Wanderers Return

One of the highlights of the garden bird feeding year for me is the passage of some of our upland finch species through the garden in Spring. They rarely linger for any length of time, keen to get back to establish breeding territories and get on with producing the next generation. There are three of these roving species that I look out for, Bramblings on route back to Scandinavian pine forests and Redpolls and Siskins that could end up in upland valleys here in Britain or further afield.

As all of these finches are ‘on the move’ and may only appear for a few minutes at my feeders, making a quick dip into the sunflower hearts or spending a few minutes high in the silver birch. The chances of catching a glimpse of them are slim. I always feel lucky when one of the many quick glances out of the window while working reveals their presence.

Lesser Redpoll

Siskins are probably the easiest of the three to identify, small and slim with a bright yellow rump and black streaked white flanks. They’re also quickest onto the feeders where they deftly pick out seeds. I tend not to feed Niger these days but they seem to favour sunflower hearts and the smaller seeds in the Ultiva® No Grow No Mess Mix.

The bright burnt orange of the Brambling stands out among it’s Chaffinch cousins. I rarely get more than one or two individuals and they tend to forage on the ground below the feeders along with the Chaffinches. Look out for the splendid black hood of the males with some coming into breeding plumage.

Redpolls, are arguably one of the birds many garden birdwatchers find hardest to identify judging by the number of ‘What’s this?’ posts on social media. I’ve been lucky enough to get both Lesser Redpoll and Common Redpoll in the garden over the years. I prefer to refer to the larger/whiter Common Redpoll as ‘Mealy’ Redpolls as they are not ‘common’ here in Britain. Where as Lesser Redpoll is by far the most numerous and likely to be encountered Redpoll species. Migrant Mealy Redpolls from Scandinavia can and do get mixed in with Lesser Redpoll flocks, but with time and good views can be picked out.

Part of the challenge with redpolls generally is that there is a huge amount of individual plumage variation as well as differences between males, females, juveniles, breeding and winter plumages. Most field guides can’t depict or describe all of these subtle variations. They are however  the only one of the ‘brown finches’ (redpolls, Linnet and Twite) likely to turn up on most garden feeders.


Our Garden Birder’s Diary is written by Northumberland-based birder Alan Tilmouth who has been birdwatching for over 30 years and writing about birds in various guises for the last decade. A keen garden birdwatcher, he also manages to unearth the odd rare bird on his travels. You can find Alan on Twitter and his Facebook blog.