As we gazed out of the window of the Crest house at 10,678 feet in the Sandia Mountains, we noticed a swirl of bird activity as a flock of 30 – 40 rosy finches began to approach. When they reached the apex of their whorl, they began to drop and resembled falling leaves on a breezy autumn day. Then they settled on trees abut fifty feet from the feeder, perching side by side on bare branches and on the adjacent conifer.
“Look at the fir tree,” someone exclaimed. “The finches look like Christmas ornaments.” Sure enough, they looked like they were carefully nestled in the branches.
One-by-one a few began to venture to the trees just beyond where the feeder hung at the corner of the Crest House deck. As if someone had given a silent command, the finches mobbed the hanging platform and jockeyed for position, while others hovered close by waiting for their turn. A few birds scrounged for scattered seed on the patches of snow on the deck.
As quickly as they arrived, they departed in a burst of energy. Almost immedately, four Stellar’s Jays appeared in the spruce adjacent to the feeder, and then one hopped onto the platform. I had never seen one of these jays up close and personal. It had a black back, and its black head sported two fine white lines that started at the base of its beak and extended to where the black crest juts up, giving it a startled expression. The remainder of the body is a brilliant indigo blue. They appeared very self-confident as they appropriated the feeder from the skittish finches.
About 12 members of the Central New Mexico Audubon Society’s Thusday Birders group had traveled to the crest to view these winter visitors. A storm had been predicted; however, the day dawned clear and bright.
Three rosy-finch species winter at the crest of the Sandia Mountains: Brown-capped, Black and two sub-species of Gray-crowned. All three have ‘rosy’ wing feathers of varying degrees of brightness. Their idea of ‘heading south for the winter’ is to leave their summer nesting areas in Alaska and the upper-most peaks of the Rocky Mountains, and settle in other cold weather areas at slightly lower elevations, from Jackson Hole to the Sandia Crest. The finches arrive at the crest around Thanksgiving and have left by mid to late March. It is very difficult to spot these finches during the summer months, since their breeding areas are normally in isolated mountain peaks where there are no roads. In fact, no birds nests at as high an elevation as the rosy finches.
In 2002, Ryan Beaulieu, a young birder from New Mexico became enchanted with rosy finhes and wanted to study these unique birds. He, and his friend Raymond Van Buskirk, enlisted the help of Steve and Nancy Cox with New Mexico Bird Research. Their plan, “Proposal to Study Site Fidelity and Densities of the Three Rosy-finch Species Found at the Sandia Crest, Sandia Mountains,” was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Through banding the finches, under the supervision of Steve and Nancy Cox and a certified bander from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they wanted to document when each species arrived at Sandia Crest and departed in the spring. They also proposed to record the size and species mix, and subsantiate variations in seasonal and age-related plumage.
The banding project began during the winter of 2003-04. Unfortuntely, Ryan died in an automobile acccident in September 2005. Raymond and the New Mexico Bird Research banding crew continue with the project. On January 7, 2007 the researchers banded 104 finches – the highest number for any day, bringing the season total to 241. Only seven of the birds captured that day had been previously banded.
As we sipped coffee and hot chocolate, we agreed that birding couldn’t get much better. Snug in the Crest House, we were able to watch the continuing acrobatic performance of the wintering rosy finches.