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Powder Mountain • There was a flutter of movement across the aspen treetops near Ogden Valley early March 2.
Chirps echoed through the air as bystanders froze, anxious with anticipation. Finally, one of the palm-sized birds made his way near a trap, snacking on seed thrown across a slushy patch of concrete.
But the slam of a car door sent the flock scattering across the cold sky — an opportunity lost to learn more about one of the least-understood birds on the continent.
The rosy finch is a deep brown or chestnut-colored bird with striking pink undertail feathers, and it resides on mountaintops from New Mexico to Alaska. Researchers from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Utah State University are learning more about these birds at Powder Mountain and Alta Ski Resort, which serve as banding stations where scientists can briefly trap and track them.
The banding stations attract birders across the Wasatch Front, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare bird.
“They’re hard to find; they live in very inaccessible habitats,” said Adam Brewerton, a wildlife conservation biologist with the wildlife division. “In the breeding season, they nest on rock cliffs above tree line … which are not conducive to just walking up and doing nesting studies.”
But northern Utah’s ski resorts are, Brewerton said. At the Powder Mountain feeding station on March 2, the finches were fairly relaxed, and stood inches away from people as they snacked on seed — so long as sightseers didn’t make any sudden movements.
During banding, the biologists set up a small cage filled with bird seed and wait for the perfect moment to pull a string attached to a cage door, sometimes catching several finches at a time. Each bird is then put in a small drawstring bag and carried into a nearby vestibule where they are examined.
“I think the biggest reason why we study them is that they’re part of an Alpine ecosystem,” Brewerton said. “Small songbirds are very sensitive to changes in the habitats and environments, so in a lot of ways that can be used as indicators.”
The officials first identify the birds’ sex and age, then measure their size, weight, bill and tail length. They also determine what condition the birds are in — if they are healthy or not — and blow on their stomach feathers to give them a “fat score,” since they store fat underneath their body feathers.
Brewerton said it’s still too early to say much about rosy finches yet, but researchers are hopeful to get useful data over the next year. Since the rosy finches are also fitted with RFID bands, which contain a chip that can track the birds, researchers can tell how the birds progress with age — and often spot ones that they tagged years ago.
“That’s how we know which bird has been visiting if they land on the feeder,” said Kristin Purdy, a local volunteer who helps with the site. “We make them pay a toll — the perch is an antenna. They have to perch on the antenna in order to reach a seed, and their RFID tag records on the feeder.”
Purdy is a part of Sageland Collaborative, one of the wildlife division’s partners in coordinating rosy-finch work across the state. The organization’s rosy-finch research is just one of its many projects that help determine how human impacts are threatening Utah’s varied ecosystems.
The Sageland Collaborative aims to collect rosy-finch data with the help of its “community-scientists,” so they can better uncover some of the mysteries of the rare bird’s life. Anyone with access to a bird feeder and a willingness to learn about birds can become a community scientist through the collaborative’s training steps.
Community scientists logged thousands of birds for the collaborative during its surveys last year.
“We just don’t really have a good sense of how many [rosy-finches] we have,” Brewerton said. The bigger collaborative effort aims to better determine how many exist, and potentially track trends. “And then hopefully identify what might be those limiting factors that would be driving those trends.”
On a busier day, officials can catch about 10-12 rosy finches at a time in just one trap. But on March 2, which saw mild weather, the birds were caught in smaller numbers, because they weren’t as desperate for bird seed — compared to the urgency for food caused by a snowstorm.
By the end of the day, the Division of Wildlife Resources team captured its goal of 20 birds total — much to the excitement of a group of birders from Roy and nearby Huntsville, who made the trek up the mountain to see them.
“In changing climates, Alpine systems are pretty fragile to small, small changes, which could affect a lot of things,” Brewerton said. It’s one of the reasons he said there’s a level of concern for — and value in understanding — the small species.