Valentine Finches

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In honor of Valentine’s Day and all things pink, today’s post features Rosy-finches.

There are currently three species of Rosy-finch. The most widespread are Gray-crowned Rosy-finches (2nd and 5th in photo above), which winter in the inter-mountain west and breed throughout interior British Columbia, Alaska and the Yukon.

Next are Black Rosy-finches, which have a more restricted range, being found throughout the central Rockies from southern Montana to northern New Mexico, and east into Idaho and Nevada.

Then there are the Brown-capped Rosy-finches (Nos. 1, 3, and 4 above, and all 3 birds below), which are only found from southern Wyoming though Colorado to northern New Mexico.

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According to the National Audubon Society, “Christmas Bird Count data seem to indicate a steady decline over the last 30 years with average annual total counts of over a thousand in the 1970’s compared to about 500 in the 1990’s, but more detailed analysis is needed. … This species’ limited range and recent drop in population make it a conservation concern.”

Living in the middle of Colorado, we can see all three species—if we manage to get to the right place at the right time. Black and Brown-capped Rosy-finches hang out on the tops of the highest mountains during the summer, dining on seeds and insects, but in winter they join with newly-arrived Gray-crowned Rosy-finches and descend within the range of most birders.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-finch

Some Colorado hotspots include the mining town of Victor, other mountain towns, and La Veta (southwest of Walsenburg). The feeders at the gift shop on top of Sandia Peak, near Albuquerque, New Mexico also offer reliable views in winter.

I spent a considerable amount of time in fruitless searching before I learned the key to Rosy-finch spotting. The birds keep to the highest altitudes until forced lower by a heavy snow that buries their food supply. That’s when they show up at bird feeders.

So, time your trip with an eye on the weather, and ask locally for homes where the feeders are kept filled with black oil sunflower seeds. After a big storm, the birds remember where the got their breakfast last time. Large flocks will swoop in, swirling over the snow, landing to feed, then rising en masse to perch on the overhead branches and wires before coming back in a cloud of pink to repeat the performance. It’s breath-taking!

rosy-finch-flock-in-tree_lavetaco_20100320_lah_9941All three species flock together, so it takes some patience to look at every individual bird. The least little noise sets them off, and all you get is a blur of wings. Then you wait. Any chickadees hanging around will land first, followed by the House Finches and Cassin’s Finches. It’s only after these braver birds have been unmolested for several minutes that the Rosy-finches dare to take their chances.

Observing Rosy-finches not only fun, it can help conservationist, too. By entering your sightings in eBird, you provide much-needed data to scientists monitoring these and other species. In turn, this information helps those charged with preserving habitat that supports our native birds.

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