Snow is beautiful, if you don't have to drive. Snow is beautiful, if you are inside a warm, cozy house looking out. For the more adventurous, snow is beautiful standing upon a pair of skis, just as long as there is a warm, cozy house waiting at the end of the outing.
Birds don't have warm, cozy homes to return to at the end of the day, and finding nearly frozen insects to eat among snow-covered branches can be quite challenging. Life is hard on the mountain in winter.
Still, there are birds that endure the snows, such as chickadees, kinglets and juncos, or even thrive like the gray jay. But only a select few can't seem to live without snow, even in summer. These are the rosy finches, birds that few even know exist in the county. They are called rosy finches because they have rosy flanks, rump and shoulders on a brown or black body.
To find them, you may need to climb high on a mountain ridge where a chill breeze idly toys with a few flakes of snow. If you are lucky, a chattering flock of rosy finches may swirl in and land. They might feed intently on tiny insects and seeds for a bit before the wind seemingly sweeps them up and carries them off to some other barren patch of ground. Rosy finches are wary and take flight at the slightest provocation real or imagined. This has been the setting when I have encountered rosy finches.
Mountaintops from the Aleutians to the Rocky Mountains to the Cascades and Sierra Nevada, and all high points in between, have their rosy finches. The number of species is a matter for debate. It has changed twice in my life, and the taxonomists may not be finished yet. The official count has ranged from one to three. At present, three are recognized. The brown-capped rosy finch inhabits the Colorado Rockies, while the black rosy finch lives on mountaintops throughout the Great Basin, including Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon. It is the gray-crowned rosy finch that can be found on the mountaintops of Jackson County and the Cascades. It can be recognized by its gray crown and brown body.
In summer, the best place to observe them is the rim of Crater Lake, especially near the Watchman, where they attend rocky slopes and fringes of shrinking snow fields. At this time of year no female goes unattended. Territory for a male is not a fixed piece of real estate as it is for many species, but a small halo of land surrounding his mate wherever she goes. Apparently females are in short supply. In winter, they retreat a bit from the high country and can be found scattered across the rimrock country of the high desert. A few head our way.
This fall, it seems more than usual have come to visit us in Jackson County. Flocks already have been seen near the summit of Grizzly Peak and Mount Ashland. So if you want to see this hardy but elusive bird, set down the hot chocolate, strap on snowshoes or skis and head for the high country.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.