Among the less common songbirds to inhabit the Anchorage area year-round is a species called the gray-crowned rosy-finch. It’s likely you’ll never see the bird unless you spend considerable time roaming the Chugach Mountains east of town or happen to live on the upper Hillside.
I didn’t even know such a creature existed until sometime in the mid- to late 1990s, after I’d joined that curious fraternity of humans known as birdwatchers.
Walking a ridgeline that drops from the summit of Wolverine Peak, I heard a bird call that I didn’t recognize (not such an unusual occurrence for me, especially back then). The bird’s voice seemed to come from the precipitous slope south of the ridge, so I carefully edged toward the dropoff, put binoculars to eyes, and scanned the steep hillside below.
Again I heard the call, a kind of high-pitched chirping. Aiming my binoculars in the direction of the chirps, I spotted the bird, perched along a cliff face.
The bird, like the call, was new to me, and therefore very exciting. I hadn’t brought a birding guide (I rarely do when hill climbing) and this was long before the invention of smartphone apps that can help a birdwatcher ID an unknown species, so I jotted some notes in my journal. It had a brownish body and a mostly gray head and what appeared to be pinkish tinting on its undersides and along the wings.
Upon returning home I used the bird’s appearance and its location—high in the mountains, on steep, rocky terrain—to learn its identity. More excitement. I also learned that these members of the finch family typically breed in high alpine areas, often near snowfields and yes, in steep, rocky terrain. Like cliff faces.
Ah-hah, I thought, that rosy-finch was likely on, or near, a nest site.
Though intrigued by the discovery, I wasn’t able to return to that locale for some time. And when I finally did, I could find no sign of the gray-crowned rosy-finch. Years would pass before I’d see another.
In the following two decades or so, I spotted less than a dozen gray-crowned rosy-finches in the Chugach Front Range, and never more than a handful at one time (those birds presumably belonging to a family group). Each encounter was an unexpected treat, a highlight of those hikes.
I should add here that gray-crowned rosy-finches are also known to nest in steep, rocky locales along beaches in Alaska’s Aleutian and Bering Sea islands and in some of those places they live near people. I have seen gray-crowned rosy finches in the fishing port of Dutch Harbor, where finding them only required a short walk from my hotel. But that’s a story for another time or place.
I mention all of this because of a startling—and yes, uncommon—experience that I had a little more than a year ago. In early February 2018, I discovered a behavior of gray-crowned rosy-finches entirely new to me and one I still haven’t seen described in birding literature or heard discussed by serious birders. (That’s not to say it hasn’t been cited elsewhere, only that I’m unaware of such documentation.)
It began with a Feb. 4 email from Pete Robinson, who lives in the Chugach foothills, not far from Rabbit Creek. Pete informed me that a large flock of rosy-finches, numbering well over 100 birds, had been visiting his yard daily for close to two weeks. He invited my girlfriend, Jan, and me to come take a look and recommended we arrive between 9 and 10 a.m. That’s when the rosy-finches would invariably begin to swarm his yard, drawn by the sunflower seeds Pete and his wife Sarah spread on their driveway and back deck in winter to feed local birds.
Normally those seeds would draw large numbers of common redpolls and pine grosbeaks, but never before had more than a few rosy-finches joined the feeding frenzy. In 2018, however, the rosy-finches had taken over.
Part of what made the flock’s appearance so remarkable was its sudden arrival. The Robinsons first noticed a rosy-finch on January 21. Even that single bird’s presence was unusual. Many years, they don’t see any members of the species. Pete and Sarah continued to see that one rosy-finch for three or four days. “Then, boom! A whole bunch of them swooped in,” Pete recounted. “It was huge; it just blew us away.”
There were so many rosy-finches, and they flew so close to the house with what at times seemed like reckless abandon, that Pete put netting across several windows to prevent, or at least minimize, window strikes. And they were such aggressive feeders that they chased away their smaller finch cousins: “Since these guys showed up,” Pete told us, “the redpolls just haven’t been coming around.”
And yet among the rosy-finches themselves, Pete noticed little squabbling over food: “Unlike grosbeaks, which bicker among themselves, the rosy-finches seem to get along really well. “
As January turned to February the rosy-finches continued to return daily, usually in the pre-dawn light shortly before sunrise. And they would come and go for much of the morning.
Jan and I headed up to Pete and Sarah’s home on Feb. 11. Choosing to be on the early side, we got there right at 9 a.m. No rosy-finches were in sight as Pete and Sarah came out to greet us. But within 15 minutes the birds swooped in, right on schedule. Their presence was even more impressive than I’d imagined, the flock numbering at least 200 to 300 birds, maybe more.
For the next hour or so, the rosy-finches put on a marvelous display, at times landing en masse in the Robinson’s yard, at other times circling and swooping through the skies overhead. In many ways their swirling flight patterns reminded me of bohemian waxwings. For a while, a northern goshawk shadowed the flock. We never saw the hawk grab a rosy-finch, but the odds seemed good that it eventually would.
Eventually a bunch of the rosy-finches landed on the Robinsons’ back deck and we got an up-close look the birds gorging themselves on seeds. Their feeding behavior reminded me of the redpolls that swarmed my own back deck when I lived on the Hillside.
It was an amazing and unforgettable thing, to watch local birds that I’d seen only rarely—and then in remote alpine terrain—to be gathered in such large numbers in a neighborhood setting, during a time of year (winter) when I had never before seen a single rosy-finch.
Watching the gray-crowned rosy finches, I felt great delight in their presence and unexpected behaviors, while being reminded, yet again, how little we know about the lives and lifestyles of our wild neighbors.
As something of a postscript, I recently contacted Pete Robinson to find out if the rosy-finches had again flocked to his home this winter. His reply: “Their numbers are way down and not a daily feeding here. I have not seen more than 10-15 in a flock.”
So what was going on last year? Who knows. I’ve simply added it to my long and growing list of local mysteries.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.