Finches flock to the tundra

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By Sylvia Brockner

Reprinted from March 6, 2008


For many years when winter visitors to Colorado called us to inquire about where they could see rosy-finches, we would either take them or send them to the top of Squaw Mountain to visit the Swanlunds.

When we were faced with this request recently, we didn’t know a really “sure spot” to send these visitors.

The three species of rosy-finches are all western birds that range from the Aleutian Islands and mountains of Alaska down the Rocky Mountains to Canada, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and California. They are all birds of the Arctic tundra, whether it is found at sea level in the Aleutian Islands or in Colorado on Mountain Evans at 14,000 feet.

These birds are currently divided into three species, namely the gray-crowned rosy-finch, the brown-capped rosy finch and the black rosy-finch. All three species can be seen here in Colorado in winter, when they gather in huge swirling flocks. The predominant species in these winter flocks are the gray-crowned rosy-finch, including a few of the Hepburn’s and interior forms. The brown-capped and the black rosy-finch, which breed in Colorado and Wyoming, are present in small numbers. All three species are known to interbreed where their ranges overlap.

Rosy-finches nest above timberline on rocky cliffs. The brown rosy-finch nests in small numbers on the rocky cliffs at the summit of Mount Evans and can be seen there in summer, but all three species could be seen in the winter flocks that fed at the Swanlunds’ home on Squaw Mountain. The Swanlunds built their stone house near the fire tower on Squaw Mountain, and Margaret manned the tower during the fire season for the U.S. Forest Service.

Bob Swanlund was a ham radio operator and ran the radio towers that sprouted from their roof. Their stone windowsills were about 2 feet wide, and all they had to do was crank the casement windows open to spread seed on the windowsills to feed the finches — one of the best feeders I have ever seen, and the rosy-finches thought so too. They came every winter by the hundreds.

Another reason for visiting the fire tower was the opportunity to see and study the little cony or pika located there. Their high-pitched call, “eek, eek,” echoed among the rocks and, perhaps because of the larger numbers of summer visitors, they had become used to people.

On most summits where I have seen them, they seem to move away from people and are difficult to watch. On Squaw Mountain you could sit and watch them spread out cut grass to dry in the sun or carry their bundles of dry hay down into their subterranean tunnels among the rocks. They were usually tame, perhaps because of Margaret’s plentiful food supply.

We loved the Swanlunds and their magical mountain retreat. They loved their life there, but it was a hard life. They cut their own wood, and the fire in their huge fireplace was never allowed to go out from the end of summer to spring. It was the core of the house and the only heat source. However, once heated, the rocks radiated heat and kept the house very comfortable. Bob also had to maintain the road up to the house. After years of this rugged life, they retired around 1980. Both have now left this world.

The tower still stands, and a group known as the Forest Fire Lookout Association is working to restore it and make it available as a rental unit for cross-country skiers, hikers, etc.

If anyone wants to see winter finches, there are very few roosting in the old cave swallow nests at Red Rocks and reports of large flocks at feeders in Ward and Salida. If anyone has flocks coming to their feeders in the area and would like to share them with visitors, pleas let us know.