More on those pesky redpolls

The redpoll complex seems to have been a popular topic for a debut post…  Good feedback on orange-/yellow-/golden-polled redpolls suggests that they are uncommon – but not that unusual – and that was new to me at least. Hugh Insley even commented that among the redpolls he’s catching in northwest Scotland, 10–20% may have golden rather than red polls. Many thanks to Phil Woollen for this pic of a handful of Lessers on Hilbre in late March…

…and to Graham Catley ( for this cracking pic of Arctic Redpolls at Skalelv Varanger in mid June.

As for working out the differences between Lessers and Mealies, it was interesting to see a range of views of what the Shetland birds were and on what the most helpful features are. I guess I was encouraged to find that it isn’t just me scratching my head. Members of both the Irish and Welsh records committees got in touch to say ‘Welcome to our world’ – redpolls are one of the most difficult groups to assess, even with good photos (check out some of last month’s posts here); while obs wardens Steve Stansfield on Bardsey and Dave Walker at Dunge suggest that they are increasingly struggling to separate some birds – even in the hand!

Comments below the original post suggest that the biggest problem is the variability of Common Redpolls, and the occurrence of small, brown Mealies. Is there an expanding hybrid/intergrade issue out there somewhere? Or maybe it’s just that the current taxonomic arrangement doesn’t serve field birders all that well – ? Whatever it is, there is clearly a problem in spring, when at least some Lessers lose their warm, buffy tones. Maybe vocalisations are a better basis for ID? Maybe I’m going to have to bite the bullet and learn how to do sonograms…

2 thoughts on “More on those pesky redpolls

  1. acro.scirpaceus

    Thanks for a good, measured, summary. I’d be interested to hear further from Roger R, who posted the original ‘Redpolls from Hell’, comments about the birds he photographed in Shetland. I’m assuming that the top birds (which I think are Mealies), if not all of the birds, were passage birds. Did any of them stay? Now, the top birds are of a darker morph and although I do not think this excludes Scandinavian origins, it introduces the question of them being northwestern redpolls. Anyone interested in this question should refer to Mike Pennington’s article on page 1419 of The Birds of Scotland vol.2, which deals with this in the context of the Northern Isles and opens a world of further possibilities.
    On sonograms/calls. My team rings the numbers of redpolls we do by attracting them using tape lures (mp3 players these days). Calls of Lesser Redpoll do attract Lesser Redpoll but the recording I have is of poor quality compared to the one I have of Common Redpoll calls. For this reason we usually use the Common Redpoll calls. These Mealy calls also attract endless Lesser Redpolls. To my ear there are some very subtle differences between the recordings but that is clearly of no interest to the Lessers who either don’t care or cannot tell the difference…. and the do Mealies come to them too. Brilliant.

    1. eastshorebirder1

      Roger R here, aka eastshorebirder and author of the summary – maybe I should change my username to make things clearer, as you can tell I am not a regular blogger! Yes, all the redpolls featured in the earlier post were migrants; redpolls breed only very rarely in Shetland. The top two birds – the dark one and its paler travelling companion – were there for an afternoon only. I saw and photographed them on a dull, wet evening, which has probably contributed to how the ‘browns’ look, not least compared with the yellow-polled bird. There were heaps of migrants around that afternoon, which is my excuse for not getting there with a net ’til the following morning, by which time they’d gone. As for Northwestern Redpolls, I think we can rule that form out on size alone. The birds featured, really were tiny, strikingly so to us Shetland residents, who are used to seeing big, hulking northwesterners – and which made me think they might be Lessers. Check out the Herremans 1990 paper, or the paper in Dutch Birding 1998 by Jane Reid and me – there is more or less no overlap in body size (wing length) of Northwesterns and Lessers. Very interesting comments on the tape lures you use to attract redpolls.


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