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2020-12-16 Tuesday Finches at 10,600′

Update: Folks with better eyes and ID skills than I have pointed out that there are some Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finches among the Black Rosy-Finches in some of my images. Another friend suggested some of my juncos from the morning are Red-Backed (J. h. dorsalis), rather than Gray-Headed (J. h. caniceps). I tend to agree with her.

Mountain Chickadee - Poecile gambeli
Chickadees dominated the scene where I waited for rosy finches. They seemed to be present in limitless numbers. 

Just outside of Albuquerque, the Sandia Mountains loom large in the northeast. For years I’ve been wanting to pay a winter visit to the crest of these peaks and meet the rosy-finches that spend winters there. Most of my recent visits have been during the warmer months, but these birds spend their breeding seasons above the treelines of the highest, most remote recesses in North America’s mountains. There are three species of rosy-finches in North America. We believe all have wandered here from Asia in the distant past. All three Rosy-Finch species are similarly stunning birds, and meetings with them are possible at the crest of the Sandia Mountains. When I drove there and reached the 10,600’ summit, I wasn’t sure which ones I might encounter.

The Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis) roams through the mountains of the American West, from Alaska to California and northern New Mexico. Science recognises six subspecies of these birds, and in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains I enjoyed the company of the race L. t. dawsoni.

Brown-Capped Rosy-Finches (Leucosticte australis) only breed in a few Colorado and northern New Mexico high mountain locations. During winters they wander, but rarely leave these two states.

Black Rosy-Finch - Leucosticte atrata
I hoped to meet rosy finches during my visit to New Mexico. The Black Rosy-Finch visits were brief and sporadic during my vigil, and I only had a few minutes with them.

Black Rosy-Finches (Leucosticte atrata) breed in lofty mountains of southeast Oregon (Steens), along the border of Montana and Idaho (Bitterroots), northwestern Wyoming, northeastern Nevada, and in Utah. In winter they move around within these states, and in western Colorado and northern New Mexico.

On Tuesday morning I drove one hour from Albuquerque and endured the 24°F crisp mountain air and the bright sun. I located a feeder near the parking lot for the Sandia Crest House Gift Shop and Café (closed because of the pandemic). The first birds I noticed were many dozens of Mountain Chickadees flitting through the nearby trees and bushes, and dashing out to the feeder, then returning whence they came. The parking area wasn’t as near to the action as I’d have liked. Besides the chickadees, I could see juncos and small finches, but the lighting was harsh. I spotted a location near a small bush at the far side of the feeder, and a snow packed stair and walkway that could get me there. Before I could get my gear together, a swarm of several dozen rosy-finches swooped in and assaulted the feeder. After a few minutes, they were gone again. At least now I knew they were in the area.

It was a treacherous climb to reach the location I spotted, and I sat on my folding stool to make my presence as small as possible. While I waited for the rosy-finches to return, I captured shots of the chickadees, nuthatches and smaller finches as best I could. I would have tried to find a nearer place to perch myself, but there was no cover closer to the birds. I waited for almost three hours with no sign of the returning rosy-finches. Finally, the cold wore me down and I abandoned my post and retraced the slippery steps that brought me there. All the while, struggling to carry all my gear without crashing to the snow covered walkway. 

Back at my RV, I served myself a granola breakfast and continued watching the feeder from the parking lot. I’d no sooner taken a few bites, and the rosy-finches once again descended on the feeder. As before, they left after an all too brief a visit. Now, believing these finches were much shyer than those I’d met in California, I resolved to try getting shots from inside the RV, and I moved as near as I could to the feeder location. While I had some success, the shots suffered from harsh side light and almost back lighting. After reviewing my images, I observed that these rosy-finches were Black Rosy-Finches, and a new species for my collection. I hope someday to meet these lovely birds under more favorable conditions.

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