The Quest for the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch

August 01, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The story starts last November when I went to Bosque del Apache in New Mexico for a bird photography workshop. The

Black Rosy-FinchBlack Rosy-FinchSandia Crest, NM

workshop was held over the Thanksgiving weekend, and finished on the Saturday. Had I started driving home that day, I would have ended up driving on I-5 the next day - the last day of the four-day weekend. It is the worst day of the year to be driving on I-5 between LA and SF. Instead, I decided to delay my departure by a day, and drive up to Sandia Crest, a 10,679' peak just northeast of Albuquerque, to search for rosy-finches. I had already seen a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, but the two other rosy-finch species (Black and Brown-capped) can be found with Gray-crowned at the top of Sandia Crest. On a good day, that is. There had been snow a week earlier, and the road to the top still had lots of ice on it, especially near the top. The road is steep, narrow, and windy, and not a pleasant drive with all the icy bits. At the summit is a tea house with bird feeders - an ideal set-up. You sit inside sipping hot chocolate, and the birds come to the feeders. To make a long story short, I stayed there most of the day and saw only Gray-crowned and Black Rosy-Finches. I took many photos and hoped there might be a Brown-capped lurking amongst the others, but a careful review of the photos did not show any. There had been Brown-capped seen there the day before, and more were reported the day after, but not that day. I couldn't stay any longer, so left happy to add the Black Rosy-Finch (photo right) to my lists, but quite disappointed in the missing Brown-capped Rosy-Finch (which I will now refer to as BCRF). [Note - I'm not too worried about driving on snow and ice, having learned to drive in Canada, but I do worry about other people, especially ones that are tail-gating me down such roads!]


Cirque MeadowsCirque MeadowsPingree Park, CO

Back at home I did some research and discovered that BCRF can be found in the Colorado Rockies in the summer. I signed up for a Road Scholar birding and hiking tour to the northern part of the Colorado Rockies, realizing that during the trip it would be unlikely that we would find rosy-finches (wrong part of the mountains), but I could plan for adding a couple of days to the

trip to search elsewhere. The Road Scholar part of the trip was fantastic - we stayed in the Colorado State University campus in Pingree Park, and ventured out every day to different locations to bird. A couple of the days included hikes to scenic areas, where we found many mountain bird species, like American Three-toed Woodpecker and Dusky Grouse, but no rosy-finches. 

As soon as the tour was over, I drove to Trail Ridge Rd in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a tedious drive. Although as the bird flies it is hardly any distance from Pingree Park, there are no suitable roads. I had to drive

PikaPikaTrail Ridge Rd, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO

east all the way to Fort Collins, south through Fort Collins, and then back west into the mountains. Driving in Rocky Mountain National Park is similar to many other national parks I've visited. There's one road, it is narrow and windy, often with steep drops on one side and no guard rail, and the speed limit is low. I'm not sure if drivers are enjoying the view, or are terrified of driving along such a road, but you end up trailing other cars at a speed considerably slower than the posted speed. It was frustrating - I was on a mission and didn't have much time! I'm not keen on enjoying the view from a car - I'd much rather get out and explore on foot. Besides, when you're driving, especially on a crowded road with steep drops and no guard rails, you need to focus on that task, and not sightseeing - or looking for birds, for that matter.


I had noted in eBird all the locations where finches had been seen, and stopped at all of them. "Rock Cut" had cute pikas and marmots, and lots of pipits and siskins, but no finches. There is a short trail out across the tundra to some rock piles - more pipits, but not much else. "Lava Beds" was more promising with several large areas of scree and patches of snow on the north side of the road, but it was not a pleasant place to hang out. A cold wind was blowing, rain was threatening, there was no trail to get away from the parking area, and the noise of the constant traffic drowned out Mountain BluebirdMountain BluebirdTrail Ridge Rd, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO any other sounds. I had my camera ready, but all the comments people were making about it became quite tiresome ("Oh, what a big camera that is!" and "What zoom is that?" Someday, maybe, I'll come up with a civil reply to these daft comments, but when I'm in a grumpy mood as I was that day, it's best for me to say nothing.). Next was the visitor center - a Mountain Bluebird was nice, but not what I was looking for. One of the rangers said he had seen finches back at Lava Beds the day before (that sounded familiar), so I duly went back and spent far too long studying the scree slopes there, and being studied by curious tourists who'd never seen a large lens up close before. I thought I saw finch-shaped birds flying around, but they were some distance away, and every time they landed, they disappeared behind rocks. 


American PipitAmerican PipitSummit Lake, Mt. Evans, CO Another ranger said she'd seen ptarmigans with young the day before (always "the day before") at another pull-out where BCRF were often found, so another hour was spent there, walking along another trail across the tundra and admiring sparrows (White-crowned) and yet more pipits, but no ptarmigans (that was last year's quest) or finches.


Although Trail Ridge Rd was a bust for me, not all hope was lost. Another hot spot for finches was Mt. Evans, a 14,265' peak with a paved road going all the way to the top - the highest paved road in the nation. There was a chance, I figured, that I could go there that day. Beautiful as it was, there were too many people and too much traffic, so I was glad to get away from the national park. However, Highway 40 to I-70 was not much fun either. At one point, where there were four lanes, I was overtaking two cars going well below the speed limit. As I passed the trailing car, I realized it was a state trooper, and he was speeding up to match my speed. I slowed down a little to match the speed limit, and he moved behind me. I put cruise control on and drove at exactly the speed limit, carefully adjusting to all the variations in speed limit as the road went through several small towns. He followed me for about 20 miles! It was quite ridiculous, not to mention a bit stressful and especially irritating at the end of a trying day.


By the time I got to I-70, it was clear I could not go up Mt. Evans that day. I needed to go east on I-70 for about 9 miles, but it was a Sunday evening, and the Denver-bound traffic going east on I-70 was at a standstill. Instead I drove west to the next town and stopped for the night. The next day I headed back east to Mt. Evans, but I was running out of time. I

Leucistic American PipitLeucistic American PipitSummit Lake, Mt Evans, CO had a deadline for getting home, and reckoned I could spend only about half a day on the mountain. The first stop was Summit Lake, an alpine lake about 5 miles from the top. There had been many sightings of BCRF here in recent weeks, so I was quite optimistic. I walked every place I could (most areas are off-limits to foot traffic), and while I did find something I'd never seen before, it wasn't a BCRF. Like on Trail Ridge Rd, the most abundant bird was American Pipit. They were actually a bit annoying because there were many of them, and I had to check them all out to make sure they weren't finches. Fortunately they have a characteristic shape and bobbing behavior, and a distinctive call note that makes them easily identifiable. However, one of them was very interesting - an almost completely white pipit. Leucistic birds like this are rare, but not unknown. Actually, this might be a true albino, since it is lacking pigment in the bill and legs as well. I wondered how it would survive, being so visible and having no melanin in the feathers to strengthen them (meaning they would be weak and wear out quickly).


Summit Lake was, like many other stops, a beautiful place with great views, but I needed to move on. Near the parking lot was one of those touristy interpretive signs. It mentioned BCRF, and one notable fact it stated was that after BCRF chicks fledge, the birds migrate to lower elevations. I wondered if I was too late in the season and had missed the boat. Finding finches up here above the tree line shouldn't be too hard - down lower amongst the trees would be tough.


Scree slope where Brown-capped Rosy-Finches hang out.Scree slope where Brown-capped Rosy-Finches hang out.Mt. Evans, Colorado

It's a good thing I moved on when I did - when at last I reached the summit, five miles beyond Summit Lake with stops to look and listen, there were only a few parking spots left, and more cars were coming. According to eBird, a pair of BCRF had been seen recently near the last hairpin bend before the parking area. I explored the parking area a bit, and then set out along the "trail" west of the last hairpin bend. It was not much of a trail, since it was a scree slope, but there was another view point at the end of it that looked like it would at least provide a nice view, if nothing else. 


A large number of ravens (about 30) were circling overhead, which did not seem like a good omen. As I picked my way carefully through the rocks, I was deep in gloomy thought - I had about 45 minutes left until my deadline to head home. I wondered what I would do next to look for these birds - another trip to Bosque del Apache was appealing, but it is best visited in winter, when the drive up to Sandia Crest would be unpredictable, considering road conditions. Chains could be required, or it could be impassable. Another trip to the Colorado Rockies wouldn't be bad - it is a stunningly beautiful area - maybe it could be a detour on one of my trips to Alberta - or maybe I should drop this quest for now and explore something more productive, like Texas during spring migration ..... at this point a small brownish bird with a dark brown head zipped by going the other direction, closely followed by another. That was it!!! No doubt at all, nothing else up here could look like that. They flew by a couple Brown-capped Rosy-FinchBrown-capped Rosy-FinchMt. Evans, Colorado more times, giving me at least time to get a poor flight shot, then landed out of sight behind some rocks; I turned around and chased after them, as fast as the rocks and 14,200' altitude would allow.


By the time I caught up to them, one was sitting out in the open on  Brown-capped Rosy-FinchOver-exposed Brown-capped Rosy-FinchMt. Evans, Colorado a rock, easily identifiable without binoculars. Now I wanted a better photo. I raised my camera, focused on the finch, checked the exposure ..... and that's when the exposure meter on my camera went haywire. First it jumped the shutter speed up a stop or two, so the first photo was grossly underexposed. I corrected the exposure to what I thought it should be (1/1000 sec at F5.6 and ISO 800), but the exposure meter indicated that I was underexposed. Puzzled, I adjusted the shutter speed to match the meter, ending up at 1/125 sec. That was way too over-exposed. The bird flew off. I could not believe this was happening! I quickly decided that there was an issue with the exposure meter, and took a few sample shots to test the correct exposure (1/1000 sec). Then, hoping against hope, I got out my cell phone and played the BCRF call. It worked. Both birds came back and settled on a rock long enough to get in a few more photos. Phew.


The thrill of finally finding and photographing the finch was over-shadowed by the camera problem. I decided it had altitude sickness. The car seemed to be in sympathy with the camera - when I turned on the power for the start of the long drive home, it told me it needed an oil change - only 2,000 miles since the last one. Silly car. It has cried wolf like this before, so I ignored it, although such things are a bit disturbing when they happen in places like at the top of the highest paved road in the nation. The camera, however, ended up with a trip to the Canon hospital. I guess I was lucky that happened at the end of the trip - I have a backup camera just for situations like this, but it's not quite as good.


So that was it. I wish I could have found the bird sooner so I could have had more time exploring the mountains, but that's just the way it is with chasing birds. On the other hand, if it weren't for the birds, I may never have gone at all - definitely, one of the attractions of birding is discovering new places. I'm looking forward to researching the next target, and discovering more places.

Brown-capped Rosy-FinchBrown-capped Rosy-FinchMt. Evans, CO



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