The Redpoll Challenge, to see all four New World taxa of redpolls (Greater Acanthis flammea rostrata, Common A. f. flammea, Hornemann’s A. hornemanni hornemanni, and Hoary A. h. exilipes) in a single flock was raised by Ron Pittaway in 2007. Since then, the challenge has been met a couple of times, but until this winter it had never occurred in the United States. With the large irruption of redpolls this winter birders were on the lookout for the rarer of the four, Greater and Hornemann’s. Matt Young in Cortland, NY documented all four redpoll subspecies, plus a possible Iceland Redpoll!
In Pennsylvania, we are farther south and the odds of seeing all four taxa are greatly diminished. I am not aware of any Hornemann’s Redpolls ever in Pennsylvania, and there is one previous photo that I could find of a bird that looked like a Greater Redpoll (Dauphin County, 2008). My advisor has reported a growing number of redpolls coming to her feeder, starting with ~20-40 a couple weeks ago and growing to 100+ this week. I was excited about the chance to look through this flock because I still need Hoary Redpoll for my life list, and I haven’t ever had a chance to really sit down and study redpolls.
The flock seems to arrive around 7:15, appearing from every direction with the redpolls trilling calls growing in volume. At some point they finally gain the courage to come down to the feeders and then its a free for all, redpolls milling all around the feeders, on the ground and in all the trees nearby. On my first morning looking through the flock I managed to get two quick and unsatisfactory looks at a pale redpoll. On Friday though, I was able to spend some more time and got a great short look at a female exilipes Hoary Redpoll. I was quickly distracted by a much darker redpoll on one of the feeders and lost track of the Hoary. This darker redpoll was also larger than the other redpolls on the feeder and much more aggressive. I had been taking a bunch of video so I took a couple screengrabs and sent them around to other people with experience with Greater Redpolls. The consensus was that it fit the darker subspecies of Common Redpoll, making it the second documented record of Greater Redpoll that I am aware of! The flock of flammea Common Redpolls, the single rostrata Greater Redpoll, and the exilipes Hoary Redpoll combined for the most diverse flock of redpolls I have heard of in Pennsylvania.
So, I didn’t succeed with the Redpoll Challenge; Pennsylvania will have to wait until the next big irruption.