Monday, February 28, 2011

The Redpoll Riot - Bathrobe Birding

"They're everywhere! They're everywhere, north, east, south and west!"
Common redpolls, clockwise from left female, female, male and bottom is male again. First year male birds look very similar to females and can be hard to distinguish.
     Redpolls like birch trees. When they hit the feeders en masse it feels like an invasion!

(Remember that you can double click on these images to see them larger)

     These adorable, scrappy little birds are Common redpolls. Redpolls are a woodland bird of the northern tier of the United States, breeding in the taiga. They only come this far south in the winter. As a rule, less than 2 % of all the redpolls reported to Cornell Lab of Ornithology are reported this far south. I get a few every year, but this year I've been invaded by a spectacular riot of redpolls. Maine birders have been reporting unprecedented numbers.
     This has been an irruptive year, that is the birds are busting south from their normal northerly range in search of food. The irruptions are a cyclic phenomenon. Redpolls eat tiny seeds. They have pouches in their throats that allow them to gather lots of food quickly, and then take off to a safe place with it. They eat mostly seeds of catkin bearing trees like birches and spruce seeds. When there is a crop failure of these seeds, the birds have to look elsewhere. At about latitude 44, our coastal Maine homestead is rich in high latitude spruce and birch trees .
     Redpolls forage in flocks sometimes numbering in the hundreds. The flock that has been hanging around here for the past two weeks is about fifty strong. Constantly on the move, they descend from the sky in rolling waves. They are busy, finchy and acrobatic birds that are well adapted to feeding at the very tips of small branches, hanging upside-down, and using their feet to hold food. They also forage on the ground, especially in winter. I see them suddenly and then, just as suddenly, they are gone. Like a lot of finches, they have an undulating flight pattern. Slightly bigger than an American goldfinch, they could easily be mistaken for them in the sky. Though they seem so finch like, the redpolls closest bird relatives are the crossbills, another bird of the northern forests given to irruptions. Like the crossbills, I can usually hear the redpolls even before I see them. They are quite vocal, constantly making contact calls within the flock. The call is a dry reeling song like goldfinches with a rolling burr at the end. 
     Sometimes redpolls are in mixed flocks of goldfinches, winter sparrows, juncos and other small winter birds. Rare visitors to southern Maine are Hoary redpolls, though they have been reported near here this year, too. I have yet to see one, but I scour these flocks looking at every bird in the hopes of finding one. You'll be the first to know when I do!
     Depending on who you talk to, there are either one, two or six species of redpolls. This is because birders like to argue. Actually, it's because there are so many variations that without DNA samples, redpolls are hard to nail down. One of the species lives in Finland, so if I tell you I've seen one here, you'd better check my pulse and cut off my bar tab. The other two that are known to occur here are Common and Hoary. Hoarys are a little bigger with a smaller bill. They have a frosted look, thus the name "hoary," which is not a misspelling of slutty behavioral traits. I know what you were thinking! It can be tricky telling the difference between Commons and Hoarys because there are lots of variations. To anyone's knowledge, the two don't interbreed which would make them Common Hoars. Redpolls are named for the red knot on their heads. Males have pink or cherry red breasts depending on how old they are. Females just have the knot, or 'poll' on their heads. Red Poll cattle are named for the same thing, the red knot on their heads, but they don't fly. If they start falling out of trees like the redpolls have been, my advice is "don't look up and keep your mouth shut."
These are Red Polls, not redpolls. Though they can be tipped, let's hope they never fly.


Thanks to allboutbirds.com, wikipedia and the following for some of the information:

Sibley, David A 2000, The Sibley Guide To Birds. Knopf: New York (2000) p 532

37 comments:

  1. Robin, Great read, I like the rest of Maine have had the pleasure of redpolls under my feeder and have had the pleasure of trying to catch a picture or two but none as great as yours. I like the phrase riot of redpolls, I spent the greater part of Sun am coming up with adjectives starting with "r" to describe our little guys, riot fits well. :-))

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  2. Funny,informative post! Common Hoar:)

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  3. Thanks for the reads and comments you guys Glad you likeeeee.

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  4. Great informative post, Robin! Love your Redpoll shots! The flock that visited my feeder has not come back. Too cold, to drizzly ... who knows. My feeders are always well stocked, but no birds except chickadees and juncos :-(

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  5. Great essay, but they are back here now, so kindly send yours onward so we can get all the families together. There is nothing to that irruption stuff, it was just a cheap flight plane featured by Air Canada. Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, awaiting our errant NORTHERN Red Polls; there is nothing common about them, although some may be Hoary!!

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  6. Very informative post. Over here Common Redpolls seem to be about in larger number this spring but still outnumbered 100 or more - 1 by Lesser Redpoll our native Uk species. You're right birders like to make life difficult or invent more ticks - take your pick

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  7. I'd Give an eye tooth to see one--so send one on down!! Have to giggle at the Rear ends of the Red Polls-
    I really enjoyed the photos and your creative arrangement!

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  8. Thanks much Gary and Boom. Just call me Bogarting The Birds In The Burg! You are probably right that it was cheap air fair, too. Phi and Hilke I'm glad you found it informative. There have been so many posts about these birds to the Maine birding list serves that I thought I had to come up with something more interesting than just the usual. And Sondra, I'm sending them, pronto with their little suitcases in hand. They will have little signs that say "Will work for seed." :)

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  9. The mob at my place surged from a normal dozen or two to around a hundred this morning. With the wind, they came straight down like paratroopers.

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  10. Nice visual, Fred. I can imagine them, each with it's own little parachute and tiny storm trooper boots.

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  11. So that's what they're called. Great pics. Good info.
    Sarah Cavanaugh
    February 28, 2011 04:19

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  12. Dawn, Thanks for the compliment and comment. You're a great follower, Your's truly, a Common Hoar.

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  13. Cute little redpolls! The Red Poll cattle photo would make a cute greeting card with the appropriate enclosed greeting..."The Red Polls made an unanimous decision that you have a "MOONY BIRTHDAY!"
    HG

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  14. Nice post and pictures. I come from the land of cow tipping. HAHA!!! Rated
    Susie Lindau
    February 28, 2011 10:22 PM

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  15. Thank you for the early birthday greetings, HG. As long as the stitching in my bathrobe holds up, I won't be having a "moony" birthday. But, if the stitching fails................

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  16. Robin Follette commented on your note "The Redpoll Riot - Bathrobe Birding".
    Robin wrote: "I love your bathrobe birding!"

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  17. A most wonderful post! Fantastic images! So very informative. A joy to view your terrific blog!

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  18. Julie, Thank you! Glowing praise and I love it. Robin, let's hope that enough folks donate to my bathrobe fund to keep me berobed for the birds!Thanks for the view, read and comments.

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  19. From WhatBird.com: A group of redpolls are collectively known as a "gallup" of redpolls

    I'd say you certainly had a gallup of redpolls! Nice captures of these cute visitors!

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  20. And today, "Yipee kai-oh, kai-a, they're gallupping all the way!" There are nearly a hundred of them swarming my yard. Thank you, Pat for that detail and for reading, viewing and commenting on my blog!

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  21. Cow tipping! LOL I'll leave it at that.

    Great photos and information on the Redpolls Robin. We had a group of ~50 yesterday during the snow squall, but only a handful this morning.

    The Butchies are harassing the local water fowl over at Hell's Gate. One of them enjoyed a tasty duck on the ice near the sawmill point on Sunday.

    John

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  22. John, Thanks. It is a very quirky talent to be able to tie in repolls and cow tipping! Now, if only I can find a market for this odd ball wiring of thoughts I have! Ha ha! I see the Butchie Boys down here most days. I guess when they get sick of your view and your ducks, they come slum down here. I am, after all south of you so it probably looks good to them about now. Do you suppose eagles are bothered by mud season?

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  23. How did you know what I was thinking?
    What a brilliant piece of writing you have shared. Witty, informative, with a stream of consciousness after taste! Yes, Fine wine!
    The collage look of your photo arrangement is pretty nifty as well!

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  24. An incredibly wonderful post, Robin. I learned a little something new today!!! Stop by if you get an opportunity. I'm having a little give-away before I head back to the east coast. ~karen

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  25. Springman and KaHolly, Thanks so much you guys. You make me feel like a big deal and a pretty good writer and photographer. Fine wine, hhhmmmmm. Let's see, that would be Two Buck Chuck, wouldn't it? I think I AM a Two Buck Chuck kind of writer, actually.

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  26. Great post Robin! Not only are your photos excellent, I love your pros. Common Hoars indeed! Luckily for us they don't interbreed.

    I checked out your SmugMug sight also, marvelous photography!

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  27. Thank you, Larry. Coming from a great photographer such as yourself it's high praise, too. Glad you like the pose, too.

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  28. Some excellent images.Well done!!

    I think they have gone south this year. Here in Ontario I have had one confused individual at my feeders hanging out with hundreds of goldfinches.

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  29. Thank you, Harold! We've still got them. Now THAT is confused!

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  30. A great post, loved the photos. I wish you could send some of those common redpolls to maryland so I could see them.

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  31. Hi Robin,
    Well I could say this is like wow incredible but I just witnessed the same thing this afternoon over here. I remember that when I came to Iceland in 2002, they were not that numerous around, but now, they are everywhere! Beautiful shots!

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  32. eileeninmd and Chris, thanks so much for the view, reads and comments. It's great to know folks are out there looking at my stuff, and my birds, too. I'll be sure to shooooo some to Maryland for you Eileen. Maybe Chris can send a couple your way too.

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  33. Wow, Great Images and a wonderful read, write a book, I will buy it.

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  34. Sam and Lisa, I can't thank you enough for that comment! I am exploring getting my work published, somehow, somewhere. It's pretty labor intensive to find the appropriate people. But, I'm picking away at it. Everytime someone tells me they wish I would do a book, it's a big boost to me on fifty levels. Thanks again.

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