Descending from Near Point one recent February day, I noticed three small, dark forms ascending the same alpine spine that I was going down. The birds flew low to the ground. And, in the brief time that I watched them, they moved uphill in a kind of skipping way. That is they would fly a short distance, land, then “skip” a few hundred more feet.
Later I would wonder if perhaps the birds were looking for bits of food on wind-scoured patches, in the mostly snow-covered alpine terrain. But in the moment, I was mostly curious to know their identity.
The birds didn’t come closer than 100 to 200 feet and my binoculars were stuffed inside my pack. But in the short time we shared the mountain’s slopes—that is, before they flew out of sight—I could see they were dark-bodied birds and their form and movements suggested finches. I’m sure they weren’t common redpolls, though I’ve occasionally seen that species in alpine terrain. And pine grosbeaks would have been out of place in high open terrain and their movements would have been different (they’re also considerably larger, but size was difficult to judge at that distance).
I’m as certain as I can be that these were gray-crowned rosy-finches, uncommon birds locally but ones known to frequent tundra landscapes; in fact they’re considered “mountain birds.” Two of my field guides say that in winter, rosy-finches prefer lower elevations, where food is easier to find, but another reference indicates at least some may stay up high in “open country.”
All of that fits. And there’s the fact that only a year earlier, I saw a couple of gray-crowned rosy-finches moving along the edges of alpine habitat on the flanks of Wolverine Peak, those winter birds approaching much more closely.
If I’d gotten a better look at these, I would have seen the birds’ gray heads, perched atop their dark brown bodies, and might even have been able to discern the pinkish tinting of their feathers and bellies, which gives the species its name.
Though they’re scattered throughout the Chugach Front Range and in fact nest high in the mountains—where they apparently tend to favor boulder piles and cliff faces—rosy-finches are uncommon enough (in my experience) that seeing them is always something of a surprise. And a great pleasure.
In all the years I’ve lived in Anchorage and roamed Chugach State Park’s high country, I’ve seen gray-crowned rosy-finches maybe a half-dozen times or so in the mountains—and once, memorably, in a neighborhood below Flattop, not far from Rabbit Creek.
In the latter instance, also during the month of February, I watched hundreds of rosy-finches swirl through the air and land in the yard of two friends, to feed on sunflower seeds. It was an amazing spectacle, one I’d never imagined or found described anywhere (though later research would indicate such flocks are not unusual in some parts of the species’ range). I recounted that experience in a 2019 City Wilds column, “Unexpected Guests at a Hillside Home: Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finches.”
But back to my most recent encounter. I wonder whether our local rosy-finches might move back and forth between alpine and subalpine habitat in winter, depending on the weather and nature of the snowpack. Finding seeds—their sole winter food, as far as I know—must be a challenge up high, though wind-scoured areas might hold promise.
This trio of rosy-finches did seem to be investigating such scoured spots, though they didn’t stay in any one place for long.
The day we crossed paths was a good day to be up high, with Near Point’s upper reaches unusually calm and a temperature inversion making those slopes considerably warmer than the Hillside’s lower elevations. So maybe the birds were taking advantage of the benign weather to explore high country.
I was able to watch the birds for less than a minute. But sometimes it’s not the length of time or close proximity but the surprising nature of an encounter that makes it most memorable.
My meeting with these rosy-finches, like the others I’ve seen locally, will stay with me, especially given the season and the absence of any other birds on Near Point’s upper slopes—except, of course, for the ravens flying past, returning to their nightly roosts deep in the mountains. And that’s another story to explore in more detail, one of these days.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.