Redpolls from Hell

Shetland in spring

by Roger Riddington

Is it me? Or are spring redpolls especially hard work? Here in Shetland, we often have a fine old variety in autumn, with glistening hornemanni snowballs the most sought-after, as the gushing prose of some of Martin’s older posts shows…

In spring, it’s a different story. We get very few redpolls of any description, typically just a handful of birds that are often worn and bleached. Most often they go down as ‘common redpolls’ of an undetermined variety but this spring there have been a few birds that seem good candidates for Lesser Redpoll (which is rare up here). These birds make you realise just how difficult it can be to separate Lesser from Common Redpoll.

This one, at Sumburgh Head in April, was a tiny wee thing, a little smaller than the accompanying Siskins. It was rich and dark and brown above, surely a good candidate for Lesser. The rather plain and brownish head, and the obvious crescents above and below the eye looked good. (Probably a young male too, on the basis of those very pointed and worn central tail feathers and the pink flush in the cheeks.)

A distinctly brownish wash on the fore-flanks seemed like a further pointer in its favour.

The fly in the ointment was its chum, another redpoll which was more or less the same size or perhaps just slightly larger, seen here in the distance at the back of the group.

And then again here on its own. Now this didn’t fit my search image for a Lesser ‘poll! Two species? Or is that just the easy way out? They certainly seemed to be travelling together; they were just there for an evening, and gone the next morning, having no doubt had a premonition about the ringer that turned up at 6.00 am next day with a couple of mistnets.

Then check out this bird, seen just a few days ago in late May. This one really flummoxxed me in the field, not least for it’s complete lack of a red ‘poll’. I couldn’t work it out, could it be an exceptionally early-fledged juvvy? My neighbour, and top birding wag, Rob Fray, suggested it might be a Twite… It was a hard bird to get close to but the state of the wing and tail feathers proved it was no juvenile. The lack of red is either down to a thick dusting of dandelion pollen or, perhaps more likely, it is one of these rarely encountered yellow- (or orange-) polled birds (which I have to admit that I knew nothing about til I read the fine print in BWP and found a few online refs – google it.

It looked really plain brown and buff around the head, with distinctly brown upperparts, buffy-brown-tinged wingbars, though generally fairly clean underparts (apart from the fore-flanks), including the vent area. Size: impossible to judge.

So: do the rest of you struggle with Common vs Lesser in spring, or is it just me? Are these two birds Lesser Redpolls or small, brown Mealies? Do the latter exist? I suspect they do – and if they do, how to you tell ‘em from Lessers?

What’s more, is this a decent or a dodgy split? Are the Collins Bird Guide team right to maintain Lesser Redpoll as a race rather than a species? Answers on a postcard addressed to Martin Garner, please. Leave me out of it…

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7 Responses to Redpolls from Hell

  1. Simon Mitchell says:

    Not sure about the first two, but given the high incidence of xanthocromism in other finches (I’m thinking House Finches and Rosefinches in particular), I definitely doesn’t surprise me that Redpolls can turn out like this aswell…

  2. For me the top four images are of ‘Mealy’ or ‘Common Redpoll’. I see them here all the time in Sweden and have been paying close attention to them. Note the cold toned brown on the upper parts, bullish neck, the white tram lines down the centre of the mantle and classic Common Redpoll flank pattern, heavilly streaked on a dirty whitish base, a pair of second year birds. in my opinion.
    The remaining photos at the end are perhaps a second calender female Lesser Redpoll. Note especially the bright, warm tones around the face, this is never seen in Common Redpoll as far as I can ascertain to date.
    These birds are very, very variable Martin, I am trying to get a wide gallery of good quality photos of these birds in all plumages, as first years, second years and adults of both sexes, as males differ subly to females, particularily with relation to the extent of red on the crown. All of differing appearances with perhaps quite a lot of overlap. There is certainly a huge amount of variability in both plumage and size. Common Redpoll is by far the comonest species here, with both Lesser and Arctic ‘exilples’ present in much smaller numbers. I have found the bright ochre tan tones of Lesser Redpoll and very good way of picking these birds out..

    Alan Dalton.

  3. acro.scirpaceus says:

    On balance I agree that the birds in the top four pictures appear to be Mealies but I would have liked to have seen the tones “live” to be 100% as electronic hardware always plays with tones and hues and none of us can be sure we are seeing the same thing through our own monitors. I’m a ringer and have only handled 6 individuals of Common Redpoll but something like 1500 Lesser Redpoll – I have found the differences very obvious in the hand and wing length usually confirms it. The last 3 photos are Lesser Redpoll, and only the uniformly dark bill causes doubt (it should have some yellowish). The light yellow poll is not unusual. Quite a number have yellow polls even when fresh in autumn, and when sexable they tend to be females, but not exclusively. Only yesterday I trapped a 2nd calendar year breeding male at my site in central Scotland (only Lessers here in summer). It had clear cloacal protuberance (hence male) but a hardly visible light yellow poll – there was no red at all anywhere in the plumage, which means what little red it developed post- juvenile was probably worn away. In fact it was just the same as the birds in the last three pictures, though I suspect your browns are a little too intense (as I view them).

  4. Al Davies says:

    I think the top image is a Lesser Redpoll. Rich brown basal colour, eye crescents, yellow cutting edge of mandible, dark lores and pinkish flush to cheeks, as well as diminutive size all seem to suggest Lesser. Always variable , forever challenging.

  5. mark welfare says:

    species limits are clearly very hard to define in these taxa that have overlapping ranges and plumages and biometrics and I kind of feel that when it is so hard to define the criteria for defining each individual it is very difficult to apply either BSC or PSC. in the end species is a human defined concept and evolution may have different scales and ideas from our need to define things

  6. Mark Thomas says:

    http://bucktonbirder.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/yellowpoll.html
    Pic here of a yellow polled Redpoll I caught in Cambs in 2011.

    The Yellow poll in your pics looks like a Lesser Redpoll, other pics Common Redpoll.

  7. acro.scirpaceus says:

    I disagree with Al because 4 of his criteria are not diagnostic to separate Mealy from Lesser and any any case I don’t perceive the ground colour of the top bird as warm – it looks rather dark grey with bits of tawny. Compare it for example to the already dulled ground colour on the back of yellow-polled Lesser of the lower photos, which is warmer. We just can’t say from the photos if the bird is diminutive and small Mealies overlap with large Lesser. This does not mean that the two are inseparable – I think they basically are. The academic literature is consistent that Lesser is the most distinctive form of redpoll on plumage characteristics – and although no two birds of any species are ever identical I have to handle perhaps 500 Lesser before I come upon one which can be said to be ‘varied’ in any meaningful sense and even these are still completely recognisable. For that reason I am less likely to throw up my hands in desparation like Mark. The difficulty is much more with the variability of birds attributed to Common Redpoll populations and these, I think, give us the problems – as does does the limits of normal field observation. If it is hard to say, it is probably because we are not seeing or measuring enough. In the final analysis Mark makes an important point about species being constructs, and nature defies our invented categories by being both clinal and convergent but that does not mean you have to abandon all attempts at categorising shared characteristics of what we describe in the interim as a ‘taxon’. Take Lesser. It might be a species, it might be a sub-species, it hardy matters. What is important is that it is both distinctive and has a well-defined geographical breeding range which overlaps with Common only in the very south of Norway, So for any time in the year these birds will have the characteristics we attribute to Lesser Redpoll and these have been well described. It is quite possible there are hybrids (though these would in small numbers) though I have still to find anything other than vague claims that someone has really identified one. (Though one Swedish BO is adamant that they have trapped migrant hybrids). If there were such hybrids then presumably they would share the characteristics we attribute to both Lesser and Common or some unique formulation. In short, at this point in time, I am not convinced there are masses of odd-looking Lesser Redpolls out there trying to defying our attempts to identify them. If a bird does not look like a Lesser Redpoll it probably isn’t one.

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