Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Hoary Grail of Birding

We've been invaded again. Starting with two or three birds, as December advanced we began to get more and more Common Redpolls in the yard. By the middle of the month they were at all the feeders, in the all the trees, and feeding on the ground with over-wintering Mourning Doves.

My yard has been part of the local Christmas Bird Count for several years. In preparation for the day, I spent a great deal of time practicing an accurate count of these flighty little finches.  With feeders in both the front and back yards, I did a lot of laps through the house.

Common Redpolls are tiny birds in constant motion. Even when eating, there is always movement with birds flitting in and out, squabbling over food and the best locations. Add in the fact they travel in mixed flocks with House Finches and it's enough to make your eyes go crossed.

Suddenly in the midst of all the counting, all my senses went on alert. Is that....? Could it be...?

YES!  The holy grail of redpoll counts! I had a Hoary Redpoll in the yard! At least I thought I did.

Even the most experienced birders have a great deal of trouble doing a positive identification of a Hoary (Arctic) Redpoll. Checking the bird guides is only marginally helpful, as here's what Sibley has to say:
In general Hoary Redpoll appears less brown than Common, as if dredged in flour; it is also slightly larger and has a shorter bill. Specific field marks to look for include the Hoary’s unstreaked white rump; undertail coverts either unstreaked or with a single fine streak; and streaking on the sides less extensive and finer than on Common. Adult males are lightly flushed pale pink on the breast, as opposed to the uniform deep-rose breast coloration of Common. However, characteristics of the two species overlap, and not all redpolls can be safely separated in the field. Distinguishing Common and Hoary Redpolls is extremely challenging, as the differences are small and subjective, and debate continues over whether the two should be considered separate species.
It's bird identification on a sliding scale with no reference to indicate when the scale has tipped. Fortunately the tentatively-identified Hoary in my yard sat still long enough for a few photos, and fellow birders confirmed my identification.

Hoary Redpoll foreground, Common Redpoll background

It's very likely I have seen Hoarys before, as flocks of redpolls are common winter birds in this province. However, without the photograph and fellow birder confirmation, I've always been hesitant to add them to my life list. At long last I can finally put a tick mark beside their name. With a pen.


  1. Congrats, Pat! I have embarrassed myself so often by Id'ing a Redpoll as a Hoary that I feel permanently traumatized, but yours is one for sure!!

  2. Awesome find! I need to remember to scrutinize the redpolls I see as I usually assume Common.

  3. I can;t wait until they start showing up more regularly in Central NY this winter! Coupla reports already.

  4. A great find! It certainly is difficult telling difference between the Hoary and Common. Congratulations on the life bird! Very exciting!

  5. I have several I think are Hoary among the flock of Commons in my yard the last 2 weeks. I find it very difficult to tell too, but side by side some are very obviously lighter colored. Lovely shots Pat.

  6. A late thank you for all the great comments! We've been away for 10 days, and just returned home to a yard full of redpolls. Guess what I'm looking for...