Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Finland: Redpolls

I have always wanted to see Pine Grosbeaks. Those charismatic inhabitants of northern forests, big red males and gorgeous bronze-coloured females.  Their Latin name sums them up perfectly: Pinicola enucleator, pine forest dwelling seed extractor. 

Having decided that this would be the year, I travelled up to Ivalo in northern Finland last week and stayed at Neljan Tuula Tupa, a well known guesthouse in the forests, with what must be one of the largest piles of bird seed on the planet, forming a small snow covered hill next to the property. This seed mountain attracts a small flock of Pine Grosbeaks, a big flock of Common and Arctic Redpolls, with Siberian Tits and Siberian Jay also dropping in.

Early March in Finland usually sees temperatures of between -20° and -10° with cold sunny skies. I had no such luck. It was unseasonably warm, -2° to +2° with low heavy cloud, putting paid to any dreams of photography in bright light or even seeing the northern lights. Dawn last week found me sitting outside in northern Finland in front of the small seed mountain. The Red Squirrels that had kept me awake most of the night as they frolicked in the roof space above my bed were foraging around the guesthouse. Pine Grosbeaks were obviously not early risers, but the Redpoll flock were: 30-40 were dropping down to feed on the seed mountain, regularly exploding back up into the trees, before returning back to the seed.

Redpoll identification is not straightforward, is still evolving and I am no expert! However, most of the flock seemed to be Common Redpolls (aka Mealy Redpoll, flammea), with lots of flank streaking, brown mantle feathering with thick black centres and well marked ear coverts:

Some male Common Redpolls were liberally pink: 

In with the Common Redpolls were some Coues's Arctic Redpolls (exilipes). Classic birds appeared very pale, mainly white and grey, with greyish mantle feathering with thin black centres and more white to the wing feather edges when compared to Common Redpoll. The face appeared cleaner, washed with light brown, without the well marked ear coverts of Common Redpoll: 

Most had a single dark streak on the central undertail coverts:

The wings (greater covert tips, tertial fringes and primary fringes) were broadly edged in clean white, creating a more contrasting black and white pattern when compared to the limited whitish/brown edging to the wings in Common Redpoll:

Pink males. At the back of the photo below is a typically pale, bull-necked Coues's Arctic Redpoll, with a clean face, washed with light brown and limited flank streaking. This was about as much pink as I saw on an exilipes. In the foreground is a very red male Common Redpoll. Despite being completely out of focus, you can still make out the greater range and intensity of the pinkish red on the breast and crown, much stronger flank streaking and the brown well marked ear coverts: 

So the classic birds, especially the males, were distinguishable. But there were some female and first winter birds that were much less clear cut. Here is a taste of the Redpoll experience:

Then a monster of a bird thudded down in the snow, dwarfing the Redpolls. The Grosbeaks had arrived...

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