Dartmoor, Devon: The common crossbill’s unusual beak is designed to extract tiny seeds from conifer cones. So in pine forests they must stay
It feels as if I have walked into a deserted prison wing. The narrow path is enclosed between towering walls of conifers, trunks straight as iron bars, dark corridors running through the regimented ranks. I am not that far from Dartmoor prison, as it happens, exploring a dense tract of forest at the centre of the moor known as Soussons Plantation – and it seems I have the place to myself on this cold winter’s morning, a lone inmate wandering the passageways.
While a light wind combs the tops of the trees, it is quiet at ground level. But there is life here, even amid the hard-edged blocks of sitka spruce. Flocks of small birds pass by and I spot a deer moving in the shadows. Eventually, I catch a sound I had been hoping to hear, a chip-chip like a metal pick striking granite: crossbills. Looking up, I spot half a dozen of these stocky finches flying overhead and follow, scanning the canopy.