Thursday January 24, 2013

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.

As soon as the sun is over the horizon and the bare tree trunks appear golden in the sunlight, cardinals come to the feeders. Some mornings, there are four or five males and as many females. Cardinals are always the first to arrive and the last to leave at dusk. But in no time the cardinals' breakfast is disrupted by chittering common redpolls, some mornings numbering 40 or 50.

These tiny restless birds descend on the feeders taking up every inch of space. Others litter the ground, not only under the feeders looking for fall-out, but also on the patio where we have tossed sunflower seeds upon the snow. More sit impatiently in or under the nearby forsythia.

The redpolls arrived in November and are still here, though on some days we'll see nary a one. Then a few days later, the entire flock will be back and stay feasting, fighting and flitting around for a week or more. Not only are these birds fidgety, they are noisy. I could be in the library and suddenly hear that constant chittering. I walk into the kitchen and the gangs all there again.

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Common redpolls (Carduelis flammea) are small striped finches with tiny yellow bills, distinct red caps and pink tinted bellies. Frank M. Chapman, an early ornithologist who came up with the idea of the Christmas Bird Count rather than a bird shoot, was delighted to observe these birds one day feeding on the catkins of a white birch.


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At first he thought they were chipping sparrows, but as he approached he noted they had red caps, indeed, red vests.

Young Chapman asked himself, "What could they be? Where had they come from?" He concluded, "With neither books, nor ‘bird' friends to consult, both questions remained long unanswered; so I named the birds ‘Red-capped chippies' and by that name I think of them to this day."

They are though not sparrows, but "share behavior, temperament and voice characteristics" with goldfinches and siskins and other winter finches and are only seen throughout our area in irruption years. This is definitely an irruption year, when the lack of food crop sends thousands of birds of different species south.

We do have our resident goldfinches and purple finches that manage to feed in and among the redpolls. The pine siskins were fall visitors as were the four evening grosbeaks. Neither species has been seen here since. Only the constantly moving, wandering flock of redpolls, so tame they could (and have) been lifted from feeders by bird banders. And wander they do. One bird banded in Fairbanks, Alaska, one winter was captured the next winter in Montreal, Quebec, having traveled thousands of miles in one year.

What these delightful birds are is noticeable. In 1855, Henry David Thoreau wrote, "These crimson aerial creatures have wings which would bear them quickly to the regions of summer, but here is all the summer they want. What a rich contrast! Tropical colors, crimson breasts on cold white snow! Such etherealness, such delicacy in their forms, such ripeness in their colors, in this stern and barren season!"

Since the feeders are close to the windows in the kitchen, we are able to watch and observe these birds, alternately wild and skittish at one moment and decidedly lackadaisical at others. We are looking for that one which is different -- the hoary redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni), a paler, fluffier version of the common with a smaller bill. Very, very difficult to tell apart but known to hang around in the same flock.

In "Identify Yourself," by Bill Thompson III, "Separating common and hoary redpolls is a massively difficult problem, confounded by age, feather wear, sex, subspecies and variation." As a rule, he says, hoary redpolls are bigger and paler and their bills are positively tiny. But there is great variety among the commons. "To get past the probably in hoary identification, you have to see the undertail coverts. In the common, they are streaked; in the hoary, they are not. But even here there could be overlap. He concludes there is no easy way to solve the redpoll problem!

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In addition we find in "Sibley's Guide to Bird Behavior": "The Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) and the Hoary Redpoll (C. hornemanni) have traditionally been considered separate species, although recent studies show no genetic differences between them . Moreover their plumage color grades along a continuous spectrum in areas where both forms breed. Still there are arguments against merging the two forms into a single species: They have measurable differences in vocalizations and bill shape (shorter in the hoary) and apparently they do not hybridize readily."

No hoarys on this year's count, but on the Central Berkshire Count we did have 25 common redpolls when often there are none. South County had a high of 204 this year while North County recorded only two.

Redpolls have come south in great numbers this year, soon to wander back north to their breeding grounds in the tundra. As the redpolls move out, others will fill their boots. Once again we anxiously await that next great avian influx -- spring migration!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.