Climate change impact on rosy finches eyed in study

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Climate change impact on rosy finches eyed in study

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Full Article with photo at this link

Wild Colorado: Climate change impact on rosy finches eyed in study

A study started last year in Summit County will turn to education this season

By Janice Kurbjun
Summit Daily News

A flock of rosy finches gathers regularly to feed near Frank Moriarty's home at 10,800 feet in Park County's Valley of the Sun. The U.S. Forest Service's project to attract the rosy finch to feeders at Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas is still under way.

At about this time last year, bird feeders were set up atop Keystone and Breckenridge ski resorts to attract rosy finches for study. The Keystone portion of that project should continue this year, but likely with a more educational focus, said Kim Potter, wildlife technician in Rifle.

Dillon Ranger District wildlife biologist Ashley Nettles has been busy setting up interpretive signs on the patrol building at North Peak's small feeder, with more to come near the large feeder. The signs describe the three types of rosy finches that normally visit the feeder, their ranges, and the impacts of climate change on the rosy finch species.

The bird is endemic to the Rocky Mountains, with a range that reaches just past the state's borders into southern Wyoming and northern New Mexico.

With such a limited range, the bird is of keen interest to Forest Service officials, who sought to attract the birds to the feeders for monitoring. Nettles said previously there's not much information available on the birds' population, interaction with other birds and breeding success.

And, while other birds are able to live almost anywhere there is food, the rosy finch has a limited habitat, Nettles said, which adds to the desire to learn more about them.

Challenging project

But banding them and seeing a return population that can provide statistically-relevant numbers has proven tough in Potter's project at Snowmass. She predicts the same will be true for Nettles' work, which is why she anticipates the project focus turning more toward education about climate change rather than data collection.

“If predictions of climate change are true and the tree line creeps up, their habitat could be threatened,” Nettles said previously. Rosy finches nest in high alpine tundra and produce one set of eggs each year. If a storm comes in and destroys the clutch, there's not another to take its place.

“They may not reproduce for years,” Nettles said.

Knowledge about the bird would help determine whether it's being affected by its changing environment and help Forest Service officials decide how best to manage for their habitat, but education may have to suffice for now.

“There's so many birds, the return rate we're getting is 1 percent or less, and that's too small a number to get any significant data back,” Potter said. She shut down the Snowmass site after roughly five years of attempting to collect data.

The numbers do create a spectacle, though.

“They're fascinating to watch as they come to the feeder in flocks of nearly 300,” Nettles said. “The best time to view them is on snowy days when the recent storms have pushed them down from the alpine into the trees to forage until the weather lets up.”

The ongoing Keystone feeding project could be valuable for climate change education. With storms being few and far between this season, Nettles said she's not seen many rosy finches yet, but expects them soon. In the meantime, white breasted nuthatches, mountain chickadees, and a colorful male pine grosbeak are visiting the feeder.

“It's a really good opportunity to reach a lot of people and really discuss climate change in the alpine (environment),” Potter said.

Those who visit the feeders can also keep an eye out for birds banded last year. The banding probably won't occur again this year, between the tight budget and the unsuccessful results of Potter's Snowmass study.

“I'll be interested to see if any of the birds that we banded last year are spotted returning to the feeder again this year,” Nettles said. “Keep an eye out for rosy finches sporting a lightweight, metallic green aluminum band along with a silver aluminum band on their legs. Other species (primarily mountain chickadees) were banded as well and those guys have just a silver aluminum band.”