Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Birds of Winter - Rosy Finch

Black Rosy-finch photograph by Doug Brown
One wouldn’t ordinarily think that birding the high mountains in the dead of winter would be a good idea. First of all there is all that snow: it makes the basics of getting around challenging as well as noisy, and stealth downright impossible. It would seem that all birds might flee with the advance of a large two-legged mammal crunching along through the snow. Such is not the case however, at least in certain parts of New Mexico.

Several years ago, a friend and I stumbled upon three new life birds while cross-country skiing along the open waters of East Fork of the Jemez River. Being neither quiet nor stealthy, we encountered a smallish flock of rosy-finches was feeding on the rock walls that line the canyon. They seemed oblivious to our presence as they flitted over the rock face searching for food. Among the flock were individuals that appeared to be markedly different. Indeed, in recent years, they have been classified as three separate species: Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Black Rosy-Finch, and Brown-capped Rosy Finch.

In summer, the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch is distributed from coastal and western Alaska and British Columbia to the mountains of Idaho, western Montana, and northern California. The Black Rosy-Finch breeds high on scattered mountaintops in the Great Basin, and the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch is limited to the southern Rockies. In winter, the three species may be found together at high elevations in Colorado and New Mexico, most reliably at ski resorts such as Loveland, Colorado, and Taos, New Mexico.

Of the three species, the Black Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte atrata) is the least studied of all birds found on our continent, due to its choice of nesting locations. Only three people known to recorded scientific literature had ever found a nest of the Black Rosy-Finch before 2002. With Global Information Systems (GIS) technology and strong mountaineering skills, a University of Wyoming student became the fourth – when she discovered a nest at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet in Utah's Uinta Mountains. The difficulty of exploring the Black Rosy-Finch breeding habitat has severely limited scientific study of the birds and made finding one of the nests a rare event.

In late spring, the alpine birds migrate to their nesting grounds above the timberline. There, among the tundra tussocks amid craggy cliffs, the rosy-finches build their nests inside cliff crevices and among the large boulders found on talus slopes. At an elevation of 10,000-13,000 feet, generally in the most remote regions of the Rocky Mountains and on the edges of the Great Basin, these hardy finches set up housekeeping and rear their young in nature’s most challenging environment.

On the nesting grounds, males defend a floating territory around their mates, rather than an area with a defined boundary. As a result, males constantly chase other males that approach their mates too closely. The best way to locate females is simply by watching the center of all the fighting.

In winter, the feisty, territorial birds assume a more gregarious lifestyle, and can be found in large mixed flocks of all three species of rosy-finches. The birds roost in large communal sites in caves, mine shafts, on rafters of barns, and in clusters of old Cliff Swallow nests.

It had long been known that one might find rosy-finches at the well-stocked feeders of the condos near the Taos Ski Area, but elsewhere they were considered to be rare, appearing only sporadically in the dead of winter. There was no reliable site where the birds might be found. This changed when birders Ken and Mary Lou Schneider responded to a Rare Bird Alert in the dead of winter and drove to the top of Sandia Peak (10,678 feet). The skies were clear and the winds calm on that day, and 40-50 rosy-finches of all three species were present foraging along the edges of the parking lot.

Thus began a fledgling plan that has, today, grown into one of the premier winter birding locations in North America. With the blessing of the US Forest Service and the staff of the Crest House, the feeders are always stocked much to the delight of birders that travel here from throughout the world to bag three different lifers in a single day. What is even more remarkable is that many of the feeders are within easy viewing of the tables in the coffee shop, eliminating the need to brave the elements. The dedicated folks that manage this site also run a banding station to track the birds’ movements, and they also maintain an extensive website www.rosyfinch.com The rosy-finches arrive in November and can stay as late as March, although the latest sighting occurred in April.

While I would love to direct you to a more local site in the Jemez Mountains to view these remarkable birds, your best bet to check off all three rosy-finches would be to drive up to the top of Sandia Peak on the next sunny, calm day, buy a cup of hot chocolate or two, park yourself next to the window near one of the feeders and wait. I might just see you there!

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