quick glance revealed that they were indeed something interesting, especially when I saw that the bird in question had a double white wing-bar. My first thought was Two-barred Crossbill (I couldn't see the bird's beak in the photographs), so I sent one of the pictures on to Howard Vaughan, the Essex County Recorder.

Howard soon e-mailed me back, pointing out that the bird looked much more like a Pine Grosbeak than a Crossbill, and he was of course right. I emailed Richard, asking him to give me a call should the bird reappear. He called me at lunchtime yesterday, so I drove down to try and see it. I was met by Richard and his wife Sue with the inevitable "it was here until a few minutes ago". Fortunately, after about 10 minutes it returned to the garden, announcing its presence with a clear call that was reminiscent of the chip of a Crossbill. It sat high in a spruce, before flying down to feed under an ornamental cherry.

Here it remained for the next hour, feeding silently and unobtrusively - it's no wonder they are so hard to find in the northern forests. It was ridiculously approachable, and I was able to get within a foot without disturbing it. This is, of course, typical of the species.

Unfortunately, Richard and Sue's garden is unsuitable for receiving visitors, with a fast but narrow country lane on one side and nowhere to park cars. A twitch was out of the question. However, Howard Vaughan was able to see the bird late in the evening before it went to roost.

Where had it come from? Was it an escape? Who knows. I have no doubt that many twitchers who would like to have this species on their lifelist will be happy to dismiss it as an escapee. The date is an unlikely one, and there have only been 11 previous accepted records in 175 years. All I can say is that I enjoyed seeing and photographing it.

Update: the bird is now known to have been an escape. David wrote a letter to Cage and Aviary Birds magazine (with a photograph) and has now established contact with the owner. Interestingly the bird (which disappeared on June 23rd) is not a male as first thought, but a "colour-fed" female - eds.
Written by: David Tomlinson, Suffolk