Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fiending for Rosy-Finches at Sandia Crest


Behold, the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. This is a bird of life. I made a space for it inside my soul. There aren't enough pink birds out there.

The time had come...the Perpetual Weekend was shuttered and it was back to join the workforce...of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. I had only one planned stop between Oakland and Harlingen...the legendary Sandia Crest, which towers above Albuquerque. The lodge there is notorious among birders for being the best and easiest place to see Brown-capped and Black Rosy-Finch anywhere, since these range-restricted birds of the ultramontane come to feeders there. Both of these birds would be LIFERS, and you know how I feel about that. Every day I checked eBird for rosy-finch reports and the outlook did not look good...there had been no reports of any rosy-finch in over a week by the time I arrived...was I too late? Did I blow it?


I don't even know what to say about these birds. Living strictly at absurdly high elevations, they probably don't even see people when they aren't at the lodge. As I had many hours to cover that day, it was hard to let go of this epic bird I had just met. I saw about 4 Brown-caps that day. 

Fueled by a greasy breakfast from my beloved Waffle House (why are there not more Waffle Houses?), I made my way up the mountain and made it to Sandia Crest without incident. There was a thick layer of snow, the cold was biting and the wind was ripping. The lodge was not open yet so I stood awkwardly by the fence on the south side, hoping some birds would happen. A Golden Eagle cruised overhead, and eventually other birds began appearing. After enduring a few minutes of Gray-headed Juncos and Mountain Chickadees, 25+ rosy-finches fell out of the sky (I hate that phrase, although it seems to turn some birders on) and swooped around the corner, allowing no view whatsoever. But where before there only lay a faint hope, adrenaline raced through my veins and I could hear myself jabbering like the bird junkie I am. The world grew brighter, then foggy at the edges...I could feel my pupils dilating as I stared anxiously around the corner, hoping the flock would pop into view. Finally a few finches flew in and landed behind me, and I was able to doublelifer both species in the same binocular view.



Black Rosy-Finch is a crippler. Pink on black is a completely winning combination.

But they disappeared quickly. I climbed the ice-laden staircases and went around to the other side of the lodge to see what was up there, and I violently shit my pants (well, almost) when I turned a corner and a huge pile of Rosy-Finches sat on the snow just 20 feet away. Fuuuuuuuuuck! Although it was dark and horrible out I got the looks I wanted, and then again later after the lodge opened. Apparently this flock had been seen daily for a number of days in a row, but none of the birders writing in the handy rosy-finch log at the lodge had bothered to eBird them or post to the listserv.


When I first found the main flock of rosy-finches, I was astonished to be looking at Black Rosy-Finch after Black Rosy-Finch...there were no Gray-crowned. This was not the ratio I expected, but one that I can't complain about.


It was fun looking at the variety of Black Rosy-Finches present...there were a lot of young birds and adults in various stages of molt. This may have been the winner of the beauty contest.


Brown-capped and Black Rosy-Finches. In a chair. Why not?



The most abundant bird at Sandia Crest was the Gray-headed race of Dark-eyed Junco (there was a token Oregon-type present also). I can't believe such puny birds can thrive in such conditions.




Something about these birds just make them seem more savvy than Oregon Juncos...a better application of the Economy of Style perhaps?


Unlike other U.S. nuthatches, there are a number of White-breasted Nuthatch subspecies. This is one of the interior west subspecies, which sound noticeably different than the west coast birds that I am used to. As you probably know, the money is on these birds getting split at some point in the future. I was surprised to see White-breasted Nuthatch at Sandia Crest at all, since the site is well above 10,000 feet...don't know if I've seen the species that high in California.



I'm not used to these fancy Steller's Jays either. Meet macrolopha, the only subspecies found in New Mexico. The birds in California lack the alluring eye arcs.


Nerds may remember a proposal to split Mountain Chickadees a few years ago. This is gambeli, yet another montane resident that is a different subspecies than California's baileyae. This is also my best Mountain Chickadee photo to date...not bad for shooting through a sliding glass door (most of these shots were through that door as well).


While sipping coffee in the lodge waiting for the finches to return, this son of a bitch appeared out of nowhere. I am not a creature of rodents, but I think this is a Kaibab Squirrel, one of the subspecies of Abert's Squirrel. Yes? UPDATE!!! It's not a Kaibab, it's a Merriam's Squirrel, Sciurus alberti mimus (Thanks David). I told you I'm not literate in rodents. 


For those who have difficulty with the notorious Mountain Chickadee vs. Abert's Squirrel ID problem, here is a comparison photo. Experts have suggested the putative squirrel is actually a F2 MOCH X ABSQ hybrid, but considering the unusual state of molt the jury is still out.

16 comments:

  1. I was surprised to find a White-breasted Nuthatch up at 9,000' in the San Jacinto Mountains yesterday too. They must be tougher than we give them credit for. As far as I know, Kaibab's Squirrels are restricted to the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona. in NM they are probably Merriam's Abert's Squirrel.

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    1. Yup. The Sandia Mountains are not near the Kaibab Plateau. You are correct.

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  2. Very rocking. Those finches would make great ice cream flavors, and even better viewing. Next winter...

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    1. Yeah dude...you owe it to yourself. Wish I had better photo ops (and a third rosy-finch species) but I'm not going to complain! Really a unique geri-birding opportunity.

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  3. Nasty. I made the pilgrimage to SC a few years ago myself... seemed to be about 50-50 Brown-capped and Black, though there were a few Gray-crowned sprinkled in on that fine day. Truly a special spot.

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    1. It was weird going from rosy-finches to Green Jays in the span of a couple days. It seems like it was all a dream...an extremely pleasant dream.

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  4. Crest House and its Rosies in winter is really a special place. Not many public places you can go, sit in side in comfort, and watch Rosies. So glad the new management in open in the winter!

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    1. You and me both. Classic geri-birding.

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  5. Wow. Struck dumb by the pink...

    PINK!
    *sigh*

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  6. That squirrel alone would make me want to go there. I thought I saw one once near Crater Lake but it turned out to be a Mountain Chickadee...

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  7. While you are right, they probably don't see many people, a couple surely had seen some... do they band them there?

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    1. Yeah...I think usually two to three times a month during the winter...they target the rosy-finches specifically. The banding program there has been running for quite a while now I think.

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  8. In fall, it is surprisingly difficult to tell gray-crowned from Brown-crested at certain age/sex classes, which I did not expect. Truly a spectacular group of birds and a great location to see/crush them.

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  9. Seagull,

    You made me drool with the Rosy-Finches! I have got to travel to Sandia Crest one day.

    I did see a flock of over 500 Black Rosy-Finches on my recent trip to Capitol Reef National Park. I think they melted my lens.

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