Rappelling for Rosy

As a wildlife photographer and the public information specialist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Jackson office, Mark Gocke has taken thousands of photographs of wildlife throughout his life. Taking photos of wild animals while dangling from a rope wasn’t on his list of wildlife experiences, that is until he met Carl Brown.
Gocke recently spent two days with Brown, a graduate student pursuing his master’s degree in zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming, as he rappelled down vertical cliffs in the Beartooth Mountains in northwestern Wyoming in search of black rosy finch nests. The adventure was a part of Brown’s research for his master’s thesis on black rosy finches. The small songbirds are hard to find and difficult to research, so Brown’s study could help wildlife biologists have a greater understanding of these birds, their nesting habits and what threatens them.
“These nest sites are hard to find, and even harder to get to,” Gocke said. “You need to be in good shape to even get into this habitat, and then have to be skilled at climbing and dangling from a rope to find the nests.”
Even though the two were able to drive relatively close to this particular nesting area, accessing it still required a significant hike across rock and snowfields with an ice axe and crampons, carrying climbing and camera equipment in addition to the usual food, water and rain gear.
“It was still some work to get into this nest site and this was by far the easiest of the sites he researched,” Gocke said. “Typically, Carl and his three techs were hiking several miles in and thousands of feet up, just to get to the nesting habitat. These were not day hikes. They were weeklong backpack trips, done one after the other to take advantage of those handful of weeks when the weather is somewhat tolerable at those elevations in Wyoming. It really is impressive that these little birds choose to make their living in such a hostile environment.”

It’s not easy
The black rosy finch breeds and nests exclusively in alpine environments in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and Utah. They gather in flocks and descend to lower elevations in winter when deep snow covers the alpine habitat. In Wyoming, black rosy finches were previously thought to only breed in the Absaroka, Beartooth, Bighorn, Gallatin, Gros Ventre, Teton and Wind River mountain ranges. However, Brown’s study has located three new breeding sites in the western part of the state in the Wyoming, Salt River and Snake River ranges.
Along with the brown-capped rosy finch and gray-crowned rosy finch, these birds collectively live in the highest altitude of all finches found in North America.
“They are, quite possibly, the highest breeding vertebrate in North America,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, the inaccessibility of their habitat makes them a difficult species to study.”
Studying a species that requires rock climbing and rappelling is certainly not for the timid. Fortunately, Brown is no stranger to mountaineering.
Carl Brown is no stranger to mountaineering, and his experience has proven invaluable throughout his study. Gaining access to black rosy finch nests requires skills in hiking, climbing and rappelling. Photo by Mark Gocke
Carl Brown is no stranger to mountaineering, and his experience has proven invaluable throughout his study. Gaining access to black rosy finch nests requires skills in hiking, climbing and rappelling.

“I've been hiking since I can remember, which led into general mountaineering in the Cascade Volcanoes and later alpine ice and rock climbing in college and since,” Brown said. As a wildlife biologist, he was naturally drawn to species that inhabit the same high mountain areas he loves.
Gocke has some experience climbing and rappelling, “But I’m not an accomplished mountaineer,” he said. “We were regularly seeing mountain goats those days while we were looking for these birds. That shows what kind of habitat we were in.”
In such a vast environment, a tiny songbird can be difficult to find. “Spending the time to watch and listen for these birds, and then figure out where they are going into the cracks in a big cliff face takes an incredible amount of time and effort,” Gocke said. “Then to actually find a nest, I mean, I can’t even begin to explain how well hidden, and protected, these nests are. Many of the nest sites are simply not photographable. And the photos I did get do not accurately portray the tight, dark quarters they are in.”
The nests are tucked into the tiniest crevices in vertical rock cliffs, with some of the openings so small that Gocke had to use his phone to capture an image because there was no way to get a full camera lens into the cracks.
“I had to shine a head lamp into a different part of the crack to provide light for a photo. You had to be something of a contortionist to do it,” Gocke said. “Then, out of about 50 frames, maybe one would actually have the nest in focus.”

A need for more
The circumstances that make these songbirds difficult to photograph are the same reasons why little information is known about these high-elevation birds. A study by Norman French in 1959 details the life history of the species, but much more information is needed. Because of this lack of data, black rosy finches have been designated a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Wyoming’s State Wildlife Action Plan, or SWAP — a comprehensive wildlife conservation strategy to maintain the health and diversity of wildlife within a state, including preventing the need for future listings under the Endangered Species Act. Wyoming’s SWAP was last updated in 2017.
Brown said it is vital to learn about population levels and nesting locations for this species so biologists have baseline information to compare to when the effects of warming temperatures reach alpine areas. “They are exclusively associated with high alpine areas during breeding season, and those areas are changing,” Brown said. “These birds have nowhere else to go; they can’t go up any higher.” 
During the breeding season, black rosy finches forage in lingering snow fields for insects to feed to their growing chicks. As spring progresses and the snow melts, it reveals plants and seeds that are important to their diet. Biologists are concerned that a warming environment will cause snow to melt earlier, changing the timing of the availability of insects and seeds, and could allow trees and other plants to move into alpine areas and threaten the tundra vegetation the birds depend on. Likewise, the birds are adapted to cold environments and may be vulnerable to warmer overall temperatures.
With climate predictions in the intermountain west suggesting increased drought, earlier spring onset and declining snowpack, climate change is one of five leading wildlife conservation challenges identified in Wyoming’s SWAP.
“So we want to determine where black rosy finches are found in Wyoming during breeding season, and then document these sites,” Brown said.
The study, which is funded in part by Game and Fish and the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, includes using habitat and climate data to develop distribution maps for the species, evaluating the characteristics of snowfields most used for foraging and providing information for long-term monitoring efforts. While the data Brown obtains is invaluable for better understanding the species, things like time, weather and location can limit Brown’s nest-searching efforts. But given opportunity, he will rappel to look at a nest.
“In a lot of cases the nest sites are in areas of low-quality rock, which makes rappelling extremely difficult and dangerous,” he said. “We just can’t get to some of the nests; we have to focus on safer areas.” Brown said if he can confirm a nest site, he can provide its location for future monitoring. “We’re not banding or handling birds, just confirming the nest is in use. We get a quick look and go away. Rappelling to nests is not the core of the project, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.
Gocke couldn’t agree more. “I’ve had a lot of neat experiences photographing a lot of different things in my 28-year career with the Game and Fish Department,” Gocke said. “But this project rolled a lot of fun things into one and was one of the highlights of my career. And it was a little songbird that got me to do this.”

—Robin Kepple is the information and education specialist for the Laramie region and a regular contributor to Wyoming Wildlife.

Photographer Info
Mark Gocke

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