Saturday, March 16, 2013

Red Crossbill, Cassin's Finch: Highlights of the Sandia Mountains

[Sandia Crest, Albuquerque, NM, March 2013.]

Not far East of Albuquerque lie the Sandia Mountains.  An excellent resource regarding the avifauna of the area can be found at birding the sandias. Famous as the best place to see all species of Rosy Finch in the winter, the Sandia mountains also harbor other choice species such as the Red Crossbill.

The Red Crossbill is one of two crossbills found in the country [the other is the white-winged]. The peculiar feature of this finch is, of course, the uniquely shaped bill -- ideally suited for extracting seeds from cones. It does this by using its bill to squeeze the bottom of a cone scale thereby pushing the seed up for easy extraction.
Red Crossbill (male) seen in the Sandia Mountains.
The global population of the Red Crossbill (also known as the Common Crossbill in Europe) is estimated to be 80 million-- about the same as the human population of California.
Crossbills can breed at any time of the year that their conifer food is abundant. Differences in calls, bill shape, and preferred food cones may result in future splits of this species.
Cassin's Finch was heard singing loudly high up in the canopy. Through heavy cropping, the main features of this Near Threatened finch become visible: the red crown, pink neck and sharply pointed bill. It is named after John Cassin -- the acclaimed American Ornithologist of the 1800's who is credited with describing close to 200 avian species.
The female Cassin's Finch is much plainer and shows brown streaking.This Western finch has a declining population with year-over-year declines noted over the last 40 years.
Perhaps the most chirpy, gregarious, and energetic birds seen in the area were Pine Siskin. Their notched tails, sharply pointed bills and heavy streaking are distinctive.
The sexes are similar and show yellow on the tail and wings [as above].
Siskin refer to the buzzing chrip sounds that this finch makes. Their movements are somewhat unpredictable in the winter when they range widely in search of food.
Of course, no visit to the Sandias could be complete without a visit to the Crest at 10,678 feet.
This afforded an opportunity to engage in a quick review of the three species of rosy finch that are found overwintering here. First, the Brown-capped Rosy Finch -- this is a highly range-restricted US endemic.
Brown-capped Rosy Finch.
The Grey Crowned is darker brown than the Brown-Capped and has a silver-grey "headband":
Grey-crowned Rosy Finch.
Perhaps the easier disambiguation is with the Black Rosy Finch:
Black Rosy Finch seen at Sandia Crest
This Rosy Finch -- a very dark brown -- is a grey-crowned; compare to the rich black and pink of the Black Rosy Finch.
Black Rosy Finch

A surprise observation at the Crest was this female Pine Grossbeak; humbled by the presence of the charismatic Rosy Finch.
The zealous banders at Sandia Crest have banded anything that moves at this hotspot. Perhaps the only thing left unbanded was this Abert's Squirrel:
An annoying, long-eared, rodent, this large squirrel had a habit of scaring away the birdlife at regular intervals.

Three lifers: the Pine Grossbeak, Cassin's Finch, and Red Crossbill combined with the stunning Rosy Finch species make this area a "must bird" hotspot for every birder.

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