14 Jan 2014

Common Redpoll or something much tastier?

Last Sunday I returned from my footit campaign to try and nail the Stanney Woods Lesser spotted Woodpecker feeling a bit despondent about the lack of good birds -especially finches! Not a single Redpoll or Brambling so far this January.

Making a brew and retiring to the conservatory I noticed a male Lesser Redpoll on the sunflower heart feeders. It was a nice pink bird so  I grabbed the camera and snuck around the outside of the conservatory to get a photo. It flew off the feeders into the nearby hawthorn and as my gaze moved upwards I was stunned to see a ghostly pale Redpoll with its back towards me showing a gleaming white rump. I didn't have my binoculars with me so couldn't determine if the bird had any streaking on the rump - if it did it was very faint  - or any undertail covert streaking. At this point  I was cautiously moving to try and get an un-obscured shot. There were Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Goldfinches in the same bush & I estimated the bird to be about Goldfinch size but much plumper and more fluffed up.

Unfortunately the whole flock was disturbed by kids playing in the trees surrounding the pond adjacent to our garden and the whole flock flew off. It was only after viewing the photos on the back of the camera I noticed the small bill and punched in looking face reminiscent of Arctic Redpoll. Shit!

Taking a few photos with my mobile off the back of the camera I forwarded them to a few birding friends. The responses were understandably cautious but reinforced my own concerns.

 Despite a 3 hour vigil in the warmth of the conservatory with camera and binoculars at hands and only cups of tea and a tin of Christmas leftover chocolate biscuits to console me neither Redpolls reappeared.

Here are the best photographs I managed to salvage:

And the worst:

So what do the photos tell me?

Fortunately there was a big article on Redpoll identification in British Birds December 2013 bt Andy Stoddard. Current thinking is there 6 type's of Redpoll - Carduelis cabaret (Lesser Redpoll - the little brown jobs), C flammea (Common or Mealy Redpoll) of which there are possibly three recognised races. C f flammea (nominate), C f. rostrata (so called Greenland Redpoll) & C f. icelandica (pale Icelandic Redpoll). In addition there is the Arctic Redpoll complex with the most desirable being the 'snowball' Carduelis hornemanni and the more subtle Carduelis h exilpes or Coues's Arctic Redpoll.

From the photographs I think I can safely rule out Greenland, Lesser Redpoll and Hornemanns Arctic Redpoll which leaves three possibilities - a very white and frosty Mealy, Coue's Arctic or pale Icelandic.

Pale Icelandic rostrata is a much bigger bird similar to the more familiar dark Greenland birds I've seen on Shetland regularly. These are real brusiers whereas my bird looks quite dinky and cute faced.
There is an overlap in wing lengths between Mealy & Coue's Arctic Redpoll so nothing can be determined by this although my bird does seem to be long winged. There is huge variability in the amount of flank and rump streaking depending on age. Even undertail covert streaking is variable but unfortunately its virtually impossible to make out the undertail coverts from my photo' although the 2nd photo down might show a single dark central streak.

According to BWP 1st winter male Arctic Redpoll can show a single central streak on the undertail coverts.
The BB article also says Coue's Arctic Redpoll is long tailed. I think the photo's clearly show this bird to have a long tail! The same article says, due to the dense feathering, Arctic Redpolls appear fluffed up and always appear to have difficulty covering their rumps with their wings. My bird certainly looks fluffed up and you can imagine the rump being visible if it turned round - exactly as it was when I first spotted it.....

I keep coming back to that cute little face, short bill and bull necked appearance. Another interesting biometric in the BB article is that Coue's, although having a short bill has a very broad base to it. Look at the head on shot above.

Below is a Coue's I photographed at Baltasound, Unst about three years ago.
 Note how wet the bird is so the feathering around the bill is flattened making the bill look longer
Here's a Mealy photographed at the same time.
And a Mealy caught and ringed in my garden last year with a massive great conk.
One of the characteristics of Arctic Redpoll is the dense feathering and the fact the bill looks shorter due to the feathering around the base:

Another feature I've read about recently is the straight culmen.....

So a very pale Mealy or a Coue's Arctic Redpoll?

My heart is saying this is the one that got away. If it comes back I'll hopefully get better views and better photographs.


Owen said...

Hi Phil,

I have only seen a handful of Coue's Arctics, but it was just a few weeks ago. A good sampling of images on Tarsiger, with some showing vent streaking.

If the rump fit for Arctic, then it looks quite good.

Owen said...

Not seen many Coue's, but did see a handful quite recently.

Tarsiger is a good source for comparison images.

Would like to see the rump for myself, but if it was as extensively white as you say, then it sounds quite good for Arctic.

Phil Woollen. said...

Cheers Owen. I've spoken to a few people who think the same but unfortunately it'll never get accepted unless it returns and I can get better photos and / or ring it.

Trust you enjoyed Finland. Fantastic place - I loved working there.