What a Difference a Year Makes – Common/Uncommon Redpolls

On January 20th, two days ago I had some business to attend to in the University District.  While I am not a “county lister” per se, Ebird does keep track of my county observations for me and I admit to at least paying attention.  I guess it is a general human trait, but some numbers seem to be more appealing than others and this is especially the case for multiples of 100.

That is all introductory to my decision on the 20th to try to add two birds to my King County list to bring it to 200 species.  Not really much given that I had lived in King County for 40 years and have only lived in Snohomish County for 3 years yet have observed 221 species there.  Back to the story.  I had never seen a Great Egret in King County.  One was reported at the Ballard Locks for quite a while at the end of 2015 but I never felt the need to add it as #199.  However, when many people reported seeing one from Sakuma Viewpoint off Boat Street AND there were also many reports of a feeding flock of Common Redpolls at Greenlake (another bird never seen by me in King County), I figured a little time after my meeting to possibly add both and hit that oh so appealing 200 was an opportunity not to be missed.

The Great Egret was easy and not very satisfying – on a houseboat across the canal from the viewpoint – partially obscured but hard to misidentify a big white wader with a yellow bill.  Was not worried about photos as this year I am looking only for new ones or quality and this bird offered neither.  So then it was on to Greenlake where the Redpoll flock had been reported feeding on Birch catkins “just south of the swimming pool”.  Well just south turned out to be about 1/4 mile but there they were at the tops of some birches paying no attention to the many passersby.  Horrible light but I took a few photos just because they are such neat little birds.  A couple of other birders came by and one, Rich Frank had one of those super telephoto lenses that I covet (500 mm Canon) and was definitely on the birds.  We had a very nice talk and viewing his photos made me want to erase all of mine…a definite case of lens envy.

Common Redpoll – one of 35+ – Greenlake

Common Redpoll2

Greenlake is always fun as it so often provides opportunities to see ducks, gulls and grebes close up and there is usually a Eurasian Widgeon or two mixed in with the myriad American Widgeons as well.  So on the way back to the car I could not resist a couple of other photo ops even with the grey skies.

Pied Billed Grebe – Greenlake

Pied Billed Grebe

American Widgeon – Greenlake

American Widgeon

As I said talking with Rich was great, but even better was sharing the experience with many folks who walked by and asked what we were doing.  All of them thought it very cool when I explained that these were very unusual birds for this location, that they were “northern finches” and that their name came from the red on their “poll” – head.  I showed them various photos from that day or previous observations and also called up the bird on I-Bird to share information.  These kinds of experiences are some of the most enjoyable I have in my birding – interaction with interested non-birders who genuinely appreciate learning and being brought into a new circle.

Indeed my favorite all-time experience was when an older couple (both in their eighties) walked by me on the path just north of Shoveler Pond at Union Bay.  I was down in the muck with my camera and bins and the lady asked what I was doing.  I came up onto the trail and told her I was looking at a Virginia Rail and showed her some photos.  She was very engaged and said she would love to see one some day.  I asked her if that day might be “today” because this rail had been very responsive to the “grunt” call and might be seen if she could come down off the path a bit, but it might be a little wet.  She said a little gunk had never been a problem and she took my arm and we walked carefully down to the edge of the pond.  I played the call and a rail responded immediately.  My new lady friend literally shrieked – joyful.  THEN…it came out into the open for a few seconds and she could see it clearly.  Maybe I was wrong and she was eight instead of eighty because the little girl in her was certainly out in the open.  A beautiful shared moment.

Virginia Rail

Back to the Redpolls.  No shrieking, but it was cool to share these birds and how wonderful that so many people/birders had gotten to see them in such an accessible place.  I have seen them in many areas in Washington but certainly most commonly in the Okanogan.  From my trips there earlier in the year and to Salmo Mountain I knew this was a great year for “northern finches” and I wondered how the Greenlake Redpolls fit in this pattern.  A little Ebird research and the answer is clear – at least compared to last year this is an extraordinary time for Common Redpolls…extraordinary!

In December 2014/January 2015 Common Redpolls were reported on Ebird in 6 counties in Washington:  Okanogan (many records), Pend Oreille, Walla Walla, Grant, Stevens and King (a single record and I wonder…).  By comparison, and recognizing that there is still more than a week left in January 2016, for the same period December 2015/January 2016, Common Redpolls have been seen in 24 Counties:  the same 6 as the previous winter Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Walla Walla, Grant, Stevens and of course King (both Greenlake and in Bellevue) plus Thurston, Adams, Yakima, Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, Jefferson, Whitman, Douglas, Chelan, Benton, Lincoln, Spokane, Island, Franklin and Clark.  I myself have seen Redpolls in King, Franklin, Clark and Okanogan. Actually in Clark I should say heard and not seen.  After seeing the Beautiful Yellow Throated Warbler at Lake Sacajawea in Longview, Jon Houghton and I headed south to see if we could find the Snowy Egret for him that I had seen earlier in the year near Post Office Lake.  Ryan Merrill and Robert Flores who had also been at the warbler also made the trek.  We never did find the Snowy Egret and we hiked all the way to the end of the trail.  But as is so often the case, Ryan heard something none of the rest of us at first could hear – Common Redpolls flying high overhead.  He was right of course and a little later, I too heard the familiar call.  A very surprising bird in that far south location – another proof that this is definitely a Redpoll Year.

Common Redpoll – Okanogan

Common Redpoll 3

It is not just that they have been seen in so many more counties.  There have also been multiple sightings in some of these places compared to single sightings last winter.  I am sure that academic types (or at least birders more serious than I am) have explanations for this irruption – food scarcity further north, better success on breeding grounds, snow, global warming or whatever.  And that would be interesting to know.  But whatever the cause, how nice it is to have these little finches as visitors.  I hope they enjoy their stay.

One thought on “What a Difference a Year Makes – Common/Uncommon Redpolls

  1. Same in Vancouver it’s been a great finch year! Evening grosbeaks, common redpolls galore, a hoary redpoll and white winged crossbills and rosy finches.

    Love it nice post Blair


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