A Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll has been residing for the last week or so on the shingle beach and surrounds on the southern side of the small town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk. This, the larger of the two subspecies of Arctic Redpoll is also called Greenland Redpoll and in America it goes by the name Hoary Redpoll but to me Hornemann's sounds much more exotic. They are normally found in Canada and Greenland and rarely found in the UK, although this year one had been seen earlier in Norfolk but only stayed for a day. If they are found in the UK it is usually in Shetland or some other distant and hard to reach location. They are also larger than any other species of redpoll, incredibly attractive and charismatic, sometimes called 'snowballs' due to the large amount of white in their plumage. In the field they do indeed appear very pale. The other subspecies of Arctic Redpoll is called Coue's Arctic Redpoll and is much smaller but again very charismatic and with a similarly large amount of white in the plumage. They are seen slightly more often in the UK but are still rare and just as sought after by birders. I recall seeing one plus a Mealy Redpoll and a Lesser Redpoll, all in the same Alder tree, at Titchwell RSPB some years ago, which gave a really good opportunity to study the differences in the three species, Arctic, Mealy and Lesser, the latter being our native breeding species of redpoll.
I had arranged with Badger to collect him from Kidlington at 9am on Sunday to drive to Aldeburgh to see the Hornemann's Arctic Redpoll. The late start on Sunday was planned due to Badger having an appointment with large amounts of liquid refreshment on Saturday night. I was therefore hardly surprised to get a text from him early on Saturday evening advising that Christmas shopping had to take precedence on Sunday along with an anticipated hangover and he would not be coming. Long drives can be lonely and sometimes I prefer it that way but this time I thought someone to chat to and share the experience would be the better option so I called Keith Clack. Clackers is always good company with no shortage of stories and reminiscences of past birding glories. So it was that I collected him from his home in Witney at 7am and we set off into the breaking dawn for the two hundred mile trip to the Suffolk coast. We exchanged stories about twitches past, present and yet to come. How appropriate for this time of year as I recalled 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens although Dicken's tale involved ghosts rather than birds. We also both agreed that for us, on twitches like this, it was as much about the adventure and thrill of disappearing to far flung places in the middle of the night at a moments notice, as that of actually seeing the bird. Kindred spirits indeed.
We made really good time on comparatively empty roads and were in Aldeburgh by 9.30am. Aldeburgh is a pretty seaside town and has long ago cast off it's simple fishing origins to become a trendy place for media types and others who make lots of money in London. The last time I was here was to see an Ivory Gull at the end of 1999 which departed on the night of New Year's Eve 2000, sent on it's way by a fusillade of fireworks heralding the Millenium celebrations.
However, going back even further into the mists of time Aldeburgh will always live in my memory as where I had the honour to sing, as a fourteen year old choirboy, in the world famous Aldeburgh Festival, in those days still held in the Church, and to meet the world renowned composer who founded the festival, Benjamin Britten. I also got to see and hear Bitterns for the first time as we were accommodated in a very grand house on Oulton Broad!
After asking directions from a very nice, cheery lady on the north side of Aldeburgh we were directed to the location of the redpoll which turned out to be on the south side of the town near the Martello Tower, a local landmark. We drove through the pretty town centre and out towards the boatyards by the river mouth. The birders on the raised bank, silhouetted on the skyline, then gave the game away. "Here we are Clackers. Let's go". We drove across an area of waste ground weaving our way round numerous water filled potholes. The Audi was safely parked in a long line of birders cars and we got ourselves together. We left the scopes in the car as the redpoll could be approached to within a few feet. I just took bins and camera as did Clackers. We walked up the ramp onto the raised bank which was presumably a sea defence and commenced a short walk to join the group of birders looking intently down the landward side of the bank into the boatyard.
When we got there we found the redpoll was feeding, at a little distance, on the ground in the boatyard with a Pied Wagtail for company. It's paleness was very apparent against the wet ground and even as we watched, it flew much closer to us and settled on a fence post just at the bottom of the bank, showing itself in all it's glory.Whilst taking numerous images with my trusty Canon lens I noted how comparatively large it was and it's forked tail struck me as quite long. The head was a combination of grey and white with a gentle suffusion of buff and a splash of scarlet on the forecrown, set off by a small, buttercup yellow bill with black surrounds. Quite beautiful. The bill was tiny almost disappearing into the feathers and appearing disproportionately small in comparison to the head. The rest of the upperparts were a combination of dark grey and white streaks with two prominent pale wing bars. The underparts were snow white with just a few dark streaks on the flanks whilst the rump was pure, unsullied white and when the white feathers were fluffed up it did indeed appear like a miniature snowball.
The arrival of this vision of beauty on the fence post prompted a staccato volley of continuous clicks as camera shutters went into fast mode and recorded the moment. I was in there with the best of them and obligingly the redpoll just sat for some considerable time on the fence post as if to ensure everyone managed to get it's picture. Eventually it dropped to the ground in front of the fence just a few feet from it's assembled and may I say impeccably behaved audience.
It set about demolishing the brown stems of some withered Yellow Horned Poppy, extracting the small black seeds from within the opened stems. It's bill may appear to be small but it was quite a tool. It was surprisingly robust in splitting open the stems, twisting and tugging with dexterity, pulling off the outer casing of the stem, tossing bits aside and creating an effect on the stem similar to that of a can being opened. We watched and we watched, just enjoying these precious moments.
Clackers did a bit of hard core twitcher spotting, informing me in hushed tones "That's Richard Bonsor over there with the furry boots. See that guy with the long hair? I don't know his name but he is a seriously keen twitcher". Refreshingly, there also appeared to be some normal human beings amongst us, even one young lad sketching the bird on an artist's notepad. A very rare sight these days.
The redpoll would take short flights along the bank every so often to be followed by its admirers and re-located feeding on the poppy seeds. It showed virtually no alarm at the presence of so many birders and photographers looking down from almost point blank range. Indeed it's 'tameness' has been a notable feature of it's stay, as it was with the one in Norfolk. I do hope it's confiding nature and lack of fear will not be it's undoing. There has already been one close encounter with a Sparrowhawk but the continued presence of birders may be enough to deter that threat for the time being at least.
So time passed and after an hour we decided to head off. It was just approaching 11am. "Just one last look Clackers?" I pleaded. 'OK by me, not a problem' he replied. We took one last lingering look with the redpoll still hard at it in the middle of a tangle of Yellow Horned Poppy stems. We walked slowly back to the car noting a passing Red Throated Diver high over the cold, grey sea. "Fancy some breakfast?" 'Good idea. There must be somewhere in Aldeburgh'. There was. Munchies - where without fear of exaggeration I can say that the breakfast was one of the best I have had. No dissent from Clackers either. Happy Christmas everyone.