Determining the population status of birds in the Chignik area can be challenging. Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea) are a case in point. Overall, there are estimated to be about 13,000,000 of these crimson-splashed passerines in Alaska – a number which surely fluctuates considerably from year to year. At home in a range of habitats including Arctic tundra, scrub alder and boreal conifer forests, their call, an electric zapping buzz, is frequently heard from high in the sky even when the birds themselves can’t be located.
*Click to listen to redpolls calling.
But how common are redpolls on the Alaska Peninsula? They aren’t included among the over 200 species of birds listed on the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List. Conversely, a checklist for the peninsula’s Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve denotes them as “common.” And finally, according to a Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird reporting list, it is “rare” to encounter more than a couple of redpolls on a given outing in this area.
In recent months, redpolls have been a part of most daily walks, and while often I get only a fleeting glimpse of a few birds, there have been times when as many as 80 redpolls have swept through the village, lingering to feast on the seeds of White Spruce cones.
It is those trees that seem to hold the key, as they provide both an abundant source of food as well as shelter from winter winds and snow.
Although redpolls occasionally descend to lower latitudes, they are typically birds of the far north, common in suitable habitat the world over. In fact, we encountered redpolls in Mongolia along Ulaanbaatar’s Tuul River. Unsurprisingly, the species has evolved to survive in conditions that are often harsh.
One of their most interesting adaptations is an expanded esophagus which they can rapidly cram full of alder, birch or conifer seeds. Once their esophagus is filled, they’re able to retreat to the safety and and relative warmth of dense conifer boughs to digest their meal in leisure. Thus, redpolls can sometimes be heard softly vocalizing from deep inside the spruce trees even when they can’t be seen.
Look for their nests of four or five light green eggs with purplish to reddish spots in thick brush fairly close to the ground. Redpoll chicks are ready to leave the nest in about 10 to 12 days.