It has become a tradition for birders to make note of the first species that one finds while birding in the new year. For me, this is usually a species that is common around the house or at the feeder. This year is no different, as the first bird I spotted was a Dark-eyed Junco near the feeder on the deck.
Not long after, I was outside when I happened to check the cherry tree in the back of the house to see if anything was visiting the feeders. When I raised my binoculars, I noticed this bird among a group of chickadees and titmice:
Even from an awful view of the back of the bird, I knew that this was not a typical feeder visitor... it was a redpoll! I quickly ran inside and alerted my family of the Common Redpoll visiting the feeder. We got decent looks as it chowed down on black oil sunflower seeds. While watching this bird, my mom noticed three more redpolls high in the trees that border the yard.
For the next half-hour, I watched as the redpoll chased goldfinches and House Finches for a place to sit on the feeder.
After a while, the bird flew from the tube feeder to the ground. It spend another fifteen minutes or so plucking seeds off the snow, occasionally squabbling with a junco or White-throated Sparrow.
Unfortunately, the redpoll eventually took off, calling chet-chet-chet as in lifted into the snowy gray sky. An hour or so later, my dad spotted two Common Redpolls feeding on the thistle feeder on the deck! I ran to get my camera, and snapped a few photos of the close birds. Not long after a flock of eight goldfinches showed up at the feeder, the redpolls disappeared again.
Around three in the afternoon, I was working on the dining room table when I happened to look out the window at the feeders. The redpolls were back! And now there were three! These gorgeous little finches sat for a while, hardly caring that my dad and I were snapping photos through the window only a few feet away. Occasionally the birds fluttered into the air, only to return to a different perch on the same feeder.
For anyone who is not entirely familiar with the Common Redpoll, this is a small finch species that typically lives much farther north than Pennsylvania. However, periodic food shortages in typical wintering grounds cause large numbers of these, and other, winter finches to "irrupt" into more southern territories. Avian irruptions are frequent in a number of finch species; Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, and crossbills all move south occasionally. Since each species relies on different food sources, it is uncommon for many species to all move south in the same year. This past fall and winter was an exception. Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Purple Finches, and both crossbill species all moved father south than usual. In fact, I recorded all of those species in my yard during the past few months!
My first experience with redpolls was at the end of November in 2007. I was conducting one of my bird surveys at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center when my mom and I found a flock of about 40 Common Redpolls in a stand of gray birches. As it would turn out, that was an excellent winter for redpolls in the region. Some birders found flocks of more than 200 redpolls in good habitat. I didn't see any more after that year until two flew over the yard early in 2011. Then, a few showed up in November of 2012. I saw small flocks of redpolls on-and-off throughout November and December. Despite a number of encounters with this species, today was only the second time I had seen them at my feeders, so this particular visit from these denizens of the north was a real surprise and treat!
What a way to kick off 2013!