Monthly Archives: March 2013

Spot the Arctic Bird

Big Fun, Small Prize

Funny how birds can disappear into a scene. Sometime just a photographic co-incidence, often an illustration of plumage adaptation to surroundings. Within the photo below is a bird taken in the Arctic which I will talk about more in the next couple of days. If you can find the bird (become more ‘obvious’ once you find it) and identify it, first one correct gets free memory stick (a few left) or a free cup of tea and piece of cake from me when you visit Flamborough (or Spurn if I am there)!

s…not easy. Going to have a go? Here it is:

spot the bird

King Eider Harbour

Båtsfjord: the King’s Harbour

king eider drake 2 resized

Twice I have donned brightly coloured Arctic jumpsuits and headed out in a zodiac from a base in Båtsfjord Harbour on the exposed northern fringe of Varanger, Arctic Norway. Both represent unique Arctic experiences. The first was the ‘Blue Fulmar Pelagic’ in May 2011. The second, (last week) was one of the closest encounters with Arctic Sea Duck currently available on the planet. Båtsfjord kinda means ‘innermost part of the fjord’. It could also be dubbed ‘THE KING’S HARBOUR’.

Both events involve local ex-fisherman turned bird guide, Ørjan Hansen and of course Tormod Amundsen. Here’s a wee vid explaining what’s happened from inside the magic floating bird hide. You’ll hopefully get a ‘real time’ feel of what the views and experience is like:

Tormod’s post here is well worth a read with full detail of the vision developing and how the hide eventually went from crazy idea to awesome reality. READ here

king eider drake 5


King eider fem

.King eider female 2

King eider female 10

This video show just how close the birds can be:

King Eider imm maleA first summer male (2cy) King Eider

Steller's Eider ad male 2 smallerTrying to photograph a male Steller’s Eider but the male King kept trying to butt in in on the action!

Steller's Eider ad male

steller's Eider female 2

steller's Eider female 5female Steller’s Eider have a marvelously richly patterned plumage and the bill looks liquid with a fish lips bill tip. Positively prehistoric appearance at times.

Long-tailed DUCK MALLong-tailed Duck  ad male

Long-tailed Duck 2Male and female Long-tailed Duck were part of the action too

common eiderdrake Common Eider. Plenty of these completed the seaduck set.

Little auk 22 Little Auk were close in the harbour and had begun moulting into breeding plumage.

Glaucous Gulls ad and juvThese Glaucous Gulls, and Iceland Gull and bunch of Northern Herring Gulls were amoung the larids present.

The harbour, though, still belonged to the KING:

king eider drake 6

Arctic Alcids and Arctic Redpolls

and Arctic Weather.

Thursday began in glorious winter wonderland in the Pasvik Valley and ended  in a polar blast as we arrived in Vardø on the Hurtigruten ferry. Arctic Redpoll performed marvelously in the Birkhuskey area, together with trumpeting Northern Bullfinches  Pine Grosbeaks and Siberian Jays. A heard only Lesser Spotted Woodpecker eluded us but the (grey, winter plumaged) Red Squirrels performed well.

pine grosbeak male BirkNot bad ‘bird table birds’. Local bird table held Pine Grosbeak, Arctic and Mealy Redpolls and Northern Bullfinches. Sometimes all at once.

lew and snowballWinter wonderland in the Pasvik Valley and Ian Lew- who I think is prepping a snowball…

arctic redpoll ball 2This Arctic Redpoll had lost it’s tail and put on the best ‘snowball impression’ possible.

arctic redpoll 2 scaryThis was the scariest streaky Arctic Redpoll I could find. Perhaps a 1st winter female? Sure some will react to this one, but in the field it ticked all the right boxes (alongside other Arctics and Mealies) so might do more on this bird at some stage.

arctic redpoll 1and an easier Arctic Redpoll

red squirrelRed Squirrel showing off.

Varanger Fiord

The boat trip across the mouth of Varanger was superb. In our thin transect we mayhem saw up to 10,000 Brunnich’s Guillemots, peppered with a few Little Auks. These are Siberian breeders and up to 600,000 winter and migrate from here. Superb opportunity for constant and multiple flight views alongside the occasional Common Guillemot too.

kirkenes harbour 2The fiord at Kirkenes was full of sea ice

3 plumages Brunnich's guillemot

Brunnich's Guillemot flight 2

Brunnich's and Common Guillemot.1

Brunnich's and Common Guillemot 2.hurti

arriving vardoarriving in Vardø cold and elated after the Brunnich’s Guillemot spectacular


Taiga Birding Day 2: Gullfest 2013

Hard to find words.

Superlatives.oft repeated end up sounding empty. Trying to write this post I had to run out for the second night running to witness sky-filling aurora. Alongside hilarity  filled company, there was Alaskan Husky driven sleds across the Taiga, a snowmobile ride, reindeer soup and shed loads of good birds. So in order to get this finished I’ll let the photos do the talking. Tormod A. has done a wonderful post also all about today with mostly different photos HERE.

Taken outside the digs just now:

aurora 20.3.13

Redpolls headlined:

mealy advanceAdult male ‘Meany Redpoll’  taken today by Alonza Garbett.

Siberian Jay 20.3.13

Siberian Jay a 20.3.13Siberian Jay gave lovely if brief views and was new bird for many

Pine Grosbeak a 20.3.13

Pine Grosbeak c 20.3.13Pine Grosbeaks in good numbers showed for most of the day. The calls/ song are just lovely.

gangSome of the gang getting ready for the dogs and sleds. The Alaskan Huskies are beautiful very friendly and solid muscle.

willow tit b 20.3.13‘Silver’ Willow Tit. Gorgeous and raised some questions for us!

alonza in snowAlonza in some of the  snowy conditions today

ad male mealy redpollad male Mealy holboelli 20.3.13Lots of redpolls included great looks at a variety of plumages of Arctic and Mealy Redpolls. The lower one here is a ‘holboelli’ type.

ad male ARctic redpoll bAdult male Arctic Redpoll. Lots of views of several of these.

redpoll uncertain 20.3.13Don’t know redpoll. 2 birds foxed me. This was one of them… Field impression in life was streaky Arctic.

Northern Bullfinch male 20.3.13male Norther Bullfinch. Heard these ‘trumpeting’ today. 2 Parrot Crossbills were also seen.

Siberian Tit Pasvik march2013 Amundsen BiotopeSiberian Tit. 3 different individuals seen

lew and svenen route home Ian and Sven in strange attire! Bedtime now.

Into the Taiga Zone

Excellent ‘warm-up’

grosbeak Alonza GThis male Pine Grosbeak (Alonza Garbett) was a new bird for 5 of our group. Rock n roll!

The snow doesn’t melt, it just moves. Fierce winds have whipped the north Norwegian landscape into peaks of whipped cream. Nearer the coast line it became more rugged but still fully white as we got took in stunning views as we flew north this morning. The surrounded sea an icy blue and white snowscape exuded coldness.

east of tromso

from the plane just east of Tromsø


Jessie Barry (Cornell Lab. of Ornithology) surveys the landscape next to reindeer pelts, wood stack and a mock-up Sami tent at the sparkling Birkhusky site.

First Bird

ARCTIC ROLL 19.3.13 a

Arctic Redpoll. First bird we saw out of the Birkhusky cabin window. Saw c10 Arctic Redpoll and c4 Mealy Redpoll in the first couple of hours, boding well for lots of looks and careful study (and I hope much better photos).

on the road

Tormod leads on as we looked for a few Taiga specialties nearby. The roads look more Olympic bobsled track than anything else

pasvik feeder

This garden with feeders gave us the afternoon purple patch. Pine Grosbeaks, icy silver Willow Tits, Arctic and Mealy Redpolls, and unfamiliar looking Coal Tits showed well. Nearby Norther Bullfinch and more Arctic Redpolls were enjoyed by all.

Phonescopingphoto grosbeak

Rob Yaxley is part of the group and phone scoped the male Pine Grosbeak- Very clever stuff. Kowa adapter though Swarovski ATS80.

Dog sled ride deep into the Taiga tomorrow.

The Northerners in Oslo

Day One. Warm-up

A rather manic day. Facebook status reads:

finally made it to little B and B in Oslo after 4;30 am start. Lovely Sharon Garner and Abi Garner took me at 4:45 am to York. Train was on the board and then taken off. WHAT? Thankfully not cancelled. got to Manchester where flight WAS cancelled. NO more seats- room for 20 people on coach to B’ham for another flight. I was person 21. Woke Sharon up by phone who booked virtually last seat on another airline and they let me on. Phew! Arrived to join Ian Lewington. In nearby gardens we got Northern Bullfinch, nice nominate GS Woodpecker but I dipped the nice whiter bellied Nuthatch. Ian says he can draw it for me. hmm wonder if he should?

A wee walk around archetypal wooden slatted Norwegian houses and spirits soon lifted. I was a little gripped off by the lovely Nuthatch. So Ian sketched it to show me what I missed.

nuthatch oslo IL 18.3.13

Nuthhatch in gardens outside our B and B. Whiter bodied with colour restricted to the flanks. by Ian Lewington

Northern Bullfinch b osloA couple of male Northern Bullfinches showed nicely with c 30 Yellowhammer. The calls sounded a little deeper and slightly more disyllabic than our Bullfinch ‘pee-u’ calls. No trumpeting.

Northern Great Spotted Woodpecker oslo March 13

This male Northern Greater Spotted Woodpecker (as we call ’em when they occur as scarce visitors). This is nominate bird which has a clearly shorter, stubbier bill- which is longer and a little thinner looking on our insular British birds. They are whiter below just as on this one here.

ian lewington in oslo

Ian sketching la Nuthatch at our dinner table this evening.

The Taiga Forest tomorrow!

North American Redpolls

Redpolls, redpolls, redpolls,

and the usual cautionary tales.

by Matt Young

Audio Production Engineer 
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

As fall of 2012-13 set in, many of us here in the States knew a large wide-scale invasion of northern finches was on our hands. Following numbers of Pine Siskins, Common and Two-barred Crossbills, and Evening and Pine Grosbeaks in mid-December, redpolls started to show up in great numbers. What was unusual about this invasion was that it was happening in both the eastern and western parts of the United States. Often invasions only occur in either the east or west, not both at once. By January, Colorado had seen more redpolls this winter than they had seen in 25 years combined. In the northeastern United States, more Arctic and Northwestern redpolls were being reported than usual.

In the small upstate New York city of Cortland, I had the luxury of having redpolls visit my feeders starting mid-December. As any redpoll enthusiast will do, I started my usual painstaking examination of each and every bird. As most know, the variation found in the different redpoll subspecies can throw even the best of the best birders off. At first the variation found in the flock in my backyard was fair at best, but that all changed… Sunday the 20 of January, a new flock appeared… and the variation was nothing like I had ever seen before.

This “new” flock had several very obvious Arctic type birds and a few Northwestern type birds. But as I looked closer and closer, I realized there were some birds that were hard to ID… at least one bird seemed to be large and white enough for subspecies hornemanni Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll… and another I kept looking at over the next 3+ weeks just didn’t seem to quite match that of any of the known North American subspecies. The rule with Redpolls is to take your T I M E.  Some are, but many are not an instant ID. They need to be seen and studied, mulled over and over again, and discussed, and then often a clear identity emerges.

Here are several photos of various birds seen in my yard or my neighbors yard (i.e. listed as Cortland, NY) and a few other pics from different areas of the northeastern United States to add additional context.

dnPhoto 1. Male and female ssp. flammea Mealy Redpolls. Photo Patrick Tanner Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 2. A typical male ssp. flammea Mealy Redpoll. Photo Jay McGowan Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 3. A female ssp. exilipes Arctic Redpoll. Bird has frosty edging to mantle and back of head, moderately small bill, and wispy flank streaking. Undertail clean, and rump looked clean. This particular individual is quite buffy, which isn’t unusual in female type birds. Photo Luke Seitz Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 4. Here’s a male, perhaps young male, ssp. exilipes Arctic Redpoll. Light hint of rose to upper breast, small bill, clean undertail coverts and frosty edging to back of head and mantle. Photo Jacob Spendelow Minnesota February 2013. For more photos of Hoary Redpolls see Jacob’s superb website here.

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Photo 5. Second port from bottom on right looks like a good female ssp. exilipes Arctic Redpoll with the rest being ssp. flammea Mealy Redpolls. Bird looks a little long billed and the flank streaking intermediate, but still comfortably fits within the Arctic Redpoll range. Photo Jay McGowan Ithaca, NY January 2013.

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Photo 6. A relatively heavy and dark flank streaked female ssp. exilipes Arctic Redpoll. This bird fits comfortably in the Arctic Redpoll range for me. Undertail and rump look clean, flank streaking is on heavier side. The mantle is frosty and wing bar wide and white. Bill is hard to see, but it looks quite small. It’s great to learn to look at redpolls in less than optimal conditions such as in this pic where the face of the bird is partly concealed. Photo Andy McGann Ontario, Canada February 2013.

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Photo 7. Here’s a second and different ssp. exilipes Arctic Redpoll. Bird has wispy flank streaking, very small bill, and frosty-ish back. The mantle of ssp. exilipes birds often has a brownish-white or gray-white appearance – the frosty edging gives it this look.  See next photo for more of the same bird. Photo Andy McGann Ontario, Canada February 2013.

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Photo 8. Same bird as above photo — ssp. exilipes Arctic Redpoll. Nice white rump and looks to have clean undertail coverts. Photo Andy McGann Ontario, Canada February 2013.

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Photo 9. A controversial bird but is likely an immature female ssp. exilipes Arctic Redpoll, but this bird will surely cause divisions in the ranks. Bird stood out when seen live next to other birds, but again is a bird that many will fall on different sides of the ID line… mantle was moderately frosty, few thin undertail streaks, wispy flank streaking, but bill does look on the larger size. Tom Johnson Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 10. A female Arctic Redpoll, ssp. unknown (flying away). Notice very large white rump.  Many thought it was a ssp. hornemanni Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll. Photo Jay McGowan Cortland, NY January 2013.

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Photo 11. Thought to be the same bird as above (in center with legs up). Notice chunky size and completely white undertail coverts. Photo Jay McGowan Cortland, NY January 2013.

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Photo 12. A female Arctic Redpoll, ssp. unknown. This bird appeared to be extremely white and large (suggesting ssp. hornemanni) with a snow-white rump and clean undertail. Mantle is very frosty and the bill perhaps broad? Photo Jacob Spendelow Cortland, NY February 2013.


Photo 13. Thought to be the same bird as above bird. Photo Patrick Tanner Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 14. Thought to be the same bird as above — A female Arctic Redpoll, ssp. unknown. The bird is slightly fluffed up in this pic, making it look even whiter and larger, thus suggesting ssp. hornemanni.  Photo Luke Seitz  Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 15. Yet again thought to be the same bird as above — A female Arctic Redpoll, ssp. unknown. We’re looking at the other side of the bird in the photo. Photo Jay McGowan Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 16. Very likely the same bird as in the next 3 pics (different individual than in preceding photos). Looks quite large. Clearly an Arctic Redpoll, but which subspecies? Photo Luke Seitz Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 17. Arctic Redpoll. Bill looks broad, belly looks full with a bit of a no-neck appearance as well. Photo Luke Seitz Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 18. Arctic Redpoll. The same bird, but with this angle the bill doesn’t look quite as broad? Different angles are notorious for making the same redpoll look larger, whiter and/or broader billed. You need to get many looks. Photo Luke Seitz Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 19. Arctic Redpoll. Very likely same bird as above 3 pics (bird is facing right back center). Bird looks longer and larger and bill broad. Photo Luke Seitz Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 20. Bird facing forward back center — Northwestern Redpoll ssp. rostrata. Bird is large with several rows of dark flank streaks. Black bib is usually quite extensive like on this bird as well! The longer black bib when seen face on can often give bird a ghoulish appearance. Photo Andy McGann Ontario, Canada February 2013.

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Photo 21. Northwestern Redpoll ssp. rostrata. Bird was noticeably larger when next to other birds, but unfortunately good pics with adjacent birds eluded us. Notice the several rows of dark flank streaks and swarthy brown mantle color. Photo Tom Johnson Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 22. Northwestern Redpoll ssp. rostrata. Again, bird is large with dark flank streaks and swarthy brown mantle color. Photo Graham Montgomery DeRuyter, NY March 2013.

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Photo 23. Northwestern Redpoll ssp. rostrata. Very very swarthy brown colored bird! Bill also broad and with slightly convex upper mandible. Photo Andy McGann Ontario, Canada February 2013.

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Photo 24. Northwestern Redpoll ssp. rostrata. This bird really has that ghoulish appearance. Photo Linda Salter DeRuyter, NY February 2013.

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Photo 25. Same bird as above. Bird is at bottom center — Northwestern Redpoll ssp. rostrata. Photo Linda Salter DeRuyter, NY February 2013.

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Photo 26. The front bird looking left is an Arctic Redpoll, ssp. exilipes. The bird in the back right looking left is an obvious Northwestern Redpoll, ssp. rostrata. The bird in front of this one is perhaps also another Northwestern Redpoll, ssp. rostrata. The bird in the back left looking left is a Mealy Redpoll, ssp. flammea. Photo John Wyatt and Debbie Ryan Winterport, Maine March 2013.

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Photo 27. Northwestern Redpoll ssp. rostrata right (very likely same bird as in above Cortland, NY photo 21). The bird on the left is perhaps a ssp. hornemanni Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll (perhaps same bird as in next photo). Photo Jay McGowan, Cortland NY February 2013.

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Photo 28. “Presumed” ssp. hornemanni Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll (perhaps same bird as in above photo). Photo Patrick Tanner Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 29. Looks like 3 different subspecies of redpolls are present? Here’s the same “presumed” ssp. hornemanni Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll as above near pole with definitive ssp. rostrata Northwestern Redpoll back near fence. Other birds are ssp. flammea Mealy Redpolls. Photo Patrick Tanner, Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 30. This photo is a duplicate photo of a ssp. exilipes Arctic Redpoll already used in Photo 3, but is provided again as a chance to perhaps examine differences in size and posture of the two ssp. of Arctic Redpolls? ssp. exilipes Arctic Redpolls almost always look like whiter than Mealy Redpolls – they are basically the same size with the same structure, whereas Hornemann’s type birds, whether these meet the criteria or not, always seem to look bull-necked, hog-nosed and beer-bellied structurally.

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Photo 31. The bird to focus on here is the bird in the front to the extreme right (The other two redpolls near center of screen are Arctic Redpolls). I saw this bird several times over the 3-week period and I never knew quite what to call it. It always looked a bit frostier and a bit bigger than any of the other Mealy Redpolls, but it had a weird fawn color to the mantle, and overall was browner in wing color than the other birds. The bill shape and color never looked like a good match for ssp. exilipes Arctic Redpoll, which I did try to turn it into several times. Photo Andy McGann Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 32. Here’s the same bird as above front right. Look at how the flank streaking is quite dark and extends to rear flanks, which is again unlike the most Arctic Redpolls. Photo Andy McGann Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 33. Again, same bird right of center. Photo Andy McGann Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 34. Here’s the same bird center right looking right. Hint of rump looks white, wing color brown, back a fawn color, and upper mandible perhaps concave. Photo Andy McGann Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 35. Same bird in center shaking itself and showing us a white rump. Photo Andy McGann Cortland, NY February 2013.

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Photo 36. Once again, same bird front center looking away. Bird is frosty but with fawn mantle color, white rump, and dark flank streaking extending to rear (darker and thicker actually towards rear flanks).

Is this perhaps a ssp. islandica Northwestern Redpoll?  Well-known redpoll expert, Andy Stoddart examined these pics and said the following :

“is long-bodied, rather plain and buffy around the face, a strange grey-fawn 
colour above and well-streaked on the rear flanks but on a clean white 
background. It seems to share characters of both ‘Arctic’ and ‘Common’ type 
redpolls. I agree that it doesn’t look like ssp. flammea, either in terms of 
size or plumage….. so what is it? If it really is as large as it looks (more 
on this below) I think there are only two real possibilities – a pale ssp. 
‘islandica’ of the well-streaked ‘mid-range’ type or (if such things exist 
at all) a hornemanni/rostrata hybrid. Of course some islandica may look as 
they do because of gene flow between a dark and a pale form so the two 
scenarios are not that different. I’ve not heard of any confirmed 
hornemanni/rostrata hybrids, though there is a mention in the literature of 
a copulating mixed pair in Greenland. Unfortunately the outcome of this 
particular mating isn’t known as both birds were shot! 

So, on balance a ‘mid-range’ pale Iceland Redpoll seems a plausible 
suggestion (unless the bird isn’t really as big as is suggested) and I might 
tentatively identify it as one in northern Scotland. Unfortunately you’re in 
the US! However, given that redpolls seem capable of turning up anywhere (eg 
a ssp. flammea from Michigan to Siberia) I guess it’s not impossible”

Is this a first record of ssp. islandica in North America?  I had sent this on for review because I thought it matched the subspecies well. The cautionary tale in all this though, is at least one of the two Arctic Redpolls in these last photos was first thought to be ssp. hornemanni. However, one can see a House Finch in the background, and most Hornemann’s Arctic Redpolls are thought to be larger than House Finches. Near the end of February a banding crew came to the house, and we caught a few Arctic Redpolls. At least one of them was thought to be a ssp. hornemanni (matching one of the above birds), but when measured the wing chord didn’t match that subspecies, although it was towards the higher end of ssp. exilipes (75mm).

At least 7-8 different Arctic Redpolls visited my feeders during the 3-4 week period. Some are still occasionally visiting including the above islandica type bird. Additionally, there were at least 3 different ssp. rostrata Northwestern Redpolls in my yard along with a “presumed” different ssp. hornemanni bird that we did not catch (see above Photos 28-29). At the very least there were 3 good subspecies that visited the yard, with perhaps 5 different subspecies present. Just about everyone that has looked at Photos 28-29 have agreed with the ID of ssp. hornemanni, but without measurements can one be sure? Small ssp. hornemanni birds can be the same size as larger ssp. exilipes birds (and therefore smaller than House Finches)…….small rostrata and islandica birds can also be smaller than larger ssp. flammea and exilipes birds. One can separate the vast majority of redpolls without measurements, but when possible, birds should be measured and matched to plumage characteristics.

In short though, it was a great winter where I continued my lifelong on-going education in redpoll identification. Lastly, I’d like to thank Martin for giving the opportunity to share this with everyone.

Matt Young

Matthew A. Young has lived in Central New York the past 15 years and now resides in Cortland, NY. Matt received his B.S. in Water Resources from SUNY-Oneonta and his M. S. in Environmental Forest Biology (concentration in Ornithology) from Syracuse University in 2003. Matt is very active with various Land Trust and Conservation groups in getting land protected for birds and rare wetland plants. He was an Adjunct Professor at SUNY-Cortland and now works at the Macaulay Library of Sounds as an Audio Production Engineer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He’s published several papers on finches, most specifically on the Red Crossbill vocal complex of North America. For his latest on the NA crossbill complex see here: