American Birding Podcast



A Surfeit of Redpolls

In the first week of February I was invited to a week of PolarTREC training in Fairbanks, Alaska as an alumni teacher.  I was pretty thrilled to be asked, and working with the next cadre of teachers was energizing and inspiring.  I had a lot of great trips down memory lane to the summer of 2010 when I spent 5 weeks on the USCGC Healy in the Arctic Ocean and a little time at lunch to sneak out for some birding in the area around our hotel (it was still dark every day when we started and ended our sessions but the aurora came through for everyone!)

In the hopes of finding redpolls to study and photograph I packed a thistle sock and Niger seed to set up a little feeding station in the back of the hotel parking lot.  In the week I was there the birds didn't seem to find it but fortunately I came across several flocks of redpolls feeding in birch trees around the neighborhood (once in the birch tree over my thistle sock!) Towards the end of the week I hit a feeder jackpot right next to a sidewalk.  I could reach the yard in about a 5-minute dogtrot and so could spend some time with the birds there on lunch break our last three days.  I found the redpolls to be very intent on feeding (gotta make feeding time count on short days, I suppose), giving little mind to me even though I was standing near the feeders or trees.  Loud noises like diesel trucks would scatter the birds but they very quickly came back to resume their feeding, sometimes right next to me which helped since I only had a 100-300mm zoom with me on the trip. 

My main hope prior to the trip was to get at least one identifiable Hoary Redpoll shot as that would be new for my lifer photo list (I saw one in northern Minnesota years ago but only had scope looks and no chance to snap it.)  Fortunately, I got over that hurdle quickly and soon was enjoying prolonged studies of Hoaries, Commons, and puzzling birds that I'd be hesitant to confidently ID to either species. For reference beyond my bevvy of field guides I greatly appreciated the 2011 North American Birds photo essay: Redpolls from Nunavut & Greenland visit Ontario.

Here are some redpoll images I like from the trip- feedback on ID (agreement, disagreement, or other points to consider) most welcomed in the comments.  Enjoy!  -Bill


Male Hoary Redpoll: Very restricted pink on breast, tiny bill (David Sibley says part of this appearance is due to fluffy nasal feathering around base of bill), minimal flank streaking, white undertail coverts, etc.

Male Hoary Redpoll feeding on birch cone.  The snow beneath favorite trees had a tan duff of birch cone bits littering the surface.

Hoary Redpoll (female/imm male type?).  Note the single dark streak on the undertail coverts- still OK I think (Sibley shows undertail examples from lightly streaked to no streaking.)  Richard Crossly aptly describes this bill appearance as "nipped in."

Male Hoary Redpoll.  Here the bill looks a bit more stout than the "nipped-in" example above but I found that bill aspect could vary on a single bird depending on the angle and degree of activity, perhaps as bill-base feathers were fluffed out or not?

Female (immature?) or immature male Hoary Redpoll.  Younger birds may show more buffy coloration around the face and heavier streaking (per the NAB article mentioned above.)

Male Common Redpoll:  Much more extensive pink breast & red on crown, larger looking bill, heavy flank streaking.  Common Redpolls were overall in the minority of birds I observed in Fairbanks, perhaps 30-35% (assuming I somewhat ID'd them correctly.)  Perahps half of the birds I saw seemed like "good" Hoaries, the rest I was unsure of.  Field guide maps seem to show Common Redpolls at nearly their winter northern limit around Fairbanks.

Female / immature male Common Redpoll(?)  Bill looks big, heavy flank streaking, really black face, some undertail covert streaking.  

Male Common Redpoll:  Lots of pink on the breast, bill looks big & siskin-like, back brownish.  Undertail coverts look really white from this angle, though!!  Intergrade??


Birds to consider…  feedback in the comments appreciated!


Bird 1:  I saved this as a female or immature male Common Redpoll- has a fair amount of streaking in the undertail coverts and pretty heavy flank streaking but the bill doesn't look that big- maybe just the angle?  Is this actually a streaky young Hoary??

Bird 2: Pretty clean-looking undertail coverts, modest flank streaking but brownish-looking back, quite a bit of brown on the breast and face, kind of heavy-looking bill, and pretty black face.  What is it?  Clean-undertail variant Common??

Bird 3:  Hoary-looking bill but pretty dark streaking on the flanks and some undertail streaking, too.  Slightly brownish back.  OK for 1st-winter Hoary?  Or intergrade??