The One That Got Away

PHOTO: Common Redpoll ©Carol Freeman
The common redpoll is a cute finch that visits the Garden in winter. ©Carol Freeman

For several months now I’ve heard about a hoary redpoll that has been visiting the Garden. This is an uncommon, very pale, “frosty” version of the common redpoll that often visits the Chicago area in winter. Some say it’s a color variation, and some say it’s a separate species altogether. Either way, I want to see it for myself. This would be a “lifer” bird for me, one I have never seen in my life.

All I had to do was find and photograph the bird. Easy, right? I had done this before with other birds, and I knew that this one likes to hang out near the Regenstein Center and on Evening Island. It also likes to eat the seeds of birch trees, and I know that this is a very pale bird compared to the common redpoll. Piece of cake. Well, that was two months ago…

Many other birders have seen this bird, and some of their comments to me have been…

“Oh, you just missed it. It was feeding here and it just flew off a few minutes ago.”

“There are 100 common redpolls flying around. You just have to check each one to see if it’s the hoary.”

“Take a look at the great shots I got of the hoary. It practically flew right in front of me.”

ARRRRGGGGH! Lately, I am lucky to find any birds at all, maybe a few ducks, geese, or juncos. The Garden seems to have gone quiet. A few times, during my many visits, I spotted some small flocks of the common redpolls, which the hoary redpoll likes to hang out with — each time I hoped to find the “silvery” bird in the flock, and each time I walked away empty handed. Every time I read about a sighting at the Garden, I rushed over in the hopes of seeing this bird for myself. “No luck. Well, maybe next time,” I told myself. And the weeks went by without a sighting. Sigh…what am I going to write about now?

PHOTO: Common Redpoll enjoying the birch tree seeds outside Regenstein Center. ©Carol Freeman
Enjoying the birch tree seeds near the Regenstein Center. ©Carol Freeman

O.K., I thought, I’ll try one more time, maybe I’ll get lucky. Surely today I will see the bird. After a little searching, I do find a small flock of common redpolls. I carefully check each one to see if the hoary is mixed in. No luck. But hey, these guys are really cute: hanging from the trees, swinging in the breeze, feeding on the seeds. As I admire their beauty, they slowly make their way toward me. They seem to know that I pose no threat, and I feel accepted by these tiny birds. What a gift to be able to stand so close to them and to have them behave naturally. They show no signs of stress, and I feel totally connected to nature in this moment. I forget all about the hoary, and instead remember why I do what I do. It is for this feeling — this feeling of connectedness and appreciation of all of nature. Thank you, common redpolls, for this reminder. I am forever grateful for your beauty and for your trust.

All of nature is there for our enjoyment and appreciation, from the commonplace to the exotic. We just need to get out there to see it.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and