Hoary Redpoll

Okay, so by now you’ve noticed that there is a difference between the title of the blog and the blog address.  Hoaryredpoll.  What the heck is that?  No, it’s not something you’ll find at your local strip joint, unless your local strip joint is in the high arctic.

A Hoary Redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni) is a small finch (bird) which lives much of its life in the arctic of the northern hemisphere, only occasionally making its way as far south as the northern U.S. and Southern Canada and western Europe in winter and often in the company of its much more numerous cousin, the Common Redpoll.  They also go by the name of Arctic Redpoll in Europe. 

But what does “Hoary” mean?  If you look in a dictionary the word “Hoary” is an adjective meaning gray or white with age, it can also mean extremely old.  In this case “Hoary” applies to the white feathers of this species of Redpoll.  People have described flocks of Hoary Redpolls to be like snow flakes or snow balls.  Others say they look like Common Redpolls which have been dipped in powdered sugar or ‘frosted’.  No matter how you describe it, the Hoary Redpoll is a unique and fascinating bird.  Sadly, like many species in the high arctic Global Warming is a major threat to their continued survival.

So why is a small bird only found in the dead of winter from the high arctic so important to me?  It was December 28, 1993, I was 12 years old and was busy watching my backyard feeders which were alive with birds.  I had heard by calling the local bird report line that Common Redpolls were becoming more and more common and it appeared it would be a good year for them.  I never dreamed I would have any at my suburban feeders.  It was late morning when I noticed a small bird fly onto one of the feeders.  Focusing my binoculars I could see s small streaked bird, red cap, black face and I knew what I had.  Quickly I grabbed my field guide and called my mother over and she confirmed we had a Redpoll.

But something wasn’t quite right.  The bird looked far whiter than any picture we could find in the field guides and it only matched the pictures of Hoary Redpoll.  Neither of us were great bird watchers, so we assumed we had a Hoary Redpoll and I dutifully called it into the bird line.  The next day we got phone calls from several of the bird line compilers.  I described the bird to them, my mother described the bird to them, but we always got the same answer “Well, it’s probably just a pale Common Redpoll.”  We didn’t believe them.  We knew what we saw.  Over the next couple of weeks the numbers of Common Redpolls at our feeders increased into the dozens.  On March 1, 1994 I counted my largest flock at the feeders, over 70 Common Redpolls of all different plumage variations.  Despite seeing hundreds of Redpolls that winter, we never found another bird that even came close to the first one.

The fact that no one would believe me was a major drive for me to become a better bird watcher.  All through High School I practiced and practiced.  I was in the field every day after school.  I read books, listened to tapes, CD’s and got better and better.  When I started college, birding took a backseat, but when I met my girlfriend (and future wife) she showed an interest and got me going again.  Now I travel all over the Northeast and beyond in search of birds.  I also try to give people the benefit of the doubt when a novice bird watcher reports a rare bird, remembering my own experience.

In December 2004, 11 years after my first Hoary Redpoll, I discovered another one at the
Newcomb Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb, New York.  I studied it, photographed it and wrote a report for the New York State Avian Record Committee.  However I’m still waiting to hear if it was accepted.  Since I wrote the report however, the Committee has taken Hoary Redpoll off its review list upstate, citing the fact that Hoary Redpolls with better techniques of identification are usually present in small numbers during larger invasions of Common Redpolls.

We all have defining moments in our lives, although we don’t know it at the time.  The finding of a Hoary Redpoll was certainly one of my defining moments.  But I can’t help wondering what would have happened if I wasn’t looking out the window at that exact moment?  Would I have missed the bird?  Would I still be the bird watcher I am today?  Of course we will never know, but I think it brings up the fact that we should all enjoy the little moments in life, because you never know which one will be the spark for something great.

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