Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bulletin #127 – Sandia Crest NM finches

David McDonald Photography
Friendswood Texas

December 12, 2010

Bulletin #127 – Sandia Crest NM finches

The Houston Texas area is a great location for birds, as with migrations and wintering northern birds, we can see at least 60% or more of all the birds in North America.

However, one family that we are deficient in is the finches. There are 16 species in North America, but only 5 occur here regularly. These are the Purple and House Finches of genus Carpodacus and American and Lesser Goldfinches and Pine Siskin, all in the genus Carduelis.

The other finches are almost mythical as they are so hard to find. Their preferred habitats are the arctic tundra, boreal forests and high mountain peaks. These include the Redpolls, Crossbills, Rosy-Finches and Pine and Evening Grosbeaks.

In 2010, I made trips to Duluth MN, Alaska and then last weekend to Sandia Crest outside Albuquerque NM and have been able to finally find all of these birds.

The 3 species of Rosy-Finch were once all combined, but then they were resplit. The Brown-capped Rosy-Finch summers high in the Rockies in Colorado. The Black Rosy-Finch summers at elevation in Wyoming and Montana. The Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch summers in the mountains of southern Alaska, but we didn't look for it in Alaska as it is too high in the mountains. Fortunately, in winter they come south, but stay in the mountains. All 3 species can be seen at the lodge at the top of Sandia Crest (10,700' elevation) where they have feeders out for them.

In all the 3 species, the males have pink rumps, pink on the wings and varying amounts of pink on the bellies. The females are always duller.

The Black Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte atrata) is the easiest to ID. The body is black with a gray crown patch. The bills in winter are yellow, but turn black in breeding plumage. Here are the male and female.

The Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis) has a cinnamon brown body with the gray crown patch. There is a black forehead, but the black doesn't extend beyond the top of the head.  Here are the male and female. 

The last one is the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte australis). It also has a brown body, but not cinnamon brown. It has either a dark cap or a gray cap with dark brown all through it. These 2 brown bodied birds can be confusing to ID sometimes.  Here are the male and female.   

The other finch was the Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra). Both species of crossbill use their peculiar beaks to pry open cones on fir and pine trees to get at the seeds inside. They travel in small flocks and are highly nomadic as they cover wide areas looking for unopened cones. I found a flock just below the top of the mountain at the 10,000' level and was able to get some great photos as they came down to the edge of the road to eat some grit for their crops. A crossbill is IDed by the beak, and the Red Crossbill doesn't have any white wing bars. The males are red and the females yellow olive. They both have darker wings than the body color. Here is a male in a spruce tree. 

And here is one on the road 15 feet from me as I stood still and let the flock walk towards me.

This 1st year male has red and yellow, but notice the two wing bars. Both Sibley and National Geographic field guides show this rare variant with the narrow wing bars. I was fortunate to get a photo of this unusual plumage. I didn't know that it had the wing bars until I developed the photos at home.   

The female is yellow to olive colored.   

This is likely a 1st year female as there is only a small amount of yellow on the head and chest. Notice how she hangs upside down to get at the cones. 

There is a wide variation in bill sizes in the Red Crossbill and this seems to depend on which tree and cones are utilized. There are 9 subspecies recognized by bill size and the voices are also different. So there is some discussion that perhaps there may be 9 separate species involved. Sibley discusses this on his web site among possible splits. But he thinks it would be highly unlikely to carve 1 species into 9 others as the work involved in DNA, voice recording and potential hybrids where ranges overlap would make a daunting task.
For people like me, who have trouble with altitude, there is a medication that can be taken before you leave to prevent the altitude sickness. I live at sea level on the Gulf Coast, and used to get very light-headed and nauseated when I went to Colorado, especially Aspen at over 8000 feet. It would take me 2-3 days to adjust, and I ruined half my vacation. Now with premedication, I was able to leave Houston at sea-level, fly to Albuquerque in 2 hours and drive another hour to the top of the mountain (10,700 feet) without a problem.

For those who don't know about this, the drug is Diamox. It comes in Diamox Sequels 500mg to be taken once daily starting 2 days before leaving and continuing for several days. As I was just there for the weekend, I took one each day. This is a prescription medication, but your family doctor should be able to write you a prescription for it.

All comments and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated.

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2010 David McDonald

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Ken Schneider said...

Nice report and photos, David. I posted a link to this blog entry on the Sandia Crest/Rosy-Finch Birding Forum:

David McDonald said...

Thanks Ken. It was a great visit to Sandia Crest.