Country diary: Drifting wrappers and thudding pine cones mean only one thing

<span>Photograph: Robin Chittenden/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Robin Chittenden/Alamy

I sometimes wonder if, when looking for wildlife, you get clues to its presence, but only at a subliminal level. Then the “unthought known”, as it’s sometimes called, guides you to the conscious discovery.

As I walked along a track flanked by tall spruce, each treetop decked with hundreds of fresh cones, I remember thinking: “There should be crossbills here.” At the Goyt this is by no means certain. Last year produced just a single record, and I’ve seen them in all Derbyshire only a handful of times. But lo! There they were instantly: three initially and a flock of 12 in total.

The finches are equipped with upper and lower mandibles that terminate in separately recurving tips, but the key clue to their unique ecology is a huge head packed with powerful muscles. These enable the bird to force apart unopened cones to extract the seeds.

These odd proportions, capped by the thickness of the weird bill, give a crossbill a distinctly parrot-like appearance. The impression is sometimes reinforced when a bird snips off a cone half its body size and waddles off, carrying the burden on powerful feet, to dismantle the whole, scale by scale.

Related: Country diary: A golden glint in the gwynt | Jim Perrin

This is the moment that proceeds those subliminal clues because each individual nut has to be unwrapped from a protective layer. A feeding bird digs out the seed with its scoop-like tongue and mandibulates the unwanted skin. A steady downward spiral of these wrappers is punctuated by a more infrequent thud from empty cones. Around this action, half-glimpsed in the thick evergreen foliage, the feeding crossbill family also reassures itself within an envelope of the faintest contact calls.

It is one of the self-delighting parts of the naturalist’s life that only those with prior experience could piece together this crossbill scenario. Yet almost no one can miss the species in alarm. These big finches blub up and swirl in tight groups, firing down repeat salvoes of their metallic notes. I guess that in certain situations you could hear those alarm calls from miles away. My Goyt birds produced these intermittent eruptions, but also something much more suggestive: the rippling bell-like notes of incipient song.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary