January 26 – 28: Less than an hour’s drive from downtown Albuquerque at the end of route 536 (Crest Road) off the famous “Turquoise Trail,” at an elevation of 10,678 feet, sits Sandia Crest, perhaps the most consistently reliable spot in North America to see the three species of Rosy-Finches – Black, Brown-capped, and Gray-crowned. All three are western high-montane breeders and therefore seldom seen except in winter at scattered locations where feeders are maintained at high elevations.
Of the three species, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch has the widest range, with scattered winter individuals of the coastal gray-cheeked Hepburn’s subspecies sometimes seen together with the interior race. Brown-capped Rosy Finch has the smallest range, breeding only in the high Rocky Mountains of Colorado and southern Wyoming, and extending in the winter south only as far as Sandia Crest. The three species typically occur together in mixed flocks in varying ratios.
Ater landing at ABQ on Saturday morning, Jan. 26, I wasted no time heading up to Sandia and arrived at the Crest by 1:15 PM. The weather here had been sunny for weeks and weeks straight, but Murphy’s Law prevailed and of course the rain started just as I turned onto the Crest Road, and conditions at the summit turned out to be about as bad as possible – sleet, cold wind, and zero visibility. Fortunately I had brought a book, so I sat in the car and read for a while, hoping for a break in the weather.
At about 2 PM, the sleet tapered off and the visibility improved just enough, so, bundled up with five layers, I was finally able to look around. It didn’t take more than a few paces along the first trail to spot movement on the ground and right there was a group of five Black and three Brown-capped Rosy-Finches, utilizing the lee of the rocky outcroppings along the crest edge as shelter from the wind. Two new species, and the two main target birds of the trip (three vagrant Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches were photographed on a trip to Duluth, MN in January of 2007).
There was no sun, but the precipitation didn’t return, and the Rosy-Finches, estimated to number between three and four dozen, congregated around the feeders for most of the afternoon. All three species were present, even including one Hepburn’s Gray-crowned. There were also eight or so gray-headed Dark-eyed Juncos, a lone Steller’s Jay, and a mammal I had never seen before – an Abert’s Squirrel, with its unusual tufted ears.
The next day had promised to be sunny, but conditions at the summit actually turned out even worse than on Saturday, with the Crest socked in by a cloud and, despite no actual precipitation, very poor visibility. Even so, the hardy team of banders were banding, offering a chance to view several Rosy-Finches up close in the hand.
Monday morning offered the chance to head south some 45 miles on I-25 to Bernardo WMA. I had actually planned to visit famous Bosque del Apache to see the large flocks of Snow and Ross’s Geese and Sandhill Cranes, but Bernardo is 35 miles closer to Albuquerque and offers much the same opportunity. Here you can experience the extraordinary sight of thousands of white geese and/or Sandhill Cranes all taking flight at the same time, all amidst a resounding cacophony of honking and squawking. The refuge features a three-mile birding loop road and two elevated viewing blind/platforms.
Bernardo NWR is a carefully managed wildlife refuge, with vast cornfields planted especially to be cut down to provide a reliable, nutritious winter food supply for the thousands of migratory birds. Some corn is purposely left standing at a height where only the Cranes can reach it, while the geese (as well as lots of American Crows and other species) feed on the cut corn on the ground. The mixed flocks of geese are comprised of both Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese, including a decent smattering of blue morphs. The Sandhill Cranes include both Greater and Lesser subspecies, which are very easy to distinguish when they are side by side. Besides its obviously smaller stature, Lesser Sandhill Crane has a noticeably shorter and thinner bill.
The total species count at Bernardo was nineteen, including an adult and a juvenile Bald Eagle flying together, and a Golden Eagle.