Paintbrush to paper

Hoary Redpoll

I have many different projects on the go. They form a combination of writing and illustration, a lot of computer work and a bit of creative hands-on. The great thing about this is that there’s always something different to turn to if you get bored of one project or need to take a break. The downside to this is it’s easy for something, which perhaps doesn’t have an imminent deadline, to be put on the backburner for a while. Such was the case with the paintings I’m supposed to be doing. In fact, it had been so long since I’d done any painting, that when I picked up my paintbrush I discovered I’d forgotten how to paint. As far as artistic pursuits go, painting has never been my strongest medium. I feel much more comfortable with pencil or ink, working in monochromatic palettes, than I do in colour. However, with a bit of practice I can produce some passable results. With little practice, however, it easily slips from me.

So I decided I need something to warm myself up, to get me back into the routine. I wanted something that was a familiar subject, unlike the birds I’d been commissioned to paint. The obvious choice, of course, was one of the hoards of redpolls I’d been watching the last few days. I selected the photo above as the one I would primarily work off of.

Hoary Redpoll - sketch

The first step to any painting is to sketch out your basic forms. This is the part of the whole procedure that I feel most comfortable with, unsurprisingly. If only I could just stop there. Because I had no plans for this to be a fantastic finished work, I simply wanted something that I could practice my painting techniques on, I didn’t spent a lot of time on the sketch. If proportions were a little off, that was okay, that wasn’t the goal anyway. I would ordinarily spend more time on the sketch, getting the proportions and composition right, but this one I threw down in about five minutes. Then it’s over to the drafting table, and the paints.

Hoary Redpoll - step 1

The first thing I do with every piece I draw or paint is the beak and the face. I find it very difficult to move on to the rest of the work without first completing at least the beak and the eyes. It grounds me, gives me some confidence, and adds a spark of life to the work from the outset. Everything else looks better if the face is in.

Doing the work in stages is a necessity, primarily because I need to pause regularly, at least every half an hour if not more regularly, to stoke the fire. It’s an upside to central heating that I never really appreciated before. It makes it more difficult to get into a good groove when one is working, but it does provide me with a reminder to take photos of each stage.

Hoary Redpoll - step 2

I fill in the rest of the face and add the red cap. Ordinarily I might not jump into the bright colours so quickly, at least not when I was working in acrylics. The advantage to gouache is that while it has the opacity of acrylic when thick, it acts like a watercolour when thinned out, and also shares watercolour’s characteristic of being able to revive it with a bit of water. So before, with acrylic, I would have done all like colours together because once your paint on your palette is dry, that’s it, you have to mix it again if you want to use it again. But with gouache, you can do the work in sections, not paying attention to like colours, because if something dries on your palette you can just add a few drops of water and away you go.

Stoke the fire, take a photo, rinse, repeat.

Hoary Redpoll - step 3

Next I spend some time working on the wing. I find it tricky to convey all the different feathers that make up a wing and still make them look three-dimensional. Putting in the shadows, the highlights, the gaps where they belong, making sure the colours all match. For the amount of area to cover, the wing takes proportionally the most time to complete. Finally I decide I’m happy with it, or if not happy, then sufficiently satisfied to be able to move on to the next part. This tends to become my philosophy when painting. I hate fussing over a piece of art, going back and fiddling with bits over and over. Unless there’s some major flaw in it, I’m more likely to just call it done when I reach the end, and not worry about minor imperfections.

Stoke the fire, take a photo, rinse, repeat.

Hoary Redpoll - step 4

In goes the tail feathers and the shadows and streaks on the rump and flanks. This goes fairly quickly because none of them are very detailed, and they’re all within roughly the same colour range. I’ve also gone back and softened up the scapulars and brightened the highlights on the flight feathers, deciding they were still just a tad too brown.

Stoke the fire, take a photo, rinse, repeat.

Hoary Redpoll - step 5

If that last step went quickly, however, this one takes no time flat. I wet down some grey and paint in the shadows along the bird’s belly and breast. Adding a bit more black or white to create depth to the shades, thinning the paint out to nearly water to get the lightest tones. For a step that takes so little time, it has a huge impact, rounding the bird out and making it look three-dimensional. I’ve over-accentuated the bird’s cleavage because it’s going to get painted over in the next step.

Stoke the fire, take a photo, rinse, repeat.

Hoary Redpoll - step 6

The biggest visual impact, of course, is in adding the rosy wash to the breast. It brightens the whole painting up, suddenly making it lively and colourful from the drab grey-brown tones it was before. I darken up the rosy shadows with more pink and thin out the paler parts with a light wash of white. I add hints of feather fringes using a thin white, as well. I soften the brush strokes along the flanks and cheeks with clear water. I forgot to pause once completing the breast, and carry on to paint in the feet before remembering to stop.

Stoke the fire, take a photo, make some dinner, tuck away till tomorrow.

Hoary Redpoll - step 7

The next day I return to finish off the painting, or at least the branch the bird is on. I hate branches. Despise them. I can’t make them look convincing in any medium. It’s unfortunate that so many birds choose to perch on them. Of course, I feel no more pleasure toward painting debris on the ground, or rock surfaces, or tree trunks, or blades of grass. Cattails I’m okay with, if everything could perch on a cattail that’d be handy. Or fencing wire. But a painting’s not complete without some substrate for the bird to perch on, so I forge ahead with the branch. I end up not finishing the little twiglets. They’re for another day, when I’m feeling more ambitious. In my rush to be done with the branches, I forget to go back and paint in the bird’s toenails. Oops. They’ll get done when I return to finish the twiglets, I suppose.

Hoary Redpoll - detail

I’m feeling better about the painting process now, my fingers are warmed up and my brain is starting to get back into painting mode. On to the “real” stuff.


Fowl-weather restaurant

Hairy Woodpecker

I wouldn’t say that there had necessarily been a lull at the feeders, per se, during the warmer temperatures, but certainly activity was a bit decreased for those few days as birds found it easier to find their own food out in the woods. With the return of the snow yesterday, the feeders were back to normal, bustling with birds looking for easy food. Most of the birds blend in with one another, with no one individual really standing out. The species that we don’t get very many of, however, like the nuthatches, are more likely the same individual visiting frequently (in the case of the Red-breasted Nuthatches, we’re pretty sure there’s only two, and one has the black crown of the male, while the other is a female sporting her grayish crown, which makes it easy to tell them apart).

There are a couple of individuals that we banded a little earlier in the winter and who are continuing to come round to the feeders. One of them is this male Hairy Woodpecker. I haven’t noticed the banded female recently, but this male is a regular. Here he is proudly displaying his jewelry while he checks out the activity at the nyger feeders (he eventually left without trying the seed).

Feisty siskin

Another is this banded siskin, the only banded siskin that I’ve noticed still hanging around (though Dan indicated he thought there might be two). The others have most likely headed north already, given their fat levels when we caught them. Even the couple of banded redpolls I’d observed for the first little while after they were captured have now disappeared, leaving just this lonely individual still hanging out at the feeders. It can’t be that s/he’s having trouble finding enough food to put on the fat, because s/he dominates the feeders. Just as feisty as always, she (or he) reaches up to take a nip at an offending redpoll.

Redpoll party

It’s been hanging-room-only at the feeders the last couple days, as the snow arrived and birds started scrambling for food. They’ve been plowing through the seed, easily going through half a tube’s worth over the course of a frenzied day. I wonder just how much food each bird actually ingests during all this squabbling. Obviously some will get more than others, but it seems like half their time is spent shooing others away, rather than just sitting and eating.

Redpoll group

When not at the feeder, those birds that turn their beaks up at foraging on the ground will wait their turns on the surrounding branches. There’s easily just as many, or more, birds lined up along the twigs as there are on the feeder itself. I love the collection of little red caps and yellow beaks against the browns and grays of the winter landscape.

Keeping an eye out

At one point something went overhead and all the birds at the feeder went stock-still, except for their heads which they rotated sideways to point an eye up at the sky. I’m not sure what it was they spotted – it could have been a hawk, after all we had that Sharpie around a little while ago. It could have been a raven soaring over, looking hawk-like in profile as it cruised overhead; certainly we’ve had plenty of those about during the winter. Possibly a Red-tailed Hawk, moving low overhead. I’ve seen one or two around over the course of the winter, though it would be unlikely they’d come down to the feeders. If we were closer to a flight path I might suggest it could even have been an airplane, but we hardly ever see them through here, and when we do it’s pretty easy to hear the engines as they pass by.

Hoary Redpoll

Our male Hoary that we spotted earlier in the winter has apparently hung about, and was active at the feeders the last couple of days. Either that, or it’s a different individual. Either way, he was a nice addition to the feeder crowd. He stood out from the rest, even though he didn’t look quite as pale as the one from earlier. Redpolls only have a single moult to replace their feathers, in the fall, rather than the two that most songbirds have. They acheive their breeding plumage through the gradual wearing-off of the pale feather tips over the course of the winter, exposing the rosy underneath. This process would also expose the brown on his back, probably an advantage during the breeding season when white isn’t as common a colour in the landscape, and would result in him looking paler earlier in the winter than now.

Hoary Redpoll

His pure-white undertail coverts and thin, sparse flank streaking were give-aways, as was the stubby bill when he turned his head. The other thing that jumped out about this individual was his gorgeous rosy breast on a fluffy white background. When he perched on the branches away from the feeder, it was easy to spot him, he had considerably more pink to his chest than the Commons did.

There are two subspecies of Hoary Redpoll. The one that most people probably think of, the stereotyped pale Hoary, is C.h. hornemanni, which has very reduced pink to the breast. It breeds in the Northwest Territories and winters from Michigan to Maryland. The other subspecies, C.h. exilipes, is a little more common, breding from Alaska to Labrador, and wintering right across the continent from Oregon to Maryland.

This latter subspecies isn’t as pale as the first, and, according to the “bander’s bible” which gives the moult details for every age and sex of every species, in the adult male exilipes “the pink of the underparts [is] deep, usually covering most of the breast.” Interestingly, that contradicts his statement later on in the species account where he says the “breast and rump with a light to moderate pink wash”. I just read this latter statement at first and was thoroughly confused about what appeared to be a heavily-marked Hoary, until I read the subspecies description.

This may be my last redpoll post; they’ll be departing soon, headed back to the shrubby tundra lowlands across northern Canada. We can probably expect to enjoy another couple of weeks of them gobbling nyger seed before they’re gone – at least till next winter.

The old man redpoll

Hoary Redpoll

A couple days ago we had a special visitor at the feeders. This one had come all the way from the coast of Hudson Bay, or perhaps even further. He was here with a flock of his cousins, who had probably travelled shorter distances than he had, although some of them may have been long-distance voyagers as well. He was a Hoary Redpoll.

Common Redpolls breed throughout the scrubby, stunted forest-tundra of the Hudson Bay Lowlands and surrounding regions. They are found through perhaps the upper quarter of Ontario. Even still, despite their name, they are not an incredibly common bird. The recent Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas indicates that the probability of encountering one in the first 20 hours of fieldwork in the Hudson Bay Lowlands is just 34%. Even less common is the Hoary Redpoll, and the probability of finding one of them is a mere 1%. All of the squares where the species was recorded were right up at the coast. The Ontario birds are the most southerly breeding population of the species in the world; most individuals occur further north than they are found here. To put in context the breeding location of these birds, they are found in the open tundra, placing their nests in willow thickets surrounding ponds, or in the stunted spruces scattered across the small ridges. They line their nests with ptarmigan feathers and Arctic Fox fur. That’s how far north they live.

Hoary Redpoll

Like Common Redpolls, Hoarys will migrate southward most winters, but appear in southern Ontario primarily in irruption years. I have seen, and identified, just 5 Hoary Redpolls in the years I’ve been birding. Three of these were in the fall of 2007, when we caught a huuuuge flock of redpolls at the research station, hidden among which were the Hoarys. The other two have been at our feeders this winter. The first one we didn’t get a very good look at, and it didn’t stick around. This is the first and only adult male that I’ve had good looks at.

You can tell it’s an adult male by the rose wash to its breast. Females will show no colour to the breast, though they’ll look nearly the same otherwise. Young males may be intermediate.

Common Redpoll undertail

Part of the problem with identifying Hoarys is that they can look so similar to the Commons they hang out with. There are a few key identification features, the easiest of which to spot is probably the pure white undertail coverts. Look at the way the Hoary’s butt glows in the first photo. Of course, just like any good identification rule, it has its conditions. In this case, only the adult males have pure white undertail coverts. The females may show a streak or two, and young birds show more streaking than adults. However, all age/sex classes show proportionally less than the same age/sex class of Common Redpoll. Okay, so that doesn’t really help when you’ve got a young female Hoary beside an adult female Common (the males, of course, would have rose breasts). But hey – the young female Commons and adult male Hoarys should be no problem!

The photo above, of course, is a Common. Age/sex class undetermined.

Hoary Redpoll
Hoary Redpoll

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll

Another fairly easy to spot characteristic is the head shape. Hoarys look like they have little heads for the size of their bodies. They’re not as deep, I guess, from bill to nape as a Common is, relative to the body. It gives them a pin-headed appearance. Added to this is their small, stubby bill, compared to that of a Common. At some angles these two features aren’t as apparent. A full profile shot with the bird looking downwards really emphasizes the shape, however.

Common and Hoary Redpoll profiles

Here’s another shot of the heads, Common on the left, Hoary on the right. The name Hoary, of course, comes from the pale colouration of their plumage compared to Commons. The word Hoary, interestingly, means “gray or white with, or as if with, age.” There are a few species named Hoary – the redpoll, of course, but also Hoary Marmot and Hoary Bat. Their fur is all white-tipped with a grizzled appearance. I suppose “Hoary Marmot” sounds better than “Grizzled Marmot”, although there’s the Grizzly Bear – same origin. Grizzly Marmot?

Common and Hoary Redpoll back views

One last thing you could look at is the bird’s rump, although this can sometimes be hard to spot if the bird has its wings closed. However, if you can get a peek at it, it follows the same general pattern of plumage as the undertail coverts: Commons are streaky, while Hoarys are white. You can just get a hint of the Hoary’s rump in the photo on the right.

Hoary and Common Redpoll at feeder

Here’re two males, the Hoary and a Common, side-by-side on the feeder. You get a sense of the lightness of the Hoary compared to the Common. You can also notice the difference in the streaks on the sides. In younger birds, this can often be useful in picking a Hoary out of a flock. Hoarys generally have thinner, more distinct streaks, while those of Commons are broader and diffuse.

Common and Hoary Redpoll
Young female Common (left) and Hoary Redpolls

These last two photos, above and below, are of young female Hoary and Common Redpolls, side-by-side. These were the birds we caught in 2007. Having them up close, in the hand, was a huge advantage, but you can see the field marks you’d be looking for even if they were out sitting on a perch somewhere. I’ve been periodically checking out the birds at our feeders, looking for a possible female Hoary that had snuck in with the Commons, but hadn’t spotted one. Then this male showed up, which made the ID so much easier.

(My spellcheck is telling me that “snuck” isn’t a valid word. What?)

Common and Hoary Redpoll
Young female Hoary (left) and Common Redpolls

There is some debate as to whether these two are, in fact, different species, or simply subspecies. Visually, even though it’s subtle, they do appear to be different species, but molecular studies suggest there’s not enough evidence for that. In Europe the Hoary is known as the Arctic Redpoll, and it’s the North American subspecies of Hoary that gets the name Hoary applied to it.

I was pleased to see this rare visitor at our feeders. Now we just need to attract some grosbeaks!

One amongst the redpolls


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.


How many birds can you count?

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.

Common Redpolls

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.

Common Redpolls

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.