Category Archives: 23) Finches

Another Facebook mega


What a bird! This doesn’t really come into the sort of taxonomically obscure, hard-to-identify bird that Martin loved best. But he would still have enjoyed it immensely, he would have been in his element among the small crowd gathered on Shetland today. And he’d probably have asked a couple of questions that no-one else thought to ask as well.

It was easy enough to age and sex this terrific Rose-breasted Grosbeak as a 2CY male, with a nice mix of retained juvenile and newly moulted feathers – mostly juvenile remiges (it’s moulted the two innermost tertials on both sides), retained primary coverts and alula, new median and greater coverts, new central tail, old outer tail (etc). It was singing as well! Just occasionally, it delivered a few beautiful, really Blackbird-like, clear fluty notes. It’s the first for Shetland and fourth for Scotland (two Outer Hebs, one Orkney, not including one on an oil rig in Sea Area Fair Isle in 2012).


‘Another Facebook mega’ – the last three mega-rarities in Shetland have all been found at garden feeders, with images posted on Faceboook for the birding community to find there. It’s a major health risk – if you’d just lifted a large pan of boiling tatties off the stove and just happened to glance at your iPad before tipping them into the colander in the sink, you could end up with scalded feet and a right mess on your kitchen floor. Joking aside, the future is surely here though – surfing social media to find images of unidentified megas is the next best thing to being out in the field. First it was Oriental Turtle Dove in Scalloway last November, then Mourning Dove in Lerwick on Boxing Day, now this, in a lovely little garden in the birding backwater of West Burra. So you can forget autumn, all you glory seekers, that’s sooooo last year. Come to Shetland when it’s friggin’ cold and spend your time checking garden feeders.

And the (Facebook) trend will surely continue. To ensure you don’t miss the next monster on your patch, make sure your social media skills are up to scratch.

Grateful thanks to my old Birding Frontiers/Champions of the Flyway team-mate Adam Hutt (in Yorkshire) for being the first to tell me about the Burra Grosbeak – and especially to the owners of all three gardens chosen by the two pigeons and today’s star bird – all of them typically friendly and accommodating.

Roger Riddington


Greenland Redpolls calls

It works (I think)

Well I finally got around to producing sonagrams of the brief flight/chatter calls we got of two redpolls at Durigath, Shetland with Roger Riddington and Paul Harvey. Of three redpolls, two were viewable and we identified one as a Lesser and the other as a Greenland/ ‘North-western’. In windy conditions I made a brief recording. I think the Greenland can be heard and seen (on sonagram) at the end of the session. The thick note with a kind of ‘leg’ on the sonagram at the left end/ start of call is similar to clearer recordings of the same taxa at Norwick, Unst in 2012.

I think so anyway! Especially when compared with other taxa like Lesser. Compare recent recordings of Lesser Redpoll at Flamborough.




Greenland and Lesser Redpoll Durigarth.png

Above: Sonagram of Durigarth redpoll recordings. See right hand end and compare with sonagrams of ‘North-west’ Redpolls recored in 2012 at Norwick, Unst.


Greenland Redpoll from 2012




Redpolls on Corvo, Azores

So What Kind are They?

Thanks to Richard Bonser we have some redolls to identify.

Photographed on Corvo a week ago (27th/28th October 2015) – a change from the hoped for super rare American Vagrants. It provides a good chance to use the ‘Redpoll Code’. Redpolls on Corvo, Azores could have come from anywhere and potentially be any taxon.


Are they identifiable?

Richard B. has done an excellent job summarising his experience of watching the birds. I agree with his conclusions (see below).

“As promised here are the photos of the redpolls from the Azores

You don’t necessarily go to Corvo to look at redpolls! But this is what happened earlier this week – I found one in the pouring rains in the higher fields on Tuesday and then two the next day in fields near the airport. All were of similar ilk; fairly streaky things set on a pale background colour. Not small and cute like Lessers, and not massive either – I remember seeing a Greenland Redpoll on Scilly a few years ago and being struck by its bulk (and darkness). These Corvo guys weren’t obvious like that – ‘standard size and bulk’ to my untrained eye. Bill size was pretty average too, and there weren’t the four or five tramlines on the flanks that seems to be the case with most rostrata. Undertail coverts were marked on all birds, but not heavily with a couple of distinct arrowheads on the longer UTCs. Nice furry looking tarsi too!

One of the obvious things I did notice though was the paleness of the rump compared to the mantle and tail – background wise, but the rump was still streaked. This was the case on all three birds but unfortunately, my photographic skills failed me and I was unable to get a full on rump shot when the birds flew…

So what do I think these are? I guess if I was a betting man (which I’m not), and with a few quick searches of ‘Common Redpoll Canada’ then Nearctic flammea would probably be the most plausible? They seem to show the rather heavy flank streaking restricted to three tramlines like these birds, with the base colour of plumage and undertail coverts looking similar too. But I guess there is a significant amount still to be learnt, especially in areas of the Arctic where there are more redpolls than people.

Richard Bonser”


Have a look at the bill on these two.

This is one of the last points in the ‘Redpoll Code”

The upper bird is one the Azores I agree fits flammea-  MEALY The lower bird on Shetland identified as NW/ Greenland Redpoll- rostrata to compare. Check out the thinner, spiker bill on the Mealy/flammea/ Corvo bird and the deeper-baed bill on the Greenland/rostrata/ Shetland-type.

The most likely ID /explanation is Common/ Mealy/ flammea Redpolls based on the features, and on location and timing rom the N. American boreal population (which is no different in appearance from the Old World/ European population.


Above: Mealy Redpoll,  Corvo, Azores, Richard Bonser.


Above, Greenland Redpoll, Shetland, Roger Riddington


Below- all Mealy/ flammea types on Corvo by Richard Bonser



Greenland and Lesser Redpoll


Yes, a definite BOOM! They’re back!

Following our Geosetter visit, RR, PVH and I checked further south. A small crop yielded three redpolls. One obligingly perched on wires and was clearly a Lesser Redpoll, (as expected so far!). As it flew up one of the other two joined it and returned to the crop. A bit of luck and we managed some good view. OOF. Bird two was not a Lesser!

As we slowly took the bird in I could see a redpoll which was larger, longer-boded bird than the Lesser with a paler headed look. I was quickly struck by the crisp white wing bar- which was THIN and crisp white fringes to remiges and rectrices. Might be an odd way of going about it- but I kind of started in a Mealy direction but the wing bar was wrong. Then the flanks they were wrong for Mealy too. And the flanks were not Lesser for sure;  really heavily streaked but too swarthy in among the ground colour for Mealy. I had not (bizzarly!) not even thought about North-western/ Greenland Redpoll yet. With none reported in Shetland/ anywere in UK I guess I was not ‘in the zone’.

I think RR first articulated – ‘North-western’. YEP! What a star (the redpoll not RR).

So what in the slowish process of ‘taking it in’ grabbed me as most important in ID process (probably different every time!)

Not a Lesser (head colour, wing bar colour, ground colour to flanks etc)

Greyish looking head and thin white wing bar and fringes to flight and tail feathers

Flanks not deep buff (Lesser) but swarthy- not cleaner like many Mealy

Upperparts very plain deep earth- brown and lacking paler tramlines often present on Mealy.

Closer inspection/ discussion

Heavy streaking reaching right around to breast centre

DEEP bill base (compare bill depths of two birds below)

Heavy, broad undertail covert streaking- no buff tones visible

again emphasing long body shape, crisp white fringes and more UNIFORM tone to dark UPPERPARTS.

CALLS: Then both birds flew out of the crop and I got recordings of both calling. Get in! Impression? One call sounding deep-pitched than the other. I am waiting until back home to process the call recordings- worried about messing them up. However I was chuffed to bits with that redpoll encounter. Some NW Redpoll action and some calls to compare. Let’s go! Roger again came up trumps with the camera. Excellent photos of both birds in poor light:


Lesser Redpoll


Above. Lesser Redpoll, South Mainland, Shetland 5th Oct. 2015. Roger Riddington


Greenland (aka North-west Redpoll)



Above all photos. Greenland/ NW Redpoll, South Mainland, Shetland 5th Oct. 2015. Roger Riddington

Lesser Redpoll identification – WINTER is Coming!

From one of my favourite Chapters

Seriously. It was also one of the hardest to write. Six taxa, one of them scarcely known. A subject where strong opinions are aired, though usually generating more heat than light. It was never going to be easy. We created the ‘Redpoll Code’ to help the ID process. Now the test comes :).

The Spurn Migration Festival  seemed to herald the start of Lesser Redpolls moving down Britain’s East Coast. Their occurrence suggests a Scandinavian arrival. Perhaps as the autumn progresses we can expect more from even further north…

Meanwhile Flamborough has them passing through and occasionally stopping to feed almost every day at the moment. So here’s one of our Lessers to showcase some features,. Plus I managed a lovely sound recording last night from 2 of 6 birds which roosted with a large Linnet flock at Thornwick Reed Bed. And guess what?!!

(You’ll have to scroll down to see…)

Happy days for those who like to discover!

See if this works. From the ‘Redpoll Code’ in the Challenge Series: WINTER

Lesser Redpoll bit page 2 (1 of 1)

then see the bird below, which I photographed here last weekend.

  • Very buffy yellow background to streaking. I think that fits!
  • Nice buff/yellow wash on a section of the undertail- just a bit, but enough – classic for Lesser.

Lesser Redpoll j (1 of 1) Lesser Redpoll k (1 of 1) Lesser Redpoll g (1 of 1) Lesser Redpoll e (1 of 1) Lesser Redpoll d (1 of 1) Lesser Redpoll c (1 of 1)



BOOM! The Sonagram looks very similar/ identical to a Lesser Redpoll  I recorded at Spurn ages ago. It’s the one in the WINTER book. On these two Lesser Redpolls recorded several years apart the sonagram is not the same for the other Redpoll taxa. Similar to some but key differences in this contact ‘chatter’ call. Cool! You can see the sonagram of Lesser Redpoll from Spurn as well as the other taxa in the WINTER book.



Lesser Redpoll T Reed Bed 23 sept 2015



Arctic Redpoll and Mealy Redpoll

Change the ID Culture

Martin Garner


I am working on redpolls ID stuff, which is probably a bad idea to confess for host of reasons!

Here I want to have a look at more tricky Arctic Redpolls versus Mealy Redpolls.

It’s a classic conundrum.

I would argue we are starting, often on the wrong foot. Immediately.

Base line stuff:

The difference between many Arctic and Mealy Redpolls can be VERY subtle (more than is conveyed or believed?)

There are some overlapping characters (which is not the same as ‘intermediate’ individuals)

Starting Differently. More Art than Science.

When you watch lots of redpolls I think it gets easier. Reason? The brain is a marvellous vivid computer. What starts by looking the same ‘all gulls look the same’, after much exploring, study and watching of the nuances, subtleties, jizzy features, begin to come to the fore and the scary canvass of ‘look the same’  ades.

If you start with relax- take in overall jizz and try NOT to rush into one feature’s silver bullets’ that are supposed to nail it.  They don’t always work anyway.

Once you settle in then check the small features. Jizz first details seconds


Most Arctic redpoll are streaky. Really. They are. Which is annoying as they are supposed to nice a plain and white in redpoll folk lore. It’s often subtly different kind of streaking, but they are often streaky, even some adult males. Streaky is OK


So here’s an example for  fun- don’t’ get bogged down. I watched this one for ages. Roughly using that process at the time I thought it was an Arctic Redpoll. After churning it over, I still do. I have chosen this one as it’s about THE MOST streaky Arctic type I could find. Still the process of jizz, feel and familiarity (watching lost and lots of redpolls, both Mealy and Arctic where most fell into one box or another- IN THAT CONTEXT– this bird looked like it was a member of the Arctic pack and not the Mealy pack. I can’t convey that in photos like these.

Have a look, see what you think. I have chosen he photos that make it look more Arctic-like- indeed as I remember it the field. I have other pics which if presented alone might never be claimed as an Arctic. Art before Science. Avoid silver bullets.


Arctic onered14


red 6 Yes I have a  thickish central undertail covert. You jealous?

Mealy Redpoll


To compare a couple of Mealy Redpolls in same area that I wold not quibble over:

Mealy Redpoll b

Mealy two


Arctic Redpolls in-the-hand

To compare. Here’s some trapped birds. These are all Arctic Redpolls a few day later, mid March 2013 in Varanger, Arctic Norway.


arctic redpoll 3arctic streakyArctic streaky onearctic red 4


So whats this one?

What would you do wit this based not he images and no art before science? No field watching?

Be warned- it’s a bit streaky too.


arctic in f 3arctic in f 1arctic in f 5


Easier but streaky

And this is the wrong starting point- males- mostly adults look more like this.  We will mis-identify most Arctic Redpolls rif the only acceptable birds look like the ones in the photos below. Some are adult males.

arctic male ad male arctic


and finally one of my all-time favourites. Not sen many like this one

Arctic Redpoll gets Punked

May 2012 with Tormod. This adult male with zero streaking, just grey and white and crazy triangulated head with pink flushed body. Could be an advert for some toiletry product.

Arctic Redpoll Skallelv TAmundsen Biotope






Arctic or Mealy Redpoll?

or summat?

Like a moth to a flame. The flights are booked and we will be in Haranguer, Arctic Norway in mid March. SOON!. Me and Mrs G and another stage on our journey partnering with and championing the glorious arctic with our friends from Biotope.

There are also one or two new Challenge Series books in the pipeline. No promises, but let’s see what’s possible. Certainly here is one of the top-of-the-list subjects.

So what species is this? Arctic or Mealy?  Photographed in the Pasvik Forst in March 2013. Easy! 😉