There’s an invasion in progress. It’s not a military campaign by a hostile force, nor is it politically, financially or selfishly motivated. In fact, it’s motivated by survival instinct, and the invaders are the sweetest little finches you might see.
Common redpolls are moving into Utah for the winter, likely in big numbers.
The common redpoll is just a five and a half-incher, mostly brown and white streaked above and white below. Both males and females have yellow cone-shaped beaks adapted for cracking seeds, and they wear red raspberry berets of feathers on their forward crowns. The male also sports a deep pink wash over his upper breast and streaked sides.
Redpolls are tough little birds. They breed in the northern provinces of Canada and in the northern half of Alaska — think the Arctic — and normally winter in southern Canada and the northern U.S. This year, however, widespread failure of spruce and birch seeds and other food crops have pushed the population south to search for food. In ornithological terms, it’s called an irruption.
I can take joy in the redpolls’ presence because I had nothing to do with the reason they’re here, and besides, I had never seen one before last week.
Friend Jack Rensel and I visited a feeder at Powder Ridge Village condominiums near Powder Mountain Ski Area where birders had reported two common redpolls on Thanksgiving Day. We saw them immediately: Yippee! They had joined the throng of chattering, flighty and bigger gray-crowned rosy-finches, another hardy finch of the Arctic.
We settled down to watch the two celebrities for two hours. Hey, it’s not every day you can see a common redpoll in Utah.
The redpolls appeared to be an adult male and a young female. They fed on spilled seed on the snow with the rosy-finches, but also in the feeder’s seed tray. Both birds settled into the tray and selected the small yellow millet seeds from the seed mix, crunching down with conical bills until the husks dropped away from both sides of their beaks.
When the flightier rosy-finches flushed to tree tops or made wide sorties before returning to the feeder’s aspen grove, the redpolls often flushed only a few feet to adjacent saplings. They stuck together, obviously knowing their own kind, and appeared to perch companionably.
Neither redpolls nor rosy-finches are wary of humans despite the frequent flushing, and we were able to stand near the feeder as they swarmed over the ground. One of the redpolls hopped to a dozen or so feet of us. It was truly a highlight.
Birders have reported common redpolls at feeders from Cache to Utah Counties, and in the more natural feeding circumstances of weedy fields and edges mixed with other species like American goldfinches.
Another place to watch for them is in neighborhoods with mature landscaping, particularly in birch trees with catkins. The last significant redpoll irruption to Utah occurred in the winter of 2001-2002 when a cooperative flock frequented the birch trees in the hamlet of Mantua for several weeks, allowing many to enjoy them.
Perhaps the best way to see a common redpoll is when they’re least expected. I’ve been using the protracted fabulous fall weather to hike in North Fork Park, thinking every hike is going to be the last one without donning snowshoes. Last Sunday evening, I was leaving the park at dusk. A bull moose sighting convinced me to turn around while I could still see or I was going to have to pass him again after dark and his night vision was a lot better than mine.
It was the time of day that a poet would call the gloaming. The sun was long down below Ben Lomond, and James Peak to the east was lit with rosy alpenglow. A small bird flushed from the sagebrush next to the paved road, which seemed funny because the small birds tend to be in bed by dusk.
Was I surprised to catch the little guy in my binocular view and see the rosy-red cap, yellow bill, and rosy wash across the breast.
The redpoll flushed a bit farther each time until it disappeared from my view completely, just about the same time the rosy glow disappeared from James Peak and left my part of the earth in darkness. What total serendipity.
Kristin Purdy can be reached at email@example.com.