Rosy-finch survey provides bird’s eye view

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch breeds in the Snowy Range in southern Wyoming. In winter it is more likely to be seen at lower elevations (even at feeders) in Colorado and northern New Mexico. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Aug. 8, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Rosy-finch survey provides bird’s eye view.”

2014 Update: The annual Brown-capped Rosy-Finch survey in the Snowy Range has become a tradition.

By Barb Gorges

A bird’s eye view is not for the faint of heart—or the faint of leg or lung. I found myself seated at the edge of a precipice at Schoolhouse Rock, about 11,500 feet, in the middle of July. We had just hiked up the Medicine Bow Peak trail in the Snowy Range.

While not actually dangling my feet over, I was close enough to the edge to touch it and appreciate Lake Marie 1000 feet straight below.

To my left was the peak of The Diamond, another 500 feet higher.

No guard rails, no ropes and thankfully, no wind.

Five of us staunch members of the Audubon Society were looking for brown-capped rosy-finches (not to be confused with the other two species, black and gray-crowned) for the fourth year of a citizen science nesting survey.

You may remember me discussing it here the summer of 2004, when a University of Wyoming graduate student was seriously injured while using technical climbing equipment to reach one of the known nests hidden in a crack on the side of a cliff.

The three rosy-finch species breed at the highest altitude of any species in North America north of Mexico.

The brown-capped is the southernmost breeding of the three, found mostly in Colorado.

The nests in the Snowy Range, in southeastern Wyoming, mark the northern limits of its known breeding range.

If you want to add all three rosy-finch species to your life list at one time, visit the top of Sandia Crest outside of Albuquerque, N.M., between November and March.

You can take the tram up instead of navigating the road that rises 5000 feet in elevation. Check the website for more information.

While white-crowned sparrows accompanied us on this hike up, they seemed to be birds of terra firma. It was the juncos that were willing to explore bits of vegetation clinging to rocky cliffs. The violet-green swallows shot out over the edge into empty space, following flying insects.

One junco, exploring the face of our rocky observation point, flitted right over me as if my shoulder was a geologic continuation. Its wings nearly brushed my ear. We spooked each other I think.

While our survey party did hear the distinctive monotone call of the brown-capped rosy-finch, we were never able to pinpoint one of the milk-chocolate brown birds with raspberry tints, much less watch one slip into a crack.

The rosy-finch nest is inserted in rocky and inaccessible places, under large rocks in rock slides and moraines and on the walls of caves, abandoned mines and railroad tunnels, as well as cliff faces protected by overhangs. The nest itself is a cup shaped of woven grasses.

What was disturbing was that there were very few snowfields left in the vicinity. In summer, rosy-finches feed on the frozen insects exposed on melting snowfields and seeds surfacing along their margins.

There was lots of chittering noise from the swallows, making it tough to listen for finches. And then there was a human voice relaying information from across the lake, something about a broken leg.

With our binoculars and spotting scope (if your hiking party includes someone with younger legs and lungs like our son Bryan accompanying us this day, handicap them with equipment—they usually enjoy showing off their superior fitness), we found the harbinger of bad news heading for the Mirror Lake Picnic Area, just a glacial moraine beyond the far side of Lake Marie.

We watched vehicles of various agencies gather. Ant-sized rescuers wearing bright red and yellow hardhats scaled the boulders of the talus slopes and began climbing a smooth-faced peak.

I heard later that an experienced climber had fallen only 12 feet but landed hard on a rock ledge, breaking his leg. At the time we were pretty sure it wasn’t another rosy-finch survey member since none of the 20 of us divided into the four parties had had enough time to get that high up. I wonder if the victim distracted himself while waiting for rescue by watching birds, some of which may have been rosy-finches.

Summer is so short at 10,000 feet. That’s why rosy-finches can’t wait for the snow to completely melt.

Back on June 23, though Lake Marie was ice-free, Lookout Lake, two lakes up and also part of the rosy-finch survey, was still mostly ice-encrusted and the trail along it snow-drifted.

Glacier Lilies

As the snow in the mountains continues to recede well into July, fields of Glacier Lilies pop up. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Bright yellow glacier lilies bloomed profusely wherever the snow had just melted.

By July 18, three days before the rosy-finch survey, the same hillsides the length of Lookout Lake were covered in columbine and there was no snow left to melt.

The columbine were pale looking and probably past their prime, but other flowers were brilliant rose, yellow, blue, purple or white.

Looking closely at the emerald green carpet of vegetation I could find the seed heads of previous blooms.

Every bird on the ground we saw seemed to be a white-crowned sparrow busy harvesting seeds.

Every flock in a tree seemed to be mostly pine siskins. Also working the conifer crop were jays and pine grosbeaks.

I hope to make another pilgrimage to the high country yet this season, barring nasty weather. It isn’t too soon to see snow falling up there.

I’m like a junco visiting the mountains in the summer, though I’m ingesting mountain scenery instead of mountain seeds. We’re both storing up for spending the long winter back in town.

Brown-capped birds cause cracked ribs

Snowy Range

Looking for Brown-capped Rosy-Finches in Wyoming’s Snowy Range means checking cliffs for their nests. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published July 22, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Brown-capped birds cause cracked ribs.”

2014 Update: Laramie Audubon Society continues to sponsor surveys for Brown-capped Rosy-Finches in the Snowy Range in July.

By Barb Gorges

Bird research can be hazardous to the researcher.

Just ask University of Wyoming zoology professor Dave McDonald’s graduate student. She was poised high in the Snowy Range to ascend a crack in a rock with technical climbing gear to photograph a nest of brown-capped rosy-finches. It could possibly be the first such nest documented this far north.

Instead, a variety of emergency medical technicians and sheriff’s deputies became intimately familiar with the nest location because one of the student’s pieces of climbing protection came out of the crack and she was dumped onto the jagged boulders several feet below.

Hours later at the hospital she was diagnosed and treated for a dislocated hip and two cracked ribs. The trip out was excruciating for her and her rescuers. Getting to the ambulance involved negotiating a snowfield and about a mile of narrow trail, which meant the litter, centered on the trail, left the bearers to scramble over rocky or boggy terrain on either side, huffing and puffing in thin air at over 10,000 feet in elevation.

The adventure actually began the day before, July 10, when the nest was first found.

Dave sent out an invitation to the Wyoming birding community to join him in a search for brown-capped rosy-finches.

To his surprise, about 20 people between the ages of three months and 70 years old showed up that morning at the Forest Service’s Centennial visitor center.

About half were wildlife biologists on their days off, but everyone was anxious to see this bird, even if it meant hiking steep trails and terrain. For many of us, the brown-capped rosy-finch would be a life bird, one we’d never seen before.

The Snowy Range, remnant of higher mountains embedded within the lower and more extensive Medicine Bow Range, has been designated a Wyoming Important Bird Area primarily because of its importance to the brown-capped rosy-finch, which is listed as a declining and rare species in the IBA site description:

“The site is the only area in the state of Wyoming where Brown-capped Rosy-Finches occur and breed. In addition, the species is considered a ‘species of local concern’ within the Forest Service.”

Alison Lyon, IBA coordinator for Audubon Wyoming, devised a survey form which was handed out to all the observers.

Dave made suggestions for areas to search based on his previous observations.


Snowy Range

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch nests have great views of Lake Marie in the Snowy Range, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

This species of rosy-finch locates its nests in cliffs near snowfields. The melting snow attracts an abundance of hatching insects that make good food for nestlings. Other times of the year, rosy-finches are seed eaters.

Mark and I were lucky enough to observe one brown-capped rosy-finch for 20 minutes as it foraged among the rocks high above Lake Marie. Imagine a milk-chocolate brown bird with raspberry-flavored sides. It was a life bird for both of us.

One group saw American pipits skylarking, but no rosy-finches, two others had several sightings and a fourth group had only rosy-finch fly-overs, but nearly stepped on a pipit’s nest full of eggs.

It was a fifth group lucky enough to come upon the rosy-finch nest that would become infamous. First, they observed several birds fly and twice saw one disappear near a rock face. Getting closer, they were able to determine the bird was flying into a crack and they were able to hear the chicks peeping. But then a snow cornice above them broke, hurling ice and rocks, and they had to make a run for it.

Brown-capped rosy-finch breeding populations center on the peaks of the Colorado Rockies, ranging north only a little way into Wyoming and south in winter only as far as northern New Mexico.

The black rosy-finch and the gray-crowned rosy-finch have much more extensive ranges across the west. By August, when their nestlings are on their own, all three species begin to gather in mixed flocks, eventually moving south or to lower elevations for the winter.

Banding data is just beginning to unravel the extent and timing of rosy finch travels. For instance, a gray-crowned banded in a yard above Lander one March showed up three days later at a banding station in Jeffrey City. Abandoned swallow nests in highway underpass tunnels near Laramie provide roosts after breeding season.

In addition to another survey next July, Dave is thinking about making a third attempt yet this summer to document the jinxed nest, but it won’t be his grad student climbing up there.

She has plenty of rosy-finch literature to read and data to analyze from her field work with the other two species earlier this year, giving her time to heal completely.