Wheeler Peak wilderness yields exciting discovery

In a 1991 study, researchers W.H. Romme and M.G. Turner concluded that global warming scenarios could lead to habitat fragmentation and loss of some populations, especially in New Mexico.

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In the rocky crags above Williams Lake, three intrepid birder-scientists confirmed the presence of a bird species not observed breeding in New Mexico for nearly 30 years.

Luke George, Jill Wussow, and Raymond VanBuskirk hiked into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, camped overnight near the lake, then spent five grueling hours the next day inspecting the bowls and talus slopes of New Mexico's highest peaks. On June 13, VanBuskirk dispatched this report to eBird (an international database of bird sightings administered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), and the news telegraphed around the state:

"We found ourselves above 12,000 feet in some of the highest reaches of the greater Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. It was here, amongst unstable scree, alpine snowfields, and inaccessible crags, that we found a pair of brown-capped rosy-finches carrying nest material to a crevice high on a 90-degree cliff face."

What may be most important here is that the finches carried nest material, so we leap to what is possible: the promise of hatchlings and the reclamation of this iconic landscape for at least one species. Spied from afar, the birds were mere specks upon a snowfield where they foraged for seeds and insects frozen on the surface.

"It's like they're walking along a dinner plate and just picking things off," mused George, science director at Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.

George became alarmed about the large decline of brown-cappeds detected on Christmas Bird Counts in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming over the past several decades and the lack of breeding observations in New Mexico. He reviewed the historical data, reached out to Sandy Williams of the New Mexico Ornithological Society and contacted other ornithologists and scientists. Together with VanBuskirk, 11 historic breeding sites in New Mexico were identified.

"Over the past few summers, we've visited five of those (sites). We were able to document brown-capped rosy-finch at just one," George said about the Wheeler Peak Wilderness discovery.

The warm brown and soft pink plumage of the brown-capped belie the cold alpine tundra it prefers. If we rule out Mexico, the brown-capped is the highest elevation breeding bird on the North American continent. Yet, its present range is a compressed swatch along the Rockies, like a band-aid, from Northern New Mexico to southern Wyoming.

VanBuskirk, who described the ordeal to find the birds as a "death march," is owner and guide of Brant Nature Tours of Albuquerque, an ecotourism company that donates a portion of its proceeds to support bird research and conservation nonprofits. He's also part of a working group, mostly volunteers, who check historic sites throughout the Rockies for the presence or absence of brown-cappeds.

"At one time in the 1930s, there were multiple breeding grounds in Northern New Mexico," he reflected, gloomily. "Some 30-40 individuals were reported on Gold Hill. We found this pair, but it's not a sign of them coming back. They're in steady decline."

For about 15 years, VanBuskirk researched the large winter flocks at Sandia Crest, which included all three species of the broader rosy-finch group--gray-crowned, brown-capped and black rosy-finches. And for decades, Kandahar Condominiums in Taos Ski Valley provided winter seed for our own local flock (see my article, "Joys of Winter Birdsong," Feb. 1, 2016, The Taos News). Few brown-cappeds intermix in these winter flocks of mostly gray-crowned rosy-finches. And nobody knows where our local wintering brown-cappeds go to breed in the summer.

Low snowfall in the mountains and increasing temperatures are the biggest threats to brown-capped rosy-finches. That's been established for 27 years. In a 1991 study, researchers W.H. Romme and M.G. Turner concluded that global warming scenarios could lead to habitat fragmentation and loss of some populations, especially in New Mexico. Brown-cappeds are rated "extremely threatened" in Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan (2016), which assesses the vulnerability of 448 land birds in the U.S. and Canada, including 86 species on Carson National Forest.

Carson wildlife biologist Alyssa Radcliffe confirmed the June sighting of browned-cappeds on her turf. "We were excited to hear the news about the finding of breeding brown-capped rosy-finch in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness," she wrote by email. "The Carson was able to confirm all three rosy-finch species during the winter of 2014 in Taos Ski Valley. We were unable to confirm them during the summer of that year, so having it confirmed is terrific."

The search continues. "We'll definitely be back in New Mexico," said George. At some point, they may explore Lake Peak in Santa Fe National Forest, the southernmost site where brown-cappeds historically have been observed in summer. And after climbing out of Wheeler Peak Wilderness, he was contacted about another sighting in 2010 on Walter Peak although breeding could not be confirmed. Hope rises for more reports.

"Any peak above 11,000 feet with sharp 90-degree cliff faces can have them," said VanBuskirk. "For us, it's a labor of love."

Meg Peterson writes about water and wildlife in the Rio Grande Watershed. Visit megscherchpeterson.com.

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