Is it or isn’t it?

As we are into tricky Arctic Redpoll ID issues, here a great set of photos from Roger Riddington of a tricky redpoll at Sumburgh Head Shetland earlier this month (10th November 2010). At the end a tricky bird I found nearly 5 years ago.

Birders who want a tidy, easy approach to Redpoll identifiable; those who believe every bird can be identified to clear species (especially when it comes to Arctic and Mealy Redpolls –LOOK AWAY NOW!

Controversial (Coue’s Arctic) Redpoll, Sumburgh, Shetland, November 20010. Roger Riddington. This bird ticks many Coue’s Arctic Redpoll boxes but is at the intermediate or trickier end of identification. Some observers would be happier to call it a Mealy Redpoll, but this may be more through conservatism than accurate identification.

The context of our problem with Coue’s Arctic identification is that they have mainly occurred in ‘invasion years’. With many individuals, even in one flock it is tempting to focus on the most striking, readily identified individual, with the ‘intermediate birds’ being quietly logged as also-rans. In non-invasion years these same ‘ intermediates’-which I suspect are very often genuine Coue’s cause major headaches because they don’t look like the ‘easy birds’ from the invasion years.

The controversy is also part fuelled by a desire to name every redpoll. Calling a bird a Mealy Redpoll, when it is really an ‘intermediate’/possible Coue’s should be a bookable offence! Calling it intermediate or ID uncertain or tricky is more realistic. The particular problem zone lies in the realm of streaky first winter Arctic Redpolls and rather pale looking Mealy Redpolls.

I think David Sibley sums up the issue very well. For ‘Hoary’ read Coue’s.

“Redpoll identification is challenging because Hoary and Common Redpoll seem to show an unbroken continuum of variation from pale to dark, and there are no fully reliable differences. So birders have to rely on a subjective assessment of overall colour and struggle to define the threshold for confident identification. Virtually all birders see redpolls only in the winter, where identification is reduced to an utterly one-sided question: “Where can we draw the line so that we are sure the accepted records of Hoary Redpolls are correct?”

Since the goal is high confidence, this leads to a narrow definition of Hoary Redpoll – only the palest (and smallest-billed) birds are named and reported as Hoaries. This leads to two problems (the second more serious). First, we only identify part of the population – some darker Hoary Redpolls are excluded. Second, many of those intermediate birds are simply lumped into our broad definition of Common, and receive no extra attention. There’s nothing wrong with excluding some intermediate birds from being called Hoaries, as long as birders understand that some Hoaries are being excluded. This is conservative. But most people give redpolls very uneven treatment by demanding that Hoaries meet high standards, and then calling everything else Common. This is not conservative. We should at least be fair and apply equally strict criteria to our Common Redpoll identifications.”

For much more see David’s blog:

WOW! Compare this photo with the 2 above it. Its well-known that Arctic Redpoll have very similar bill lengths to Mealy Redpolls. So it’s some artefact involving the structure of the foreface and feathering that produces the familiar ‘punched in face’ and small billed-look. But just look how that supposed important ID feature can appear so drastically different on the very same bird! (see how the flank streaking changes appearance too).

I found this Arctic Redpoll at Hoyland, South Yorkshire in early February 2006. Well I thought it showed characters of Arctic Redpoll. I think it probably was one but it was a bit streaky and bit spiky-billed. It was keenly twitched and happily ticked off by many. But I never submitted the record to BBRC. Still haven’t. It epitomizes the Great Winter Redpoll Debate. Hopefully it will be a bit more considred and less ‘strident’ than in some years!
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This entry was posted in 23) Finches on November 30, 2010 by Martin Garner.
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4 thoughts on “Intermediate Arctic Redpoll”

February 29, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Hi Martin
Would you mind giving an opinion on this Redpoll please? Found at Cromwell Bottom LNR
Only one photo so far.

(Northern LTT’s stayed around until the 20th of February)

Best Wishes
Reply ↓
Martin Garner
March 2, 2012 at 7:27 am

hi Bruce

had a quick look. tricky not much info in one photo. most redpolls look much whiter head on anyway. however given the description I think most likely a Mealy. can just see wing bars in the photos and little feel of the upperarts and they don’t really look looking very good for Arctic and the bill/ head is pretty chunky

Reply ↓
March 9, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Many thanks for your comments Martin.
We now have a video of the bird at feeders.
Best Wishes
Martin Garner
March 15, 2012 at 9:54 am

Bruce, looks like a fine Mealy Redpoll to me. nice one.