I had the coolest experience today. Just after lunch, I took a break from scraping old caulking off the sides of the bathtub in the washroom my parents are renovating to wander outside with a new close-up lens (really more like a filter, or a magnifying glass) I picked up today for my camera. I was excited about the new lens and wanted to test it out, so I pulled on my toque and mitts and cozy down jacket and stepped out to brave the -8oC weather.
I started out by going around to the back garden, looking for seedheads or other interesting things to photograph. I paused to take a picture of an old vine flower that resembled a daddy-longlegs with too many limbs, then another of a coneflower with a tophat of snow. As I was standing there a handful of Common Redpolls flew into the crabapple tree on the far side of the garden, clearly intending to come down to the feeders once the coast was clear.
They looked pretty perched in the bare branches, set against the dark green of the spruce trees behind, so I took the filter off the front of the camera and started taking a few shots. And then, as I stood there, a few more swooped in, and then a few more, and then in a chittering flurry of wings the whole flock swooped down to the nyjer feeders, not six feet away from me.
I stood stock-still. The redpolls were a little jumpy, and every minute or two they’d all take off again with a swoosh to perch in the branches of the crabapple. They’d stay there for about 20 or 30 seconds, and then come back down when they felt sure whatever perceived threat wasn’t actually. They were so close, I actually had to zoom out to get all the birds in the flock into the frame.
Redpolls are a very pushy bunch. They squabble over perches at the feeders, often chasing each other off when there aren’t enough perches to go around. With this flock there were probably about 60 birds who had to share two 8-perch nyjer feeders. Most of the birds ended up on the ground under the feeders searching the hull litter for seeds, but a lucky few had the luxury of sitting beside a constant supply of unhulled seeds.
They’ll even turn upside down on their perches to snap at their neighbour if they feel he’s getting too close.
And they’re not afraid to physically push somebody off if they feel they can get away with it.
There were a few birds in the flock that stood out as unusual. A number of adult males, with their gorgeous rosy-pink breasts, were in the flock, but this one in particular caught my eye. A real uber-male, with a deep rosy wash through most of his feathers and even rosy on his rump, where most adult males are simply pale. I think this male might be of the “Greenland” subspecies (they breed on Greenland and a couple of the northern Canadian islands), rather than the usual “mainland” subspecies. The Greenland birds are on the whole larger, browner and stockier. And possibly rosier in adult males, too, from the looks of this bird. There were a few Greenland birds in the flock, but this was the only adult male I noticed.
Many of the characteristics of the below bird lead me to think it may be a Hoary Redpoll, a very closely related species to the Common. Hoaries tend to breed a little further north, although their range overlaps, and both species are far north relative to here. Hoaries average paler (can be subtle in first-winter birds), with thinner streaking, fewer markings on the undertail coverts and rump, and a shorter, stubbier bill. This one has all the markings except the bill isn’t noticably stubby (a good side-by-side comparison is shown here).
I stood out there among the redpolls for perhaps 20 minutes, watching them squabble, and come and go, and come again. I was there long enough for my legs and fingers to start to go numb (but my upper body was nice and toasty in the wonderful down jacket I got for Christmas). I was there long enough for the redpolls to start to ignore my casual movements. I could turn to look from one feeder to the other without flushing them, or shift my weight from one foot to the other, shuffle to reorient my body, lift my camera to my eye. In fact, I was buzzed a couple times, and one bird even perched for two or three seconds on the hand holding my camera to my face, before flying over to try for a perch. It was only three or four inches from my eye! I was reluctant to go back in, but in the interest of avoiding frostbite, and because there was still lots of work to be done indoors, I waited for the flock to return to the trees and then slowly turned and headed back inside.