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 http://www.rosyfinch.com 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.
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.