Arctic Redpoll – 1996

Carduelis hornemanniLlinos Bengoch yr Arctigvagrant

British Birds Rarities Committee:

1996: Pembrokeshire Goodwick, 6 February to 17 March (K.J.S.Devonald, J.W.Donovan et al.)


A cold north wind and a dusting of snow on the Preseli mountains said stay by the fireside.  The wireless said most of Britain was in an arctic grip, “Joe” my four-legged friend said “come on mate, I need a walk”.

Wellied, woolied, hat and coated we set off for the quarry.  It is a sheltered, secret little corner and given the bleakness of the weather, I felt something might be tucked in there.

My first reward was a woodcock which burst out of the leaf litter as we entered the quarry.  A little further and I heard and saw about half a dozen siskins feeding on the outermost seed clusters of a birch tree, accompanied by a similar number of redpolls.  As I watched them, I noticed amongst the redpolls was an extremely pale individual.

It was an almost ghost-like presence among its warmly-toned companions.  Apart from its crimson top-knot and yellow beak, the impression was of an under-exposed black and white negative, in the photographic sense.  I began trying to fix the details in my memory and as I did, it occurred to me I could be looking at an Arctic Redpoll, a snowball.

Back home I made a sketch then went through my books, and magazines.  It looked plausible.  I rang Graham Rees with the news later that evening and it seemed that if we could “nail” it, it would be a first for Pembs.

It proved to be a frustrating few days that followed.  The bird was easily spooked and seemed averse to displaying its rump.  The landowner for the site had given me permission for access but made it clear he would not tolerate strangers on his land.  Thankfully he knew Jack Donovan, and in the end it was he and Stuart Devonald that confirmed the bird a couple of days later.

Cliff Benson

Pembrokeshire Bird Report 1996

Although the taxonomy of all the redpolls remains uncertain, two subspecies of Arctic Redpoll are recognised: Coues’s Arctic Redpoll A.h exilipes, which breeds in northern Eurasia, Alaska and northwest Canada, and Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll A.h. hornemanni, which breeds in northeast Canada and Greenland (IOC). No Welsh records have been identified to subspecies, but it is presumed that they were A.h. exilipes, which nests in northern Europe and some of its range overlaps with ‘Mealy’ Common Redpoll (A.f. flammea).

There were dramatically influxes into Britain in 1990/91 and 1995/96, when 76 and 459 were recorded respectively. However, this remains a very rare winter visitor to Wales with only six individuals.

Birds in Wales, in prep