Friday, 14 December 2012

Arctic 'snowball'

Yesterday might have ended in style with London's first Buff-bellied Pipit, but it began with an even rarer vagrant. While 'only' a subspecies, Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll is - away from the Scottish islands - a rarer bird even than Buff-bellied Pipit. Still considered an official rarity in Britain, unlike the increasingly numerous subspecies exilipes (Coues's Arctic Redpoll), nominate hornemanni Arctic had occurred here on just 90 occasions to the end of 2011. Mainland occurrences have been non-existent (or almost so) until this year: after a belatedly identified bird in Norfolk in the autumn, this individual at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, found its way onto many lists, including mine. It was still there today, presumably equating the windswept environs of Orford Ness with the inhospitable landscape of its native Greenland and northern Canada - well worth a look if you haven't yet been to see it.

Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll: note the fluffy 'snowball' appearance, with unmarked white rump and undertail coverts, and little in the way of streaking on the flanks. The very pale smokey greyish-white ground colour of the upperparts almost says Ural Owl (if you've had enough to drink and don't have a very good monitor). A hint of the 'chamois' tones to the face remain, presumably having worn paler during the autumn.

There are many references on redpoll identification, a subject I'm not going to go into here in any detail, but I came across an interesting online article by Andrew Kinghorn yesterday which I hadn't seen before. I also highly recommend Andy Stoddart's 'Redpolls photo guide' in the December 2011 issue of Birdwatch (not currently available online).
Even with no reference point for size, this redpoll screams 'large'. Its habit of feeding on weed seeds on the beach, perhaps coupled with its size, apparently led to it originally being identified as a bunting of some kind. 

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