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.