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Coues’s Arctic Redpoll

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 13th October 2010 | Birding in Shetland

Redpolls are undoubtedly one the most complicated and difficult family groups of passerines facing birders in Europe (and beyond). Not only can their identification be problematic, whether in the field or even in the hand but for some subspecies and in some regions very little or in some cases nothing is known of their populations or indeed their distributions.

(We hope to put together a bit of a redpoll write up in a future posting when we will look at the redpolls we encounter in Shetland.)

Over the past decade or so in Shetland records of Arctic redpolls, which are split into two forms hornimanni and exsillipes have swung full circle. Coues’s Arctic Redpoll (exsillipes) is now not only very rare in Shetland but also in Britain. In the past ten years or so there have been as few as literally two or three claims of the species in Shetland. It has even been discussed as a possibility to be reinstated as a national rarity to be considered by BBRC.

With this in mind, when I came across this bird in Baltasound on Unst whilst taking a ‘birding drive around the block’ to get our 11 month old son down for his afternoon nap, I set about trying to confirm its ID- and hopefully with photos.

Thankfully the bird favoured a roadside verge in the lee of a plantation, which was right next to a lay-by where I could use the car as a mobile hide. It was at least ten years since I had seen one of these ‘fluffy forms’ of Arctic Redpoll. It’s very small and compact size and structure was instantly recognisable as being so very different to the hulking great Hornemann’s we are now so familiar with in a North isles autumn. As a gauge of size, very often Twite is the first and most appropriate to compare or indeed for Hornemann’s even House sparrow! This bird was certainly no larger than Twite, if anything it appeared possibly even a fraction smaller.

But eliminating its North Western Arctic originating counterpart was not a concern, more importantly and potentially more problematically was to rule out very pale Mealy or Icelandic Redpoll, the former having started to arrive in small numbers only days before. The arrival of Meallie’s from the North East was also in itself a good indicator that they should ‘be on the radar’.

Fortunately the bird was quite obliging and allowed me to obtain photographs, even if it was nearly dark! These are some of the features which I noted to be good for a Coues’s;

  • Over all compact and small size and fluffy appearance (especially under parts -flanks, thigh area). Bill appeared distinctly petite especially when fore-crown was raised, thus creating that classic cute appearance.
  • Lacked any warm or buffish tinges to ear coverts and face, instead rather cold and greyish with thin faint but quite dense streaking.
  • Faint and pale buffish wash to sides of breast.
  • Quite a broad clean and totally un-streaked white rump, but as is quite typical fairly well streaked on longest upper tail coverts.
  • Broad and bold clean white wing bar with tertials and primaries being distinctly fringed with crisp, clean white fringing.
  • Mantle evenly and distinctly streaked down centre, greyish and white with more diffuse and irregular to the sides. This along with the crisp white fringing created a very frosty overall appearance.
  • The under parts were wholly very clean and snow white, but it did show faint grey and diffuse streaking all the way down flanks which were most defined on sides of breast area.
  • The under tail- coverts appeared very clean and un-streaked but actually had a single short thin and defined streak on each of the longest two utc’s , which is well within the range.

If accepted this will be the first record in Shetland away from Fair Isle for about eight years. I have the feeling that this may well be the first of several this winter…