Resorts like Alta and Powder Mountain help seekers — and tourists — get up close and personal.
Editor’s Note • This story is only available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Please support local journalism.
Powder Mountain • There was a flurry of movement across the aspen treetops near the Ogden Valley early on March 2nd.
Chirps echoed through the air as passers-by froze, anxious with anticipation. Finally, one of the palm-sized birds made its way near a trap, munching on seeds thrown on a patch of muddy concrete.
But the slamming of a car door sent the flock scattering across the cold skies – a lost opportunity to learn more about one of the continent’s least understood birds.
The rosy finch is a dark brown or maroon-colored bird with striking pink undertail feathers, and it resides on mountain tops from New Mexico to Alaska. Researchers from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and Utah State University are learning more about these birds at Powder Mountain and Alta Ski Resort, which serve as banding stations where scientists can briefly trap and track them.
Banding stations attract birdwatchers across the Wasatch Front, hoping to spot the rare bird.
“They are hard to find; they live in very inaccessible habitats,” said Adam Brewerton, wildlife conservation biologist with the wildlife division. “During the breeding season, they nest on rocky cliffs above the tree line…which are not suitable for simple walking and carrying out nesting studies.”
But northern Utah ski resorts are, Brewerton said. At the Powder Mountain Feeding Station on March 2, the finches were quite relaxed and kept inches away from people as they munched on seeds – as long as the tourists didn’t make any sudden movements.
When banding, biologists set up a small cage filled with birdseed and wait for the perfect moment to pull a string attached to a cage door, sometimes catching several finches at once. Each bird is then placed in a small drawstring bag and carried to a nearby vestibule where it is examined.
“I think the main reason we study them is because they’re part of an alpine ecosystem,” Brewerton said. “Small songbirds are very sensitive to changes in habitats and environments, so in many ways they can be used as indicators.”
Officials first identify the sex and age of the birds, then measure their height, weight, beak and tail length. They also determine what condition the birds are in – whether they are healthy or not – and blow on their stomach feathers to give them a “fat score” because they store fat under their stomach feathers. body.
Brewerton said it’s still too early to tell much about the pink finches, but the researchers hope to get some useful data over the next year. Since pink finches are also fitted with RFID bands, which contain a chip that can track the birds, researchers can tell how the birds are progressing with age – and often spot ones they tagged years ago. .
“That’s how we know which bird has visited if it lands on the feeder,” said Kristin Purdy, a local volunteer helping with the site. “We charge them a toll – the pole is an antenna. They must perch on the antenna to reach a seed, and their RFID tag registers on the feeder.
Purdy is part of the Sageland Collaborative, one of the wildlife division’s partners in coordinating finch work across the state. The organization’s finch research is just one of its many projects that help determine how human impacts threaten Utah’s varied ecosystems.
The Sageland collaboration aims to collect data on the finch with the help of its “community scientists”, so they can better uncover some of the mysteries of the rare bird’s life. Anyone with access to a bird feeder who wants to learn more about birds can become a Community Scientist through the Collaborative’s training stages.
Community scientists recorded thousands of birds for the collaboration during its surveys last year.
“We just don’t have a good idea of how many [rosy-finches] we have,” Brewerton said. The larger collaborative effort is aimed at better determining how many exist and potentially tracking trends. “And then hopefully identify what those limiting factors might be that are driving those trends.”
On a busier day, officials can catch about 10-12 finches at a time in a single trap. But on March 2, which saw mild weather, birds were taken in smaller numbers, as they weren’t as desperate for birdseed – compared to the food emergency caused by a storm of snow.
At the end of the day, the Wildlife Resources Division team reached their goal of 20 birds in total – much to the delight of a group of bird watchers from nearby Roy and Huntsville, who made the hike up the mountain to see them.
“In changing climates, alpine systems are quite fragile to very small changes, which could affect a lot of things,” Brewerton said. This is one of the reasons he said there is a level of concern – and value in understanding – about small species.