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.
Rosy-finches sparked Ryan and Raymond's interest when the boys were in middle school, just 14 and 13 years old. Ryan was enamored of the birds' high-altitude habitat, and the finches' pink coloring reminded him of the alpine glow on the mountains at sunset. The mystery surrounding the finches reinforced the allure. He saw his chance to work with them in Steve Cox, a soft-spoken, 56-year-old man, who has been collecting data on area birds for 25 years with his wife, Nancy, for Rio Grande Bird Research. As the group's research coordinator, he held banding permits. After volunteering with Cox, Ryan asked if he and Raymond could do their own project. Cox told Ryan that if they came up with a question to explore, he would help them get permits to band the birds. The boys decided to focus on trying to figure out whether the same rosy-finches migrate to Sandia Crest each year.
The affirmative answer marked a new discovery for both the boys and ornithologists. Only a handful of researchers study the species, making Ryan, Raymond, and Michael's findings significant. "This information is not known--even still--other than what we've been collecting," says Cox. The sky islands where the finches flock amid rocky ridges are remote and isolated, so knowing that the birds return to the same place each winter could help land managers safeguard them.
Today there's serious momentum to designate the finches' Sandia Mountains habitat an Important Bird Area. Steve and Nancy Cox had recommended it for listing even before the rosy-finch project began, but the committee denied the request because it felt the proposed area was too small. Karyn Stockdale, Audubon New Mexico's executive director, believes there's now a good chance that it will be named an IBA. "I think the rosy-finch project makes it rise to the top," she says. "The Sandias are a wilderness area outside of a major metropolitan area, so the location has incredible educational opportunities. Secondly, it's a high alpine environment that the rosy-finches visit in the winter. We're fearful that these are some of the birds that are most at risk to the effects of climate change in the state because they only live in this environment."
In summer each of the three species nests in different locations, although the environment is the same: cracks or crevices in rocky terrain, often on mountainsides. The birds prefer cool temperatures, so in their northern ranges, they can nest at lower elevations. In more southern latitudes, they move to higher elevations to find the same brisk temperatures, often breeding near snowfields above 13,000 feet.
The brown-capped rosy-finch, identified by a pure brown head and a pink to red belly, rump, and wing edges, is the least common of the three and was recently listed by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program as a species of special concern. It breeds in Colorado and southern Wyoming, and once nested in northern New Mexico, although no one has seen the species there in summer for years. The black rosy-finch, covered in dark feathers and with a strip of gray on its head, has a pink-tinged belly, rump, tail coverts, and upper portion of the wing. This species makes its summer home in the Great Basin area--eastern Utah, northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana, southern Idaho, southeastern Oregon, and eastern Nevada. The gray-crowned rosy-finch, which breeds at higher altitudes than almost any other North American bird, is distinguished by brown body feathers and a black head with a gray strip around the back. In summer it migrates to harsh environments in the Rocky, Cascade, and Sierra Nevada mountains and as far north as Alaska's Brooks Range and Aleutian and Pribilof islands.
Almost nothing is known about rosy-finch populations. Scientists can only speculate about flock sizes, or about whether the birds' numbers are going up or down. Seeing them in the winter allows researchers in the finches' southern range to learn about them from an often more accessible vantage point, without having to travel to their high summer homes. When there's a lot of snow cover the birds often cluster at Sandia Crest, where food is almost always available. During the summer months they move quite a bit, but scientists still don't know exactly where they go.
Helping to solve that riddle--and building their bird knowledge by chasing other species--is addictive, says Michael, a tall 18-year-old with buzzed blond hair and glasses. "I love the people, I love all the science behind everything. The birds are beautiful, I love learning new things, and I love to go on road trips," he says. "Birding is mysterious--you never know what you're going to find." He and Raymond have canoed in Costa Rica with crocodiles swimming alongside their boat and snowshoed up a mountain, reaching 10,000 feet in the middle of the night, just to see a boreal owl. "I figure everybody has something they geek out on--we just took it to the next level," says Michael. Adds Raymond, "It's intense, it gets me outdoors--and if I don't get outdoors, I lose it. We don't have other obsessions, but we have other interests." They both played soccer, Raymond has a girlfriend, and they live otherwise normal college lives.