Saturday, December 3, 2011

Seeking our signature species

Posted by Ken Schneider

In a random but unknowing act of kindness, the construction worker tossed his half-eaten sandwich on a snowbank along the road, and returned to his job. A small flock of dark-feathered birds flew down and shared the treat...

Sandia Crest House sign 20111114

But, wait. I'm getting ahead of this story. I might have started with "It was a dark and snowy morning when we drove to the top of the world..." Instead, let's begin by recollecting our repeated futile attempts to find rosy-finches on the top of Sandia Crest, 10,678 feet above sea level, near our previous home in New Mexico. Several times since moving there in 1993, Mary Lou and I would follow up on reports of rosy-finch sightings on or near the Crest, only to be disappointed.

"It was a clear and cold morning..." in early December, 1999 when we finally plugged three gaping holes in our life lists. We rejoiced as we watched about twenty birds, including all three rosy-finch species, as they devoured the aforementioned bread crusts at the site of the radio/TV transmission towers just across the parking lot from the Crest House Restaurant and Gift Shop.

The next morning we repeated the 13 mile drive up the Crest Road, carrying a supply of wild bird seed. Halfway up, snow started falling and we drove slowly to the top. We scattered seed generously on the snowbank where we had first seen the finches. They did not disappoint us, as within minutes a dozen or more appeared along with some juncos and they swarmed over the seed.

Upon revisiting a few days later we found that a snowplow had distributed the seed all along the roadway, burying some, and exposing the birds to a traffic hazard. This time we spread some seed on a windswept snow-free area on the upper parking lot. Every week until the end of February, 2000 we continued bringing  seed, and birders started noticing the rosy-finches. The next winter we resumed our surreptitious feeding, and found that others were also scattering seed, not only on the parking lot surface, but also on ecologically fragile areas along the observation area at the top of Sandia Crest. We publicized our concerns on the Internet, and this resulted in our receiving dozens of inquiries about the rosy-finches. To manage the requests for information, we set up the website.

As Forest Service volunteers, we knew full well that wildlife feeding violated the agency's policies, so we approached our friend Tom Duncan, who was then the resident manager of Sandia Crest House. He talked to Forest Service people and learned that the prohibition against feeding applied only to "undisturbed" land; the Forest Service interpreted any private leases or concessions within the National Forest boundaries to be "disturbed" land, thus exempting the Crest House.

Tom erected a feeder only about three feet outside the main entrance to the Gift Shop, and it immediately attracted rosy-finches. The trouble was that they were frightened away every time someone entered or exited, and they could not be observed from inside the building.

We engaged Central New Mexico Audubon, the US Forest Service, Crest House management as well as a local bird seed supplier in an agreement whereby three feeders were installed, to be maintained by Forest Service volunteers. Spurred on by enthusiastic younger birders, most notably the late Ryan Beaulieu and his friend, Raymond VanBuskirk, the bird-banding operations of Rio Grande Bird Research, Inc., operated by Steve and Nancy Cox, were expanded to include weekly sessions at the Crest House during the winter months. Read more about Ryan's untimely death and how Raymond helped carry on his legacy at the link to the June 2010 issue of Audubon Magazine on this page.

After Gene Romero took over as manager of Crest House, the facility was renovated to include an improved dining area with large picture windows that provide a clear view of the deck feeder. Gene and his staff have become avid watchers and protectors of the rosy-finches and, during the warm months, myriad hummingbirds that frequent their feeders. Local merchants donated feeders and seed, and Mary Lou and I coordinated the feeding program, driving up about twice a week to tend them. We moved away from New Mexico to Florida in 2004, and now Dave Weaver and his spouse Fran Lusso carry on as co-coordinators of the feeding project. For more information about the rosy-finches at Sandia Crest, see my Birder's World article.

Since banding began in March, 2004 through the end of last winter, the team had accumulated a total of over 2200 newly banded rosy-finches.  The species mix of newly banded birds is interesting. So far, 54% have been Black Rosy-Finches. The Brown-capped species made up approximately 28%, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches accounted for 18%. A little over half of the 432 Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches banded were Hepburn's race, but of these 159 birds, most (133) were banded during the two winters of 2006-07 and 2007-08. Detailed results of banding are available here 
Although we now have homes in Florida and Illinois, I remain a New Mexican at heart. Mary Lou? Well, she certainly enjoyed most of our eleven years of living at 7000 feet in the mountains of New Mexico, but not the winters. As she says, she was born in December and hasn't thawed out yet! However, we had not seen our five Texas grandchildren since our 50th wedding anniversary reunion in the Colorado Rockies, over a year ago. We planned to fly to Amarillo for a "grandchildren fix" this fall, but it took a bit of effort on my part to convince her that we should fly home out of Albuquerque rather than Amarillo. After all, the cheaper return air fare would offset the incremental cost of a one-way car rental from Amarillo to Albuquerque. I also made sure that the trip occurred after the arrival of the rosy-finches to Sandia Crest. The first ones usually appear around the first of November, but this year they came in late. By November 9, no more than 6 Rosies had been seen at the feeder.

We had a very nice visit with our son, his wife and their five children, in Amarillo, Texas. On November 12, we drove west on I-40 to New Mexico. As we approached Albuquerque, we could see the snow-capped mountains of Santa Fe and Taos to the north, a promising sign, as snow cover tends to concentrate the rosy-finches at the feeder. We arrived at Sandia Crest around noon. It was a cold 29 degrees Farenheit, with a brisk southerly wind with gusts to 50 miles per hour.

This is the view to the south from the deck of Crest House.

View from Crest House 20111112

There had been a dusting of snow the previous day, but the deck of the Crest House was clear. The feeder hangs over the far end of the railing; a hungry Abert's Squirrel can be seen running along the top of the rail towards it (click on photo to select larger views).

The deck at Sandia Crest House 20111112

We saw a total of six Rosy-finches on November 12. Among them, we identified three Black Rosy-Finches and one that looked like a Gray-crowned. This is a Black Rosy-Finch.

Black Rosy-Finch 2-20111112

This bird that we first thought to be a Gray-crown was more brownish, but close examination of the photo reveals it to be an adult female Black Rosy-Finch. The angle of light caused reflection that made the bird look lighter than it really was.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch band 20111112

An Abert's Squirrel was dominating the feeder, and we had to chase it away repeatedly. The Rosies avoided the feeder when either the squirrel or a Steller's Jay was present.

Aberts Squirrel in feeder 20111112

Mountain Chickadees shared the feeder...

Mountain Chickadee 2-20111112

...with Red-breasted Nuthatches...

Red-breasted Nuthatch note band 20111112

...and the local Gray-headed race of the Dark-eyed Junco.

Gray-headed Dark-eyed Junco 20111112

The next day, the forecast called for snow, but we ventured up Crest Road again. It started to rain as we checked for Pygmy Nuthatches at Doc Long Picnic Area near the base, and clouds enveloped the mountain. We turned back, deciding to bird around Albuquerque. We returned to the Crest on November 14, negotiating snow-packed areas on the road. Near the top, the moisture from the clouds had condensed to form a thick layer of hoarfrost on the trees.

Hoar frost at Ellis Trailhead 20111114

Now there were flocks of up to 13 Black Rosy-Finches at the feeder. Here, two are perched on a frosty branch.

Black Rosy-Finches 2-20111114

Before the banders introduced a degree of sophistication into our identification of the rosy-finches, we gave up on identifying many of the hatch-year birds, especially early in the season, as all have buffy brown tips on their contour feathers. At first we simply called them "Rosy-Finch sp.," or "Buffies." Now we know to take a closer look at the bases of the feathers. If they are black or very dark brown, and the bird has a whitish crown, it is a Black Rosy-Finch. Immature Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches have more cinnamon-brown feather bases. Male Blacks, even immature ones, show rather extensive pink on their underparts and wing coverts, while in females the color is very subdued. Even adult Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches show relatively little pink. This indeed is an immature (hatch year) female Black Rosy-Finch. Note the hint of pink on her shoulders and lower belly.

Black immature vs Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch 20111114

Our disappointment at not being able to positively identify any Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches was tempered by the appearance of the first Brown-capped Rosy-Finch of the season. Note its lack of a light crown and the more intense rosy undersides. A band from a previous season confirms that it is an adult.

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch 20111114

Although the temperature had dropped to 22 degrees, the winds had died down, and photography conditions were much better than two days previously. Somehow, this beautiful adult black-Rosy-Finch had escaped the banding traps in previous years.

Black Rosy-Finch adult 20111114

Though my fingers were about to freeze and drop off, I was able to get a nice shot of a Mountain Chickadee against a natural background...

Mountain Chickadee 20111114

..and a Red-breasted Nuthatch in a typical pose.

Red-breasted Nuthatch 20111114

I shot this photo of a Steller's Jay from inside the windows of the Crest House. Staff had spread the seed around to allow the finches to visit without being harassed by the jays.

Steller's Jay 2-20111114

Sandia Crest, just east of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the most accessible site in the world where all three North American rosy-finch species can be seen at one time. We maintain the Sandia Crest Birding FORUM, where you will find interesting discussions on identification as well as updated sighting reports of not only the Rosies, but also such more unusual birds as Clark's Nutcracker, Red Crossbill, Cassin's Finch, Northern Pygmy-Owl and American Three-toed Woodpecker.


  1. very nice post and wonderful photos


  2. Congrats of 50th years of marriage. In today's world, that is all the more special. Awesome history behind the rosy-finch feeding there.

    I've only seen Rosy-finches in one place just east of Boise. In the winter they roost inside the cliff swallow nests at Discovery Park by Lucky Peak. For about a half hour you can watch them come over the cliff and feed below the nests.

  3. Yes, great story and amazing photos. I hope to see these beauties oneday myself!