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A winter mob arrives: It's rosy-finch season
By Bert Raynes, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: January 23, 2013
This week Susan Patla has prepared this column for your information and reading pleasure. Susan is a Wyoming Game and Fish Department nongame biologist, a great nature and animal observer, a delightful friend. Her topic this time is the rosy-finch (name of species newly hyphenated). Thanks, Susan.
Looking for birds in the forest or watching feeders this time of year in Jackson Hole can tax the patience of even the ardent lover of long winters. Mid-January: the pause between the end of early winter movements and the beginning of the flow of spring juices. When the neighborhood seems too quiet, too empty.
What would we do without the avian visitors from the Far North who descend on Jackson like hordes of happy skiers, enjoying our hospitality and cold?
Often the most numerous winter visitor and the most notable that can mob the yards of some fortunate bird feeders is the plump, noisy gray-crowned rosy-finch. Rosy-finches are the ultimate extreme-environment specialists, breeding at higher elevations than any other bird species. Bert Raynes has captured the wonder of these birds in many of his works.
Winter brings rosy-finches down from the timberline of the high mountains of the northern Rockies to the valleys and onto the basins and plains in search of seeds and occasional insects. In winter, rosy-finches frequently gather in flocks of hundreds. To see a large, closely knit flock of these brownish-blackish-gray birds whirl into the air only to land for a few minutes of restless feeding, picking up gravel and walking about before taking off once again is still another seasonal delight. Not only see, but hear as well, for these bouncy sparrow-size finches tend to keep up an almost constant cheerful twittering.
“Rosy finch” was the overall name recently (i.e., 1983-93) used to include individuals formerly known as gray-crowned, black and brown-capped rosy-finch, denying them distinct species identification. As a bird-watcher, I regretted this lumping together because it tended to make a winter watcher inattentive to wonderful details. It is nice to see these birds now returned to their proper status.
The gray-crowned rosy-finch has a brownish body, a sporty gray patch on the back of the head and a pinkish wash on the wings. As it comes into late winter and spring plumage, the black rosy-finch shows a distinctly black body and back, and a gray head band and much pink on wings and belly. The brown-capped rosy-finch has, as you can guess, a brownish head with no gray.
The above description is from Bert’s “Winter Wings: Birds of the Northern Rockies” (2003). If you don’t have this book, with wonderful photographs from Tom Mangelsen, there is still plenty of time left in winter to enjoy it! More information on rosy-finches can be found in Bert’s “Birds of Grand Teton National Park and the Surrounding Area” (1984):
“In summer, rosy-finches are found in the upper elevations of the region, on the high mountainsides and in the alpine zones. Best bet in the summer used to be near the top of Rendevous Mountain in Teton Village. (Note: In recent years, finches have been hard to find up there so finch-finding requires longer hikes up into the Tetons, such as Table Mountain or above Holly Lake.) The search among the snowfields and talus slopes for the hyperactive finch that walks rather than hops is a rewarding kind of bird-watching. When found above treeline, the bird is the black rosy-finch, our local nester.”
To complete this tour of Raynes on rosy-finches, look for the commentary, along with Greg McHuron’s delightful painting, in “Birds of Sage and Scree” (2010).
One last note: A brown-capped rosy-finch, which nests only in a small area of Colorado and southeastern Wyoming, was photographed at a feeder in Pinedale a few years ago.
Field notes: Thanks to the many observers who have responded to requests to report great gray owl sightings. There seems to be an influx of this magnificent owl into the valley from higher-elevation areas, suggesting that populations of voles and pocket gophers are robust this winter. Keep those reports coming in!
Rosy-finches are seen in flocks west of Jackson Hole Airport these days (Tracey Blue, Hunter Marrow) and across from the National Fish Hatchery.
Bald eagles are pairing, and ravens are cuddling together. Midwinter.
© Bert Raynes 2013