In a landlocked county like Worcestershire, the arrival of winter finch flocks undoubtedly enthuses county birders during the winter months, particularly those who find gulls and waterfowl less than inspiring. With a little effort, ten species are obtainable annually, including Brambling, Common Crossbill, Hawfinch, Lesser Redpoll and Siskin; whilst Mealy Redpoll and Twite may boost this total, though the latter has become extremely scarce locally in recent years. The planting of game crops, primarily designed to provide food and cover for Pleasant and Partridge prior and during the winter shoots, inevitably attract large winter finch flocks, particularly Linnet, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Brambling and Redpoll. These sites provide observers the best opportunely to study these birds, being confined to a relatively small area, allowing close and often prolonged, eye-level views to be obtained.
|Plate 2 - First-winter male Mealy Redpoll, Merrilands Farm, Worcestershire (left) & female Lesser Redpoll, Wyre Forest, Worcestershire January 2006 (right). © Andy Warr & John Robinson|
The comparisons above depict the two extremes in plumage tone, plus size and structural differences encountered between Mealy and Lesser Redpoll. On the top birds, note the frosty appearance of this first-winter male Mealy, compared to the darker brown and buff plumage hues seen on this Lesser, whilst size and structural differences between the bottom adult male Mealy and Lesser are obvious. Unfortunately the separation of these two species is far more complex then these individuals would suggest. Plumage differences, particularly between female Mealy and Lesser can be slight and to confuse matters further, some may appear similar in size and structure to Lesser in the field, though size differences are noticeable when direct comparisons are made in the hand. It is therefore feasible to suggest that many female type Mealies are mistakenly attributed to Lesser.
|Plate 4 - Adult female Mealy Redpoll (left bird) first-winter male Mealy Redpoll (right bird) Upton Warren, Worcestershire, March 2008. © Brian Stretch & Fergus Henderson|
Note the size difference between the two Mealy Redpolls pictured above, trapped and ringed at Upton Warren in early March 2008, the adult female being notably less bulky than the first-winter male. Size variations occur in both sexes, so on biometrics, particularly body, wing and tail length, there is considerable overlap, though structurally males appear bulkier, giving the impression of a larger bird. Wing measurements on males range from 70-81mm and females 68-79mm. The first-winter male trapped, possessed a wing length of 75mm, whilst the female alongside was measured at 72mm and though this male has a midrange wing length, its body size and structure suggests it to be a bird at the upper size limit of Mealy, whilst the lower size limit has almost been reached by this female. The frosty appearance of the male contrasts with the darker brown and buff plumaged female, who’s darkly streaked flanks are also far more prominent. An obvious dark shaft is running down the centre of the longest central undertail-covert of this male, whilst to the sides, the dark tips to the shafts on the two longest outer coverts are just visible. On this female the undertail-coverts appear totally unmarked. Assessing the extent of streaking on the undertail-coverts is problematic, as the overlapping inner coverts usually conceal at least half of the longest central and an even greater proportion of the side coverts and as on the female pictured above, this streaking may be hidden entirely. As these dark shafts are broadest at the base, a true assessment of their width in the field is not possible. The width of the shaft on the longest undertail-covert can be a useful aid when separating Mealy from Arctic in the hand. On Mealy, it is usually 3-5mm wide, but exceptionally as narrow as 2mm, whilst on Arctic it is entirely absent or graduates to a maximum of 2mm. The number of streaked undertail-coverts varies considerably throughout the species range of Redpoll, even on Arctic, so this feature may be of little benefit when ascertaining a bird’s true identity. The visible markings on the undertail-coverts of all the Lesser Redpolls pictured below fall within the range encountered on Mealy, whilst the two Mealies and right hand Lesser have markings not dissimilar to Arctic.
|Plate 5 - Mealy Redpoll - Mealy Redpoll - Lesser Redpoll - Lesser Redpoll - Lesser Redpoll - Lesser Redpoll - Arctic Redpoll|
|Plate 6 - Tail feathers of Redpoll, first-winters (top) adults (bottom). All first-winters and left adult taken in early March, right adult in early February|
A guide to bird topography has been included to familiarize readers with all of the feather tracts and plumage markings mentioned in the text.
|Plate 7 - Topography chart|
Adult male Mealy & Lesser RedpollOf all the taxons of Redpoll, Mealy shows the greater diversity in plumage, so when Mealies arrive in Britain, variations in colour tones and markings can be considerable. Some adult males have acquired rosy/pink-tinted breast, cheeks and rump, lost darker tawny tones to the upperparts and developed pure white wing-bars as early as November, whilst others retain their darker, fresh plumage into February, like the Upton Warren bird depicted below (right). Presumably, this is the result of an individuals progressive state of feather wear, rather than plumage variations across its geographical breeding range, with the most north/easterly Scandinavian, northern Baltic and Russian breeding populations migrating far greater distances to reach our shores, so prone to wear and bleaching far sooner than a shorter-distance migrant from a south/western Scandinavian population. As the two adult males at Upton Warren didn’t develop an obvious bright crimson breast until late February, plus they still retained a slight buff hue to the wing-bars suggests these individuals originated from a south/western breeding population.
A fresh plumaged adult male Mealy can look surprisingly dark compared to a first-winter male (see pictured below) so on plumage, apart from the extensively white back and rump, may appear similar to Lesser. The rear crown and nape are tawny or buff/brown, evenly streaked dark brown and black and the sides of the neck streaked paler buff or buff/white. Dull black is quite restricted around the base of the bill, including the bib, the lores are dull black, there is pale greyish/buff diffusion to the supercilium, ear-coverts and cheeks, with the latter sometimes tinged rosy/pink. The mantle and scapulars are tawny/brown, broadly streaked dark brown/black, one or two pairs of whitish or pale buff lines run down the centre of the mantle, the extensively white back is moderately streaked black, tawny and buff and the pale rump is tinged buffish/pink and noticeably less streaked than the back. The flanks and sides of the breast are tinged buff, strongly marked with dark brown streaking, the wings are black/brown, with buff/off-white tips to the median and greater coverts (wing-bars) and similarly coloured fringes to the tertials and primaries. A rosy/pink hue may be just visible on the breast, but is often concealed, as on the Upton Warren bird, by the broad whitish tips to the body feathers, which eventually abrade, revealing this colouration.
|Plate 8 - First-winter male Mealy Redpoll, Upton Warren, Worcestershire, 2nd March 2008 (left) & adult male Mealy Redpoll, Upton Warren, Worcestershire, 10th February 2008. © Andy Warr & Brian Stretch|
The adult male Mealy below, photographed in early November 2005, this being a winter when good numbers were present in the country, has plumage far more advanced than the Upton individual featured above. It has already developed an obvious rosy/pink hue to the rump, cheeks and breast, the initial tawny colouration to the outer mantle has faded to brown/buff and the un-sheltered outer medium and inner greater coverts have bleached to white, though off-white and buff tips are still visible on a few of the outer greater coverts. The extent of both wear and bleaching on this individual so soon after the post-breeding moult, suggests this to be a bird from north/eastern Europe or beyond.
On the fresh plumaged adult male Lesser Redpoll (pictured below) the buffish/brown tramlines running down the centre of the mantle, tend to show little contrast with the outer mantle and the ground colour to the back is also similar to the latter, heavily streaked tawny, brown and buff, with little or no white showing through. The quite heavily streaked rump is darker than on Mealy, through the colouration of the head, outer mantle, scapulars and wing-bars can be very similar. As on Mealy, a varying amount of rosy/pink may be present on the cheeks, rump and breast, depending on the individual's state of wear.
|Plate 10 - Adult male Lesser Redpolls, Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, January 2008 (left), December 2005 (right) © John Robinson|
|Plates 11 - Adult breeding plumaged male Mealy Redpoll, Upton Warren, Worcestershire, mid & late March 2008. © Andy Warr|
|Plate 12 - Adult male Lesser Redpoll, Upton Warren, Worcestershire, 29th March 2008. © Andy Warr|
|Plate 13 - Adult breeding plumaged male Lesser Redpolls Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, 21st March 2008 (top) © Andy Warr, and Wyre Forest, 8th April 2006 (bottom) © John Robinson|
|Plate 14 - Adult male breeding Mealy Redpoll, Upton Warren, Worcestershire, March 2008. © Andy Warr|
First-winter male Mealy Redpoll & Coues’s Arctic RedpollTypically, Mealy Redpolls arrive in Worcestershire during December and January, by which time the plumage of a first-winter male can often be very frosty in appearance, with tawny/brown hues restricted to the nape, sides of mantle and scapulars, all diffusely streaked black/brown. The supercilium is white, the ear-coverts, neck and throat are tinged buff when fresh, but quickly wear to a light grey wash, the extent of black on the lores, plus above the bill increases with wear, whilst the black bib is extensive. The fringes to the tertials, uppertail-coverts, plus wing-bars are pure white and usually a few shorter juvenile outer greater coverts are retained, as on the individual pictured directly below. The central mantle, back and rump are snowy white, the latter two variably streaked black/brown and a pink flush may also be visible on the shorter uppertail-coverts, rump and cheeks, but is usually absent from the throat and breast. All three first-winter males present at Upton Warren, showed varying densities of pink on the shorter uppertail-coverts and rump, but this was absent from the cheeks and breast on all. A buff hue is often present on the sides of the breast and upper flanks, marked with variable amounts of diffused brown/black streaking, which usually extend well onto the lower flanks.
|Plate 16 - First-winter male Mealy Redpolls at Upton Warren, Worcestershire, March 2008. © Brian Stretch, Peter Walkden & Andy Warr|
|Plate 17 - First-winter male Mealy Redpolls (left) Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, January 2008. © John Robinson (middle & right) Wadborough, Worcestershire, January 2006. © Andy Warr|
|Plate 18 - First-winter male Mealy Redpolls Williamthorpe, Derbyshire, 5th November 2005. © Steve Mann|
|Plate 19 - First-winter male Mealy Redpoll, with Lesser Redpoll, Lineholt, Worcestershire, January 2nd 2009. © Andy Warr|
Some individuals can show very limited dark streaking on the flanks and rumps like the Upton Warren bird pictured below (left) and are very similar in appearance to Coues’s Arctic Redpoll (right). Birds like this require careful scrutiny before assigning to either species and shorter-billed, straighter culmen (top ridge of the bill) Mealies are more difficult to separate from Coues’s Arctic, though feather structure around the base of the bill on Arctic appears sufficiently different from a shorter billed Mealy, if close views are obtained. Note on the Upton bird that though a portion of the rump appears unmarked from a distance, darker diffused marks are clearly visible in this area at close range, but still well within the range of some first-winter/female Coues’s Arctic Redpolls.
|Plate 20 - First-winter male Mealy Redpoll, Upton Warren, Worcestershire, March 2008 & first-winter Coues’s Arctic Redpoll, Sweden, November 2004 © Fergus Henderson & Mikael Nord|
First-winter male Lesser RedpollFirst-winter male Lesser Redpoll is darker tawny/brown and more heavily dark streaked on the upperparts than first-winter male Mealy, plus the wing-bars are tawny/buff to buff/off-white and the fringes to the wing-coverts, tertials, primaries and secondaries tawny/buff. With feather wear, the ground colour of the lower back and rump, plus the central mantle may whiten, as depicted on the two individuals below, but generally retain tawny/buff hues to the fringes of the uppertail-coverts and lower rump. Crimson/rosy-pink may be present on the cheeks, throat and breast by late winter/early spring, though usually less extensive than on adult male, whilst in fresh plumage, this colouration is absent entirely, so these individuals are indistinguishable from female birds.
|Plate 23 - First-winter male Lesser Redpolls, Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, 31st March 2006 (left), 19th March 2008 (right) © John Robinson|
First-winter female, fresh plumaged first-winter male and adult female Mealy and Lesser RedpollAs mentioned earlier, adult female, first-winter female and fresh plumaged first-winter male Mealy Redpolls can sometimes be difficult to separate from Lesser Redpoll with certainty in the field, as differences in size, structure and plumage can be subtle, the latter especially when Lessers become paler with wear. It is important to note that a moderately worn Lesser can display a white ground colour to the rump, back and central mantle and some first-winters may acquire almost complete off-white wing-bars. Despite this, it may be possible, if excellent views are obtained, to identify most female Mealies, by a combination of plumage features, which are highlighted in the photographs below.
|Plate 25 - First-winter female Lesser Redpoll (top) adult female Mealy Redpoll (bottom) Upton Warren, Worcestershire, March 2008|
|Plate 26 - First-winter female Lesser Redpoll (top & bottom left) & adult female Mealy Redpoll (top & bottom right) Upton Warren, Worcestershire March 2008. © Andy Warr|
|Plate 27 – Female Lesser Redpoll (left) & adult female Mealy Redpoll (right) Upton Warren, Worcestershire, March 2008. © Andy Warr|
|Plate 28 - First-winter (probably female) Mealy Redpolls, Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, January 2008. © John Robinson|
|Plate 29 - First-winter Mealy Redpolls, Helgoland, Germany, October 13th 2010. © Detlef Gruber|
|Plate 30 - First-winter female Mealy Redpoll (top) female Lesser Redpoll (bottom) Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, March 2008. © Andy Warr|
|Plate 31 - First-winter (probable female) Mealy Redpoll (left) & male Lesser Redpoll (right) Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, January 2008. © John Robinson|
|Plate 32 - First-winter (probable female) Mealy Redpoll, Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, January 2008. © John Robinson|
Occasionally a Lesser Redpoll will appear particularly pale when viewed from front-on, where brown and buff hues are reduced on the head and underparts. Such a bird is depicted below and these paler individuals can certainly stand out amongst a flock of Lesser Redpolls and may be confused with Mealy, though the plain ear-coverts, a narrow, pale eye-ring contrasts with the ear-coverts, plus the colouration of the upperparts and wing-bars generally match that of classic Lesser Redpoll.
|Plate 33 - Lesser Redpoll, Lineholt, 2nd January 2009 © Andy Warr|
|Plate 34 - Redpoll sp, Wyre Forest, Worcestershire, 12th February 2008. © John Robinson|
Heavily worn RedpollsThough Lesser is the only species of Redpoll likely to be encountered in Worcestershire during the late breeding season, it is interesting to note, that on heavily worn birds of all three species, the pale fringed feathering to the upperparts have largely worn off, so become predominantly streaked blackish/brown, with narrow grey/white flecking throughout, the latter most obvious on the rump. The underparts on both Lesser and Mealy become quite dusky, though pure white is sustained by Arctic, plus the pale fringes to the greater and median coverts have largely abraded, so wing-bars appear very narrow or may be absent entirely.
|Plate 35 - Arctic Redpoll (left) Mealy Redpoll (right) both moulting adult males, Pasvik, Norway, August 2015. © Andy Warr|
Variations in the cap colourFirst-winters and female Lesser, Mealy and Arctic Redpolls generally show a crimson cap, with varying degrees of brightness, though it is not uncommon for some to show orange, copper, yellow, even brownish caps, or any combination of the aforementioned. These colour variations are exceptionally present on adult male Lesser and Mealy, though is reported as common in captive bred birds, but more regularly encountered in adult male Arctic.
|Plate 36 - Redpolls, Wyre Forest, Worcestershire. © John Robinson|
Summery of the salient features of Mealy Redpoll
Adult male (fresh)
· Large and bulky, compared to Lesser Redpoll.
· Whitish/buff central mantle stripes and tawny/brown outer mantle and scapulars, broadly streaked dark brown/black.
· Extensive white back, moderately streaked black, tawny and buff.
· Whitish rump, tinged buff/rose, lightly streaked tawny/buff.
· Buff/off-white wing-bars.
· May show traces of rosy/pink on breast and lower cheeks.
· Possibly confusable with Lesser Redpoll.
Adult male (moderately worn into breeding plumage)
· Large and bulky, compared to Lesser Redpoll.
· Obvious white central mantle stripes and paler outer mantle.
· Extensive white back, moderately streaked black, tawny and buff.
· Bright crimson rump, lightly streaked brown/buff.
· Buff/off-white wing-bars may still be present, but bleached to white on many individuals.
· Bright crimson on the cheeks and breast, not obviously extending down the flanks, as on Lesser.
· Frosted on the face, sides of the neck and nape.
· Minimal dark streaking on the sides of the breast and flanks.
· Unlikely to be confused with either Lesser nor Arctic Redpoll.
First-winter male (worn)
· Large and bulky, compared to Lesser Redpoll.
· Overall very pale appearance.
· Pure white central mantle stripes, back, rump (may be tinged pink), supercilium and wing-bars, though a few juvenile buff tipped outer greater coverts may have been retained.
· Minimal dark streaking on the back and rump.
· Extensive black bib.
· Grey wash to the to the face, neck and throat
· Confusable with Coues’s Arctic Redpoll.
Adult female and first-winter female (moderately worn, late winter/early spring)
· Some slightly, others notably larger than Lesser and structural differences can often be negligible.
· White wing-bars throughout on adult, a few buff tipped outer greater coverts may have been retained on first-winter birds.
· Off-white/buff fringes to the uppertail-coverts and lower rump, showing only slight colour contrast with whitish upper rump and back, though far paler than mantle sides and scapulars.
· Whitish supercilium, sides to the neck, throat and breast, only slightly tined buff, extensive white patch below the eyes, indistinct eye-ring, streaked ear-coverts and extensive black bib.
· Some individuals may be difficult to separate from Lesser Redpoll in the field.
Adult female and first-winter female/male (fresh, after post-breeding moult)
· Much as moderately worn female, but sometimes darker streaking on ear-coverts and less distinct dark chin patch on some fresh first-winters.
· Pale supercilium, submoustachial-stripe and throat uniformly tinged buff.
· White or off-white wing-bars throughout, or a few buff tipped outer greater coverts retained on first-winters.
· Some individuals may be difficult to separate from Lesser Redpoll in the field.
|Plate 37 - First-winter male Mealy Redpoll, Upton Warren, Worcestershire, 6th February 2008. © Des Jennings|
Wing length & weight of Mealy & Lesser Redpolls trapped at Upton Warren in 2008Mealy Redpoll Age & Sex, Wing & Weight
First-winter male 75mm 14.4g
Adult female 72mm 12.0g
Adult female 71mm 13.0g
First-winter female 74mm 12.5g
First-winter female 74mm 12.2g
The minimum wing length of Mealy Redpoll is 70mm for male and 68mm for female.
Lesser Redpoll Age & Sex, Wing & Weight
Adult Male 72mm 12.1g
Adult Male 70mm 12.2g
Adult Male 73mm 12.5g
Adult Male 72mm 12.2g
Adult female 68mm 10.9g
Adult female 67mm 10.9g
Adult female 73mm 11.2g
First-winter female 66mm 9.9g
First-winter female 66mm 10.2g
First-winter female 69mm 10.4g
First-winter female 69mm -
First-winter female 70mm 11.2g
First-winter unsexed 70mm 11.6g
First-winter unsexed 69mm 11.5g
First-winter unsexed 69mm 11.0g
First-winter unsexed 71mm 12.0g
First-winter unsexed 72mm 10.9g
First-winter unsexed 71mm 7.9g
The maximum wing length of Lesser Redpoll is 74mm for male and 73mm for female.
Other races & variants of Common Redpoll
Mealy Redpoll variant ‘holboellii’
A long-billed form of Mealy, with crimson breast on average slightly deeper in tone, but overall plumage features as on nominate flammea. Breeds in eastern Siberia (common), western Siberia and north/eastern Eurasia (far less common) occurs side-by-side with northern range of nominate flammea.
Wing length: Male 73mm – 83mm, female 70mm – 79mm.
|Plate 38 – Mealy Redpoll ‘holboelli’ Pasvik, Norway, August 2015. © Andy Warr|
The collective term for Greenland and Icelandic Redpoll (see below).
Greenland Redpoll (rostrata)
Generally the largest and darkest race of Common Redpoll, with a deeper and wider base to the bill than Mealy, being notably more convex on the culmen and gonys. Plumage colouration and extent of dark streaking on the upper and under-parts very similar to Lesser Redpoll, but mantle and scapulars a paler buff/brown, so less tawny than seen on Lesser. The rump is buff to off-white, with broad black streaking throughout, buff is prominent on the breast and flanks, whilst fringes to the tail feathers, tertials and tips to the greater and median coverts much the same as on Mealy, buff when fresh, white when worn. Black very extensive around the base of the bill and on the throat, plus on average a paler and less extensive crimson breast than seen on Mealy. Wing length: Male 74mm – 86mm, female 74mm – 85mm.
Icelandic Redpoll (islandica)
Very similar to Greenland Redpoll in plumage and size, though generally slightly smaller, plus bill on average slightly shorter and less convex and upperparts, particularly the rump, tends to be paler. Paler birds co-exist alongside darker Icelandic Redpolls and are far more variable in size, with plumage colouration and bill size on average more similar to Coues’s Arctic Redpoll. The true status of these pale birds is still the cause of much debate, though the general consensus is that these are probably an uncommon variant of Icelandic Redpoll.
Wing length: Male 75mm – 84mm, female 72mm – 81mm.
|Plate 39 - First-winter female, North-western Redpoll, presumed islandica (right bird of top & middle insert & bottom insert) with Lesser Redpoll (left bird of top & middle insert) 26th March 2011, The Knapp, Worcestershire. © Fergus Henderson|
Status of Mealy Redpoll in WorcestershireDue to the complexities of Redpoll identification, it is difficult to assess the true status of Mealy Redpoll in the county, though I suspect it is an uncommon, though regular winter visitor and probably occurs almost annually. From and including the massive influx of Mealy Redpoll in the winter of 1995/96, when as many as 337 were recorded in the county, a total of 439 have occurred to the winter period 2007/08. The chart below lists the winter periods, localities and totals recorded over this period. Incredibly, between 1900-1975, just two records of single birds have been documented, in 1943 and 1944 and prior to 1995, the counties total stood at a measly 16 individuals. These figures would suggest that once Mealy Redpoll was a rare winter visitor to Worcestershire, though in reality, one would expect that it had simply been overlooked.
Lesser Redpoll was reported as no more than a winter visitor to the county during the first half of the twentieth century, but by the mid 60s, small numbers were observed throughout the summer months and breeding was confirmed from a few localities with suitable nesting habitat, predominately birch woodland, thorn scrub and young conifer plantations. Totals peaked during the late 70s and early 80s, when it was considered to be a widespread, though not a common breeding species, being recorded from over 30 localities in the county. A reasonably healthy population was sustained until the mid 80s, and then numbers dwindled hereafter and reverted to the status of a winter visitor after 1990, with birds being absent from their traditional breeding grounds after May. The colonization of Lesser Redpoll in Worcestershire during the 60s correlated with the national trend and is thought to have resulted from the maturing of birch scrub that regenerated following wartime felling (Gibbons et al. 1993). The reason for its decline in the county is less understood, but again correlated with the national trend.
Recording of Mealy & Arctic Redpoll in Worcestershire
Fergus Henderson, Des Jennings, Detlef Gruber, Steve Mann, Mikael Nord, John Robinson, Brian Stretch, Peter Walkden, and Ray Wilson kindly provided the additional photographs featured in this article. Thanks to Fergus Henderson and Shaun Micklewright from the Wychavon Ringing Group for providing data on Mealy and Lesser Redpolls, trapped at Upton Warren in 2008 and to Des Jennings for suggesting alterations to the text.
The Birds of the Western Palearctic, volume VIII, S Cramp, C M Perrins. Oxford University Press.
Identification Guide to European Passerines, fourth edition, L Svensson.
Moult in Birds, Ginn & Melville, BTO Guide 19.
Finches and Sparrow, Clement, Harris & Davis. Helm publication.
The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, 1988-1991. D W Gibbons, J B Reid & R Chapman. Poyser, London.
The new Birds of the West Midland, G & J Harrison. West Midland Bird Club publication.
West Midland Bird Club, Annual Reports 1932-1996.
A Revised List of Worcestershire Birds, issued June 1961, A J Harthan.
Article written and compiled by Andy Warr.