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Road trip rosy-finches in New Mexico

A frantic flock of rosy-finches appears out of dense cloud cover

Rosy-finches and more in New Mexico

Travel in all its forms delights me. To my great fortune, I get to visit all sorts of wonderful places. At Christmas, while much of America was dealing with bomb cyclones and flight delays, we headed out for an end-of-year road trip. Our destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I’d never been. For the first time on an extended trip, we were bringing our pandemic puppy with us. I was especially excited about this trip because my parents were meeting us in Santa Fe. I don’t get to see them as much as I wish. The chance to explore a new place with my wife, my boys, and my parents around was invigorating.

On the way to Santa Fe, we stopped first at the Grand Canyon. Our boys had never been there. They were underwhelmed. Our youngest said “it’s just a canyon, but bigger.” Regular trips to southern Utah, spiced with adolescence, can diminish the grandeur of nature’s amazing wonders. I enjoyed the relatively uncrowded scene. We stayed right at the southern rim in the Yavapai Lodge. We arrived at night. Noticing a clear sky, I headed out into the darkness to see the Milky Way. As usual, it was humbling. It was a new moon, so I couldn’t see anything else – just a black void over the rim. We all arose early the next morning to catch sunrise at snow-sprinkled Mather Point. After breakfast, we walked out to the Yavapai Geology Museum, which is super cool. As a bonus, a Juniper Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, and Hairy Woodpecker all made an appearance while I tended the dog. I think she appreciated the view as much as anyone else.

Having pondered the impossibility of that colossal canyon, we loaded up for the ride to Santa Fe. Along the way, we stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona (get a delicious hot dog and crepe at Sipp Shoppe if you stop). We stretched our legs at the Painted Desert rim of Petrified Forest National Park. And we debated provenance and counted the fingers at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque.

Our home base in Santa Fe was a 2-bedroom casita at the Pecos Trail Inn. Not fancy, but just what we needed. This wasn’t a birding-focused trip. Rather, we were checking out the sights in and around Santa Fe. We took a historical architectural walking tour of downtown, we drove up to Los Alamos for nuclear bomb history and a science museum, spent an afternoon amongst the cliff dwelling ruins of Bandelier National Monument, had our minds blown at an art installation called Meow Wolf, ate some enchiladas, and enjoyed a good snowfall.

Of course, there was birding. While there wasn’t a ton of bird diversity in Santa Fe, my Dad and I managed some nice sightings as we wandered the neighborhood around the Pecos Trail Inn. We also visited the Randall Davey Audubon Center just outside town, which (if it weren’t for the falling snow and wind) seems like a great place to see birds.

While birding wasn’t the focus of this trip, I wasn’t going to visit northern New Mexico without making the pilgrimage to Sandia Crest. It’s a stunning mountain ridge a mile above above the already mile-high city of Albuquerque. The reason to go is the Rosy-finches. These are high elevation birds – they breed above the treeline in the mountains of the American West and Canada and Alaska. In the winter, they descend to lower elevations, giving us a chance to see them. Sandia Crest is (I believe) the single best spot in the world to see all three species of rosy-finches in one visit. That it’s easy to access via a paved road makes it all the better.  Good thing on the maintenance, because a snow storm a couple days before we arrived and dense cloud cover which reduced visibility at times to 20-30 feet on the drive up made the drive up a little more adventurous. As we neared the top, every branch of every tree and bush was covered in snow and ice. When we finally made it to the top, there were high winds and snow, and not much else going on. It took my son and I a few minutes of wandering before we found the all-important feeder that brought in the rosy-finches.

The Rosy-finch feeder at Sandia Crest

While the others wandered the crest, I stood and watched. An Abert’s Squirrel with its tufted ears was sitting on the feeder when I found it, which didn’t bode well for the rosy-finches to come visit. A few ladies with binoculars got excited about some birds perched near the feeder, but they turned out to be Cassin’s Finches. After about 30 minutes of waiting, a flock of birds appeared out of the mist. One second the feeder was empty, the next there were 30 rosy-finches taking their turns at the feeder or working the ground for seed. I spent a minute or two scanning through my binoculars. Most were Black Rosy-finches, but at least two birds were something else. They weren’t chestnut brown, but they were a faded shade of brown. While there was a hint of gray at the back of their head, they lacked a clear gray-crown.

The dense clouds softened my views, and I decided I wasn’t going to be able to confidently separate Brown-capped from Gray-crowned Rosy-finch with these views. Worried the flock would flush at any moment, I decided it was best to just snap a bunch of photos and see what I could pick out later (triggering the Manx Shearwater Conundrum). A report the day before of an American Three-toed Woodpecker in the trees along the nearby trail had me thinking about walking around to see if I could stumble into it. But I stayed near the feeder, hoping for a return of the Rosy-finches. A group of 5 Black Rosy-finches flew in 15 minutes later, and left just as quickly. Better weather would have allowed us to stay longer. All were cold, though, so we packed it in and headed back down the mountain.

The most range-limited Rosy-finch, the Brown-capped (banded)

I wasn’t able to pick out a Gray-crowned (the most widespread of the rosy-finches) in any of my pictures, which meant I only added 2 lifers to my list instead of getting the trifecta. But that’s no lament. The whole thing was a great, memorable experience. I’d go back to New Mexico in a hot minute, especially for some spring or fall adventures. There looked to be a ton of good hiking around, and much more to explore.

 

 

Along the road to Sandia Crest

Snowy Owl in Southern California

An Arctic resident basks in the sun, wondering if the journey north makes any sense

Snowy Owl in Southern California

In my 2020 5MR recap post, I listed Snowy Owl as a bird I might add to my 5MR life list in the coming year. It was funny because of how improbable it was. And while I haven’t yet seen a Snowy Owl in my 5MR, I got surprisingly close a few days ago. We in Southern California have been unbelievably graced by a Snowy Owl’s presence this winter. It started with a mid-November report of a Snowy Owl in San Pedro, California (a town right next to Long Beach harbor). It was reported in iNaturalist, where someone posted a photo “taken by a friend” of a Snowy Owl sitting on a house’s roof. Word didn’t get around to birders until the day after it was supposedly seen. The nerds were dubious, and went to work scouring google earth to find the exact house. Others combed the area. The roof from the photo was found, in the neighborhood where the owl was apparently seen, but no one ever saw the bird. More photos and videos emerged, providing strong evidence that there had, in fact, been a Snowy Owl in Los Angeles.

Fast forward to the day after Christmas. Word goes out that somebody on facebook posted a video of a Snowy Owl on a residential rooftop in Cypress, California. This is Orange County, not L.A. County, but just 16-18 miles from the first sighting. This time, birders were much more open to the possibility that this was real. But they were also prepared to be disappointed. Christmas had already come and gone. And this time, when birders raced there, a Snowy Owl was waiting for them. And ti kept being there, day after day in the same neighborhood, sitting on a roof all day long. I had just left for a winter vacation in New Mexico (rosy-finches!) with my family, so I had to cross my fingers from afar that the improbable visitor would hang around. 

As luck would have it, it did. Unsurprisingly, it has been madness. Birders and photographers (in a mega-city full of them) thronged to the residential address that had been shared online. That’s a very frowned-upon thing to do when it comes to owl sightings, because it brings lots of people and risks spooking or distressing the owl and causing it to leave. But most, thought not all of the owl-watchers, have been respectful in their ogling. There were so many of them that cops were out in the neighborhood over the weekend controlling the scene. I made my pilgrimage the day after we returned to town, and was rewarded with point-blank views of this tundra titan.

This is the kind of bird that attracts the attention of non-birders. The owl’s presence has been written-up in the NY Times and on HuffPost , it’s been on all the local TV news stations, and there are countless tik-toks and instagrams and whatnots about it. This attention brought out hundreds more looky loos. On the main, the inevitable attention of this spectacular absurdity is a net positive. Instead of a few nerds with binoculars appreciate a wayward individual, this wonderful bird had brought out the whole community to appreciate its stunning beauty. You can see pictures of the bird here.

Snowy Owl + palm trees = awesome start to 2023

The unanswerable question, the unknowable fact, the unfillable hole at the center of this donut, is how this Snowy Owl got to Southern California. Theories abound. There are three main possibilities. First one: it migrated here from the Arctic. This is, in my mind, unlikely. While Snowy Owls do regularly head south to the United States each winter, they don’t regularly make it much past the border. When they do, it’s usually in “irruption” years when the population booms and young owls spread further afield than usual. This is not an irruption year. Yet, this is the first Snowy Owl west of Texas and south of Las Vegas in recent memory. So the idea that this birds flew from Nunavut to La-La land is slim.

Second possibility – some buffoon had the bird captive, as a pet or curiosity, and it escaped or was released. The chances of this being true seems low as well. It behaves like a wild bird, perching all day on a chimney or rooftop (which is what Snowy Owls that show up in cities do), and departing at sunset to go feed. Besides, outside of Hogwarts, how many people have captive Snowy Owls? It can’t be ruled out, but it seems unlikely.

That leaves a third option – the bird hitched a ride on a tanker from Alaska or other parts north and rode it into Long Beach harbor. That would explain the original sighting so close to the harbor. And it would most plausibly explain how a single Snowy Owl appeared out of the clear blue sky so far south. Such so-called “ship-assisted” birds are a real, though perhaps exaggerated, phenomenon. It raises esoteric debates amongst birders about whether a ship-assisted bird “counts” on your life list. I’ll spare you the details. What matters is that Southern California–birders, nature-lovers, and curiosity-seekers alike–have been blessed by the presence of majestical vagrant. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a great 2023.

 

 

 

 

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