© Peter Warne/BTO
Garden birdwatchers are seeing red this spring as a ‘new’ garden finch makes a welcome appearance.
Some of our most eye-catching garden birds are members of the finch family.
Whether it is the pastel shades of the chaffinch or the more striking tones of the goldfinch, this family invariably brings colour and lively activity into our gardens.
Excitingly, over recent years many householders have started to record a ‘new’ finch, and this spring its abundance has reached record levels.
It’s high time that we met the lesser redpoll.
Big increase in gardens
Thanks to householders who take part in the year-round BTO Garden BirdWatch survey, we know that there has been a 15-fold increase in the use of gardens by lesser redpolls during early spring over the past five years.
Percentage of gardens visited by lesser redpolls (data from BTO Garden BirdWatch; photo by Mike Gough).
Not only is this upturn fascinating and entertaining for us as garden birdwatchers – it also really matters.
UK breeding populations of lesser redpoll dropped sharply from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, and they are currently a ‘red listed’ species of high conservation concern.
It is hoped, therefore, that garden feeders might help to support their recovery.
What to feed a lesser redpoll
Lesser redpolls are mainly seedeaters, and so it’s unsurprising that their use of garden feeders peaks during late winter and early spring, when natural seed stocks are depleted.
They, like many other finches, are now benefiting from the many and varied types of seeds that have been developed by bird food manufacturers over recent decades.
In particular, lesser redpolls, which have really dinky beaks – much smaller than those of other common garden finches – have a particular liking for nyger seed.
Nyger is fine enough for lesser redpolls to handle and provides these delicate birds with an easy, energy-rich snack.
How to spot a lesser redpoll
Lesser redpolls are rather inconspicuous in appearance and so, at a glance, you might not notice them turn up in your garden.
They often travel with goldfinches and siskins at this time of year, which further dilutes their initial impact.
However, if you look closer, you might discover this attractive garden visitor.
Lesser redpolls are about the size of blue tits and have warm, brown coloured plumage on their backs that is streaked with black.
Their wing bars are a buff colour, belly is white and they have a black ‘goatee beard’.
Their most striking feature, however, is the red on their foreheads (from which the common name ‘red-poll’ is derived).
As spring approaches, males also gain a wonderful peachy-red colour on the throat and neck.
However, it is not all plain-sailing when identifying redpolls.
There are two other types of redpolls – common redpolls and Arctic redpolls – that sometimes turn up in gardens, and these can confuse even the most experienced birdwatcher.
To help you get your eye in, the BTO has produced a free factsheet about lesser redpolls, allowing you to discover more about their migratory habits and breeding ecology (see link below).
Enjoying a good natter
Like many other finches, lesser redpolls really enjoy each other’s company.
Indeed, even during the breeding season when many birds are busy chasing others of their kind away, they are not terribly territorial.
When travelling with other finches, lesser redpolls contribute to a simmering, haze of noise that is a treat for birdwatchers at this time of year.
Amidst the chorus, listen out for the lesser redpoll’s low-pitched rolling djhu-djhu-djhu calls.
So, keep watching and listening.
The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.