Band of Brothers
Not even a tragic accident could derail two young men’s inspiring project to study one of North America’s least-understood birds. Their groundbreaking research is helping ornithologists understand how to help these birds as a warming climate alters their mountain home.
One night four years ago, two boys were driving outside of Roswell, New Mexico, after a day of birding, when suddenly the unimaginable happened: a terrible car wreck. Ryan Beaulieu, 17, a bird enthusiast who had helped bring national attention to Sandia Crest, the highest point in New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains, and to the rosy-finches that congregate there in winter, was killed instantly.
The other boy, Raymond VanBuskirk, was rushed to the hospital, where he received a full blood transfusion. Doctors immobilized his cracked elbow in a cast, wrapped his swollen head in bandages, and listed his condition as critical. When he finally came to, his family and friends cried in relief. But for Raymond, just 15 at the time, waking up meant facing an awful reality: Ryan, his best friend, was dead.
“We basically lived together, we were together all the time,” says Raymond. “I probably saw him more than I saw my own family.”
The tragic accident ended what had been a unique and successful collaboration between the two boys on behalf of rosy-finches. For the three years before that fateful day, armed only with a love of the finches and a bounty of enthusiasm and energy, the boys took to snowy Sandia Crest, where they collected invaluable data on the species, learning more about the birds than anyone could have imagined. After Ryan died, Raymond, along with a fellow birder and friend Michael Hilchey, decided to continue the project, now in its seventh year. What these young men are finding out could help ornithologists uncover how rosy-finches and other alpine bird species will be affected as warmer temperatures creep up their mountainside homes.
Before the accident, Ryan and Raymond had been showered with awards and accolades for their rosy-finch bird-banding project. The three species of rosy-finches found in North America—the black, gray-crowned, and brown-capped—are among the least-known species on the continent because they breed in remote, far-flung places and winter in the southern Rocky Mountains, in rugged alpine habitat known as sky islands—isolated, high-elevation mountain ranges that exist above oceans of warmer, lower-lying environments. All three species spend the winter in the southern Rockies. But the Sandia Mountains, outside of Albuquerque, is a rare place where all three can be found consistently through the winter months, and the project provides a unique opportunity to study these elusive, pink-tinted birds.
As word of the boys’ work spread, Audubon chapter leaders began asking them to give presentations, so they put together a slide show and took it on the road across the state. When they spoke, their knowledge of the birds and enthusiasm about their work was palpable.
Ryan’s excitement was so infectious that in 2005, a third teenager, Michael Hilchey, starting volunteering regularly at the Sandia Crest House Gift Shop and Restaurant, where Ryan and Raymond did their research, and he eventually joined the project as a full-fledged partner. The boys were all-inclusive, getting everyone they could involved, says Beth Hurst-Waitz, president of Central New Mexico Audubon, who first introduced Ryan and Raymond. “Ryan’s legacy is his spirit, because it’s indescribable the magic he worked on people,” she says.
“Ryan lived quite a remarkable life, and in his death he’s left quite a legacy,” says Eileen Beaulieu, Ryan’s mom. “Rosy-finches were his passion—he just loved them. To see him with the birds was like seeing a child on Christmas morning. If his life can encourage others to become interested, it’s there to be shared.”
Both Raymond and Michael are now studying biology at the University of New Mexico. They continue the rosy-finch project each winter, with guidance from Steve Cox, a research coordinator for Rio Grande Bird Research Inc., a citizen science program that gathers data on area birds and submits it to the U.S. Geological Survey’s banding laboratory and to New Mexico’s Department of Game and Fish to help land managers make good conservation decisions.
On Sundays, from mid-November through March, Raymond and Michael, along with 10 to 20 volunteers, band and take a feather from each bird they catch. Then they weigh and measure each individual. Their plan is to take the information, analyze it, and publish their results in scientific journals and ornithology books with the help of professors at the University of New Mexico. “The work is really cool because of the scientific aspect and the emotional attachment,” says Raymond. “We’ve dedicated the project to Ryan. We’re keeping his memory alive by continuing.”