We’ve seen most of our usual winter garden birds through the season. At the time of writing this, the goldcrests I mentioned last month are still with us, having obligingly showed up as our count for the Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January. The one bird expected but not glimpsed on our patch over the winter is the tree creeper, but we continue to hope.
Siskins, lovely little green and yellow finches, arrived as usual around the middle of January, with numbers gradually building up. Usually it’s after about three or four weeks of seeing siskins that we start to notice a few streaked brown birds of similar size joining them. A careful look through the binoculars reveals that the bird has just a little smudge of red on the forehead, and we know the redpolls have come.
To be precise, the finches we see are lesser redpolls. There is a slightly larger bird, the common or mealy redpoll, which visits this country from the continent in winter, and some scientists (and one of my field guides) describe them as the same species. But ours are the smaller, darker resident birds. In summer the male redpoll is a handsome bird, with a pink breast and a black chin to go with the red forehead, a pink rump also; but in winter plumage there is less pink to be seen. The female lacks the male’s pink breast and rump. The remainder of the plumage is streaked brown and buff, with two quite prominent buff wing-bars. Like other small finches, the tail is forked, and the overall impression is of a neat and well-proportioned little bird. Redpolls are, like siskins, acrobatic, often hanging upside down from twigs and branches in order to feed, with conifers, alder and silver birch being favourites.
Redpolls are found in the UK all year round, and breed across much of the country where there is suitable habitat. They are woodland birds by and large, feeding on seeds, and found also in grown-up hedgerows and large gardens. Often, several pairs will nest quite close to each other, building a somewhat untidy cupped nest in small trees like silver birch or in bushes, gorse being a favourite. The nest will be lined with hair and thistledown, and incubation of the four or five eggs is done by the female.
Both parents share in the task of feeding the nestlings, which fledge after about two weeks in the nest. The parents will continue to feed them for a while after fledging. Young redpolls are completely brown, lacking even the red forehead of the female adult.
I am always pleased to see them in our garden, but they don’t stay long. One or two siskins nest near enough for us to see young birds in the garden through summer, but here we only ever see redpolls for a few weeks towards the end of winter. But you can see them through the year at RSPB Lake Vyrnwy or Ynys Hir, or at the MWT’s osprey project reserve near Machynlleth.