Wednesday 17 February 2021

Final Word on Redpolls?

I mentioned in my original post that I was very nervous about identifying Redpolls, and guessed that Mike would respond with the cautionary approach required. We'd been through this all before, with a Redpoll on Topsham recreation ground, about 20 years ago! It seems that in the intervening time nothing has really changed - Redpolls are still extremely difficult, and probably worthy of being lumped together as one species.
Despite all the wonderful input, from brilliant local birders, it felt like a sensible idea to try and get some input from east-coast birders, who are more used to seeing Mealy Redpolls, before taking the record of these Redpolls any further.
I first got hold of Roger Riddington, based in Shetland, (who suspected they were Lessers, but "wouldn't stake his pension on it") who put me in touch with Andy Stoddart.
There may still be more to learn about these birds but if the main Redpoll man - Andy Stoddart (Vice-Chair of the BBRC and a man with bags of experience with Redpoll taxa) isn't sure what species they are, then there's little hope for the rest of us..

Here's what he had to say...

Hi Matt,

The first thing to say is that this isn’t easy and I’m not actually totally sure what your birds are. There are some obvious pro-Mealy features such as extensive greyish-white in the rump and (on some) a greyish face/neck ‘shawl’. Furthermore, I can’t see any birds showing the giveaway Lesser Redpoll undertail coverts pattern of many short fine streaks overlain by a rich buff wash.


So, your birds could be Mealies but, like Roger, I can see brown hues in the face and flanks of some. Given that this hasn’t been a good winter for Mealies (there are hardly any in Norfolk) whereas it has been a bumper, record-breaking winter for Lessers, I’d be hesitant to log a decent-sized flock of Mealies, particularly in the SW where the subspecies is rare.


I’m sorry I can’t be any more precise – redpolls are devilish things!


All the best.



Thanks again to everyone who commented on these birds, thanks to Andy for allowing me to publish the above e-mail, and particular thanks to Chris Townend, who endured all kinds of dreadful weather to photograph and sound-record these birds. I hope it didn't feel like a fruitless exercise Chris!


  1. Great stuff Matt. This is exactly why I love blogs. Just occasionally there's a real gem of a post, or set of posts (as in this case) that makes me want to 'cut it out and keep' kind of thing! Thanks so much for following up on those fascinating Redpolls and posting the results here. Brilliant.

    PS. I'm with you on the lumping approach. 100%!

  2. Thank you for sharing all the posts and the correspondence Matt, always very educational. They are indeed a very tricky taxon to sort out especially at this time of year with varying states if wear and tear - like you I say lump them! I don’t remember seeing any of the Topsham redpolls with buffy undertail coverts and most had pretty much pure white wing bars. The accepted mealy that you found there in some shots taken by Carole Leigh’s was pretty close to Coues’s (but bigger billed)! There were still mixed opinions on that cracking looking bird.

  3. Thank you Mike - yep I'm personally not sure the identification of that bird is safe if none of these birds can be identified with certainty. Equally it seems wrong to assume that Mealy Redpoll doesn't turn up from time to time in the southwest. Going to spend some time on gulls now - much more straight-forward! All the best. Matt