Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Trifecta of Rosy Finches

[Sandia Crest, NM. February 2012]

The birding populace of the US can be divided into those who have had the good fortune of seeing a trifecta of rosy finches and those who have not.

There are 7 species in the mountain finch family which occur in Asia and North America. Of these, the following 3, occur in North America:
  • Black Rosy Finch
  • Grey-crowned Rosy Finch; and,
  • Brown-capped Rosy Finch
Of these, 2 are endemic to the US (the black and the brown-capped) and seeing all of them in one place is nothing short of a mystical experience. The best place to see them in winter is Sandia Crest in New Mexico.

The Grey-crowned Rosy Finch.

The grey-crowned is the only member of the trifecta that is not a national endemic --instead of being restricted to the Central mountains of the US like the others -- it ranges widely in the Western US, from Alaska, Western Canada, through the Northwest, to the Rockies.

The other endemic -- Black Rosy Finch -- is perhaps the most handsome. Like all our rosy finches, the infusion of rosy pink in the plumage is distinctive; but here, contrasted with the black head with grey headband, and the black upper parts, the combination is particularly striking.

The most uncooperative of the lot was the brown capped and while I think there's one in this flock, it will require an additional observation opportunity to reveal it in its full brilliance.

A flock straight from the heavens; a swarm of rosy finches quickly descends, feeds and disappears -- confounding the observer with their sheer number, rosy exuberance and the befuddling similarity of plumage. Under these circumstances, carelessness in identification is a real risk, so let's revisit the identification features again:

Both the black and the grey-crowned have black foreheads and grey headbands. Both show pink in their flanks and wings. The difference comes down to color of the upper body -- black instead of brown. Furthermore, the "the one that got away" -- the brown-capped -- is similar to the grey-crowned except for the head -- a solid brown instead of black with grey headband.

Grey-crowned rosy finch.

Adding to their mystical status is the fact that rosy finches are one of our least studied birds with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reporting that only 3 researchers have seen the nest sites of the Black Rosy Finch (as of 2002).

Other birds seen in the area included dark-eyed junco ("slate colored" race) and Stellar's Jay.
Dark-eyed Junco.

The target corvid for any birder in this area would surely be Clark's Nutcracker; but, it is the much more familiar Stellar's Jay that is usually observed here.

Nonetheless, Sandia Crest, at a rarefied elevation of over 10,000 feet, where every 3 breaths give the oxygen content of one breath taken in Florida, has the power to leave the observer breathless in more ways than one: especially, when in the company of the charismatic rosy finches.

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