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…