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...
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.
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 rosyfinch.com website.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Mountain Chickadees shared the feeder...
...with Red-breasted Nuthatches...
...and the local Gray-headed race of the Dark-eyed Junco.
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.
Now there were flocks of up to 13 Black Rosy-Finches at the feeder. Here, two are perched on a frosty branch.
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.
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.
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.
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...
..and a Red-breasted Nuthatch in a typical pose.
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.
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.