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Video: Releasing a Rosy-Finch; Looking Out for their Future

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Michael Hilchey at the crest. Photo ©Raymond VanBuskirk

For many of us there, the high point, altitudinally and ornithologically, of the ABA’s recent Albuquerque Rally was visiting the famous rosy-finch banding station at Sandia Crest. Above, you can see Michael Hilchey, one the dedicated crew from Rio Grande Bird Research that keep this valuable and challenging project going. At the far right, the feeder and finch trap are visible.

Below is a shot of Raymond VanBuskirk, another of the rosy-finch researchers, returning a just-banded Black Rosy-Finch to the flock. Check out the concentration on Raymond’s face. These guys, along with all the RGBR gang, are fun, dynamic folks. But, boy, do they bring serious attention and care to the work they do. It’s a pleasure to witness.

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Raymond focussing. Photo ©Jesse Swift

I went up to Sandia the second of the three field trip days. Things started off very well, with single male Gray-crowned and Brown-capped rosy-finches visiting the feeder shortly after we arrived. A bit more waiting and some skillful trap operation, and we were fortunate to see one gorgeous male Brown-capped Rosy-Finch in the hand, a bird which had been banded there some years before.


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Raymond VanBuskirk holds “our” Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. This species breeds almost entirely in Colorado. I wonder if it might be one of those that nest on the tundra of Pike’s Peak, visible from ABA HQ?

Once this lovely bird was quickly weighed and measured and otherwise processed, Raymond gave rally participant Pat Blyer the honor of releasing it. I shot a quick video of the event that I thought you’d enjoy.

After an eventful and exciting first couple of hours, our patience and cold tolerance got a bit of a workout. Though it was hardly a brutal day on the mountain weather-wise, it was chilly for sure, especially when standing still for long periods. But we still hadn’t seen Black Rosy-Finch, ironically the most numerous rosy species wintering at Sandia.

So we waited…

And we waited…

And we huddled in the vans and ate our lunches. Then we waited some more.

But in an instant, the waiting and the cold were forgotten, as a squall of Rosies shot up over the ridge crest and settled in the trees above the feeders.

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Rosy-Finches aren’t exactly nervous…they can be incredibly confiding sometimes. But boy, are they ever active! We marvelled as the flocked flowed all around the feeders, and we used our newly-honed ID skills to pick out all three species, plus the distinctive gray-faced “Hepburn’s” form of Gray-crowned. It was a thrilling couple of minutes.

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We left Sandia Crest smiling and headed lower, where the birding was a little warmer and more diverse. But our time at the banding station was really something to treasure. I’ve known of the Sandia finches since the early 2000’s, so getting to see them and the project members in action is something I’ve waited for quite a while. It was more than worth it.

As great as our time up high with Raymond, Michael, the rosy-finches was, in some ways we learned even more from the presentation they gave to the entire rally group Sunday night. In it, they shared not only some of the exciting discoveries they have made and important questions they are working to answer, but also how much the Sandia flock, both avian and human, has meant to the shape, direction, and quality of their lives. It was inspiring, all the way round.

Speaking of those discoveries and questions, as miraculous as rosy-finches and their extrordinary life histories are, there are many, many reasons to be concerned for their future. Climate change poses an exceptional threat to them, living as many of them do in tiny islets of tundra habitat which are shrinking rapidly. High altitude stocking of non-native trout and other game fish may also be having a serious impact on their survival. And there are the more prosaic but still essential issues of where exactly the rosies that winter at Sandia, their southernmost outpost, come from and go back to.

All of us from the ABA who got to visit with the birds and birders of Albuquerque came away with a deeper appreciation of the vibrant birding scene there. And we wanted to do our small part to help the rosy-finch study and the other ongoing projects of Rio Grande Bird Research continue.

The final night of our rally, we passed a basket for donations to the finch study, collecting nearly $700 from the ABA audience. On top of that, the ABA donated $1000 to RGBR in support of all the great work they do, which includes not only rosy-finch project, but also banding in the bosque along Albuquerque’s Rio Grande, and the painstaking study of Black-throated Warblers done by Ashli Gorbet, another of our primary leaders on this rally, along with her husband, Larry.

I’d like to invite you to participate in all the great times and sound conservation science that is being done by ABA members like Ashli, Michael, and Raymond. If you’re able to contribute funds to support their efforts, you can send checks payable to Rio Grande Bird Research. Write Rosy-Finch on the check if you want to restrict your gift to that project. Mail to P.O. Box 6557 Albuquerque NM 87197

And if you’d like to join Raymond and Michael in New Mexico or elsewhere, check out their newly-formed tour company, High Desert Birding Adventures.

Additional info on the history of the rosy-finch project can be found at www.rosyfinch.com. For the most current updates go to the Sandia Rosy-Finch Project Facebook page. Audubon magazine did a great profile on Raymond, Michael, and the rosy-finches that you can read here.

Thanks to all of you in Albuquerque who welcomed the ABA to your patch! We’re looking forward to seeing all the great things you’ll do in the future.

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Some of the RGBR gang at Sandia Crest. From left: Jason Kitting, Steve Cox (another of our core rally leaders and president at RGBR), Mary Ristow, Nancy Cox, Lee Hopwood, Micheal Hilchey, and Raymond VanBuskirk. Thank you ALL for welcoming the ABA! photo ©Jane Kostenko