Tiny flakes falling through the trees, making that distinct pitapat sound of snowdrops landing on crisp frozen leaves below. But wait, the sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. An assembly of Redpolls overhead, hungrily teasing seeds from the tree’s cones were creating a shower of snow-seeds.
I followed along ever so quietly as the flock moved from tree to tree, expertly pulling the cones apart for the small kernel held within.
Returning several times to the same trail and hoping to catch sight again but, with most of the cones gone, so too were the Redpolls.
The Common Redpoll is a species of finch with a distinct crimson cap that looks like a mini French beret, giving the song bird a bit of a rakish appearance.
Their small yellow bills evolved to eat small seeds, such as those of thistles and birches. Some studies show that in winter Redpolls subsist almost entirely on birch seeds.
Common Redpolls have been known to survive temperatures of -65 degrees below and even sleep at night in snow tunnels that can be up to a foot long. Redpolls nest in the Arctic tundra; we only ever see them during the winter months.
The redpolls return with friends in tow. Two weeks ago we were visited by a half dozen or so Common Redpolls; yesterday and today we have a troupe of thirty. Goldfinch-sized, with crisp white and brown patterned tail feathers and velvety crimson caps, they have the winsome habit of cocking their heads and looking straight at you, as if to say (in the most conversational manner), “I am very photogenic; won’t you concur?”
Common Redpoll (Male)
The female lacks the pink breast and both have the same red poll (cap). The first photo shows the male above and the female below.
How lovely to receive a visit from this charming flock of redpolls. I knew it to be a new-to-our garden species, but did not realize visits were much more uncommon than common. Oh how I wish I had taken more snapshots! Common Redpolls are another “irruptive species” from the boreal forests of North American (see Pine Siskins, below), and there have been numerous sightings reported throughout New England. To learn whether we had Hoary Redpolls or Common Redpolls I emailed Chris Leahy, Mass Audubon’s Chair of Field Ornithology:
Hi Chris, Last week I found this inexpensive Nyjer seed bird feeder at Whole Foods, hung it in the garden next to the finch feeder, and was immediately visited by what I think are redpolls. They stayed for a few days and have not been seen again. It was dreary and rainy, so my photos are gray, not crispy. Do you think they are Common Redpolls or Hoary Redpolls or are the photos not clear enough?
I posted a link on my blog re your talk at the Sawyer Free and was disappointed it was cancelled. Click on the photo–Chris Leahy and the Birds of Cape Ann–I think it looks like the three sparrows on the right are listening to a talk by the sparrow on the left–please forgive the “bird” humor. Let me know when you are giving the talk and I will repost.
From Chris–Great, Kim! Send some over to my side of the harbor please! They are Common Redpolls – which are by no means common most winters. There’s a lot of plumage variation in both species and several races of Common Redpolls. Hoary’s are much rarer of course and tend to hang out in flocks of Commons. Their best marks are a very tiny bill and pure white (or nearly so) under tail coverts (not always easy to see). Sometimes they appear much whiter, but not always and Commons can get very pale especially late in the year as the brown tips of the feathers wear.
Keep your eyes on your fruiting shrubs for Bohemian Waxwings. We had a flock of 5 (with Cedars) at Halibut Point during the Birding Weekend on Saturday. And Mary in East Gloucester found a dead one on her deck. I’ve had Cedars in my privet hedge during the last 10 days but no Bohemians (yet!?).
Also sent from Chris is the following summary of the many birds seen on Cape Ann during the annual Cape Ann Winter Birding weekend.