Hoary Redpolls on the Breeding Grounds

by Bryce W. Robinson

IMG_8096 copyBirders are obsessed with finding vagrants, the wayward members of any given species. They love the game of the rare encounter of a lost bird, and they love the game for good reason. I have had a year where I’ve experienced an aspect of birding quite the opposite of that game that the birders love. This year, I’ve been fortunate to be the vagrant myself, encountering many of North America’s species for the first time, but on their home grounds. This experience has been extremely satisfying, and I’d like to touch upon a few aspects of why, with one species, Carduelis hornemanni, the Hoary Redpoll.

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On my way south from the Arctic Coastal Plain this past July, accompanied by Caitlin Davis and Richard Crossley, I resolved to experience a number of species as much as I was able. On the top of the list was the Hoary Redpoll. Luckily, both Richard and Caitlin were not in any hurry, and had the same agenda as myself. So we stopped a number of times along the Sagavanirktok River to search through the willow thickets in search of redpolls, among other species.

We were successful, as expected. One family group of redpolls were a bit cooperative, so I stood with Richard taking photos of as many individuals as I could as they passed along through the tickets. Richard and I discussed what we were seeing, and one topic of our discussions still sticks in my mind. The redpolls were not the bright white birds I had expected. Richard spoke openly about his ideas of the counterintuitive aspect of birds wearing darker, rather than our expectations of feathers fading to light. I liked his ideas, and thought it rather intuitive actually, that white feathers would degrade with age and the worn appearance would give the birds a dirty, dusky look. That certainly is what we saw with the redpolls.

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The most satisfying aspect of seeing the Hoary Redpoll on its breeding grounds was seeing the juvenile birds in their juvenal plumage. Those birders that fail to wander to the extreme north and into the breeding range of the Hoary Redpoll will not get to see the birds at this stage, as the redpolls undergo their pre-formative molt before they depart for their wintering grounds. This was exciting for me, as I am making it an effort to experience as many bird species as possible at each stage of their lives. I want to see it all.

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This experience introduced me to a new concept. I gained two lifers from seeing the Hoary Redpolls on their breeding grounds; of course the life bird, but also a life plumage type for the bird. As you age in your birding, you begin losing the opportunities of firsts, as far as species go, but if you supplement the experience with firsts for ages and plumage types, the list grows and the opportunity for new experiences becomes almost endless. Birding is wonderful in this regards, as it parallels the creed that in learning, the more you learn, the more you learn you didn’t know. And then the journey becomes endless, and to me, that is beautiful.