The unsound approach

We fall in and outa love with Redpolls. Actually, thats a lie, we pretty much always hate them. But sometimes, when the mood is right (and there's feck all else about), we get a bit dewey eyed over the streaky raspberry-blowing rascals. Back in the old days, things seemed simple - Lesser Redpolls were common in every woodlot, and most winters saw the arrival of a few 'Meallies' and maybe the odd Arctic. Everything seemed pretty clear-cut. We fondly remember the big influxes of  '91 and '95, getting a taste for exilipes whilst stomping around Holkham and picking up ASBOs around Cromer Rainbow carpark. We had a vague notion of "Greater Redpoll", but there were no pictures of them in books so they didn't really concern us. The Rocky Point crew started making them fashionable, but at the time that just seemed like deperate straw-clutching (we're sure they wouldn't have bothered if they'd managed to find any proper rares out there). It took a trip to Lewis in autumn 2004 for the penny to drop, precisely when a flock of 20 Brambling-sized beasts dropped into a bush in front of AL and JG. Suddenly we wanted to find Hornemann's. Good things come to those who wait, and a plump juicy Horny Roll on Shetland in 2007 was just what the doctor ordered (actually we ordered Sibe Thrush, not sure where the wires got crossed).Thanks to our numerous trips to points north and west, we've now seen quite a lot of redpolls and have spent literally minutes looking at them. Thus we feel well equipped to share some thoughts and images on this phenotypically discombobulated group, that can only be described as 'better than geese and gulls'.    

Arctic Redpoll ssp hornemanii

DESCRIPTION:

Holy f*ck!

KEY FEATURES:

Instant boner. Likely to cause panic amongst non-birders due to resemblance of Abominable Snowman. 

1st winter, Quendale, Shetland, October 2007. Possibly the best redpoll in the world, note the mungus primary projection, pointed rects and general monsterness (R. Addison)  

The same bird giving it some Daz-ultra ass (R. Addison)  

Same again, note the really oddly proportioned face (small beak, massive head), giving it a vaguely mammal-like feel, accentuated by its fluffy tarsi which render it legless (R. Addison) 

presumed adult, North Collarfirth, Shetland, October 2007. Buffier than the juvenile, less crisp overall and more abraded tail feathers (or just wet?). Beak equally short but more massive, Paradoxornis style (A. Lees)

Same bird, note the general massiveness next to Twite. Note again the lack of legs - on the ground they move by rolling over, giving rise to the alternative name Arctic Roll (J. Gilroy)

Arctic Redpoll ssp exilipes

DESCRIPTION:

Somewhere between crippling snowball and baffling shitpiece.

KEY FEATURES:

Often stimulates a need for Anadin extra. Diagnostic features include white rump (actually, that's not really diagnostic), plain white undertail coverts (not really diagnostic either, and they don't have to have it at all), short stubby bill (again not really diagnostic), buffy face (no, not diagnostic at all), white wingbars (you're shitting me, they all have white wingbars). Ok, it's best not to look at them too long, or they might cause you to ask questions you don't want to answer. (E.g. Why am I wasting my precious life looking at these miserable feathered lizards?  Where did it all go wrong? Curse you cruel fate! I could have been somebody!  etc etc.). 

Adult, June, Varanger, Norway (A. Lees). Resplendant summer plumage. Whilst most birds get their bling on for the breeding period, Redpolls go in the opposite direction, their summer look generally being completely minging. This one appears to have been punched repeatedly in the face.

both pics, 1st winter exilipes Titchwell, January 2005 (R. Martin). Note the pinched-in bill and mantle pattern, but otherwise the left-hand pic could easily be mistaken for a pale Meally. Right hand image shows just a single UTC streak and sparse streaking on the flanks, which are more helpful in clinching it.

Same bird (R. Martin) note UTC pattern, robust bull-necked appearance and relatively even-toned mantle, lacking obvious braces. Also note how you would never confuse this with the snowmonster above, plus the fact that all features are shown occasionally by some flammea

Common Redpoll ssp rostrata, Northwestern clade

DESCRIPTION:

Basically a streaky Greenfinch.

KEY FEATURES:

Voice like Barry White, body like Geoff Capes. Good at flying really really far over the sea - respect due.

Mainland Shetland, October 2007 (A. Lees). This bird completely dwarfed a nearby fulmar. That's not a stinging nettle it's sat on, it's a pine tree.

Mainland Shetland, October 2007 (A. Lees) A typical view of a Redpoll. Note the red on the crown.

left Unst, Shetland, October 2007 (R. Addison), right Inishmore, Galway (J. Gilroy). A couple of "islandica"-types - much paler and a bit sleeker than the Greenland fat bastards, but still distinctly big and with deep gruff voices.

both Unst, Shetland October 2007 (R. Addison). Note the dumpy structure with short, broad tail. Also check out the monstrous primary projection, which probably helps when you have to fly 2,000km non-stop from Greenland to Donegal having eaten nothing but Thrift seed and gravel for six weeks.

left Unst, Shetland October 2007 (R. Addison) right Mainland Shetland, October 2007 (J. Gilroy). More streaks per square inch than any other Cardeulid.

Lewis, Outer Hebrides, October 2005 (A. Lees) The polls that started it all, a pale Icelandic type (same pale bird on its own on the right) and a typical rostrata type - part of a flock of at least 20 in the north-westernmost garden in Europe. Some people lump the white phenotype redpolls on Iceland with Arctic and they may even represent an undescribed subspecies. Herreman suggests: 'an exilipes-like pale taxon has been subject to character release in its evolution towards an endemic form before it came more recently into contact with the second invader rostrata'. Nuff said! Either that or they are actually more closely related to Arctic Foxes, and the similarity is just convergence. Anadin please.

Mainland Shetland, October 2007 (A. Lees). This one was in the middle of a rendition of "Can't get enough of your love baby".

Breeding Common Redpoll, Uists, July 2004 (S. Piner). This scraggy-loooking minger is assumed to be a NW Redpoll - perhaps an Icelandic type considering its lack of bulk. Saying that, eliminating  flammea - which has also bred previously in Scotland - is probably not straightfoward.

These are the babies - clearly juvenile Common Redpolls, Uists, July 2004 (S. Piner). If you were worried that the adult bird above might be a Lesser Redpoll, just check out the head and ass on these beauties... Compare and contrast with the typically brownmungus juv cabaret here.

Common Redpoll ssp flammea

DESCRIPTION:

A bit more interesting than Lesser Redpoll.

KEY FEATURES:

Somewhere near the east coast. Not in mid-summer. Needs to have a bit of white on it. But don't worry too much, no-one's going to give a shit.

1st winter, Titchwell, Januray 2005 (R. Martin) On these pics alone this bird looks quite Cou-ee, but the bird did have multiple streaks on the UTCs and the mantle and flanks are very flammea. These birds can be very confusing, though. And Sibley would probably call this one a 'dark Hoary'.

Arctic Finland, June 2007 (A. Lees). Huge long bill - a northern "holboelli"-type. (Steady on Garnerphiles, that's not even a valid subspecies, put your pens away...).

This very streaky, long winged bird was on Blakeney Point in early November (JG). Had it been on the Northern Isles, it probably would've gone down as a North-western, but it's almost certainly a flammea (it was consorting with several more obvious birds). That's probably why rostrata isn't a valid split. Then again, a fair proportion of individuals are confidently identifiable, which seems to be good enough for full species treatment by split-happy modern birding standards. (Handbags clutched firmly under chin).

adult male and 1st winter, Marston STW, Lincs, January 2006 (A. Lees). Even local patches can't make Common Redpolls all that exciting.

1st winter, Marston STW, Lincs, January 2006 (A. Lees). Note the big trousers. That is sometimes touted as another "diagnostic" feature of Arctic. Perhaps some folks ought to look up the Oxford definition of "diagnostic"...

Lesser Redpoll cabaret

DESCRIPTION:

You've definitely seen it.

KEY FEATURES:

Small, brown. Lack of braces, lack of trousers. Hot tip: if you find a flock that's likely to hang around for a while, you'd probably best call them all Lessers. If they bugger off into the distance immediately, feel free to claim a few Commons - it's fair game!

None of us has ever been arsed to photograph Lesser Redpoll. But for reference, they look a bit like this:

Lesser-ish 'Polls' (A. Lees)

CONCLUSIONS

So, Redpolls then. Are they all good species? Some of them? None of them? Should we lump them all with Twite and forget it? Several published DNA studies have shown that precisely none of the forms are genetically distinct (using both mtDNA and microsats), which sounds like bad news for listers. But is it?

Low DNA divergence means that either they are all very recently evolved species, or they are basically one single species with a number of complex “morphs”. In reality, these two options basically mean the same thing – each of the Redpoll “morphs” (variously considered species or subspecies under current taxonomy) are like proto-species, mini-lineages with distinct morphological differences that have not been reproductively isolated long enough (or strongly enough) to become “fully” distinct according to their DNA. It’s quite possible that these mini-lineages will, in the fullness of time, become full species in the genetic sense. Under the old-timey Biological Species Concept, they might be full species already - there is evidence that most forms mate assortatively where they meet in the breeding season.

It's possible that the current state of reproductive isolation has only been reached fairly recently, so it isn’t yet evident in their DNA. That would be ironic – the pipe-smoking BSC birders would be gunning for a split whilst the dope-smoking PSC lot all cry lump...! There is an alternative scenario, of course - the forms could all have existed for a long time, with constant levels of hybridisation that are too high for “full” separation of the lineages. The Redpolls offer an interesting twist to this scenario – they are periodically irruptiuve, with hybridisation rates potentially increasing massively during big eruptions when the forms get mixed up over large areas. Hybridisation may then drop off in between times, resulting in a stop-start pattern of gene-flow. Under this scenario, they could theoretically go on and on in a perpetual state of semi-speciation for eons (as in the Crossbills, maybe...).

Regardless of all this hypothesising, the real issue is whether or not Birders ought to consider them all as full species. Well, they are all diagnosably different. Currently, even with the trickiest forms (NW vs flammea), most individuals are identifiable, at least outside the breeding season (sadly most of them get too ugly to identify in summer). Everyone seems to be happy to list many other groups that have a less than 100% identification rate - gulls, geese, shrikes, warblers, crossbills etc etc.. And a bit more research on Redpoll vocalisations (or even plumage under UV) might increase our hit-rate dramatically. So why not? Anyone who’s been to the Northern or Western Isles in autumn will know just how distinctive those streaky Greenland monsters are. Likewise, anyone who’s soiled their pants after flushing a Horny Roll from a Shetland nettle patch will be irritated by the fact that they occupy the same space on the list as those awful Titchwell carpark shitpieces. Redpolls – they are distinct, and some of them are even exciting - and that’s more than can be said for parvipes wanky geese.  Redpolls- we say YES!

(If you were hoping to learn something genuinely interesting then you probably came to the wrong place. Try here, here, here and here but probably not here. )