Hawks Aloft Inc.
PO Box 10028
Albuquerque, NM 87184
Phone: 505 828-9455
Fax: 505 828-9769
E-Mail: gail@hawksaloft.org

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Hawks Aloft Blog

Blog Topic: Bird Biology

Leucism in Birds

Several weeks ago Hawks Aloft staff made the trip to Monte Vista, Colorado for the Monte Vista Crane Festival. Upon their arrival they started to hear rumors of a Red-tailed Hawk haunting the edges of the wildlife refuge. But this was no ordinary Red-tailed; defying the colors that dominate the species, this was a largely white Red-tailed Hawk, with only the occasional rust or brown feather that birders might expect when it comes down to identifying such a bird.

The leucistic Red-tailed Hawk spotted in Monte Vista, Colorado. Image by Larry Rimer

The leucistic Red-tailed Hawk spotted in Monte Vista, CO. Image by Larry Rimer

This particular hawk—a leucistic one—isn’t an entirely common sight, and Hawks Aloft staff and volunteers were thrilled to spot it on their first day out. It is hard to get an accurate grasp on how common leucism is in birds, but Project FeederWatch, an extensive online database of bird species observed and reported by citizen scientists, has recorded only about 1,600 leucistic birds of any species out of 5.5 million distinct birds indicated. But what exactly is leucism? And why does it happen at all, albeit infrequently?

Leucism is a blanket term for abnormal plumage conditions caused by genetic mutations. This genetic inheritance prevents a pigment—melanin—from being carried and deposited in the bird’s plumage. This condition can end up looking like the Red-tailed Hawk spotted in Colorado, or it can also be displayed as white patches throughout the body, in places where they wouldn’t normally occur in a species. Sometimes the condition also manifests as an overall paler plumage in the bird, as if its color was diluted.

Leucism is quite different than albinism, another similar (and similarly unusual) condition in birds. Considered to be extremely rare in the wild, albinism is marked by a total lack of melanin. Leucism, notably, only impacts the bird’s feathers, while albinism is apparent in the feathers and elsewhere. For example, albino animals almost always sport red eyes, as well as pale pink or red skin, feet and bills. Leucistic birds usually have normally colored eyes, skin and feet; the condition of leucism only impacts the feathers.

Image by Larry Rimer.

Image by Larry Rimer

Although it is quite exciting to see a leucistic bird in the wild, they do face certain challenges that make their lives difficult. These birds, without the protective camouflage that other animals have, become more vulnerable to predators. Additionally, plumage colors play an important role in courtship and mating; as such, many leucistic birds may be unable to find suitable mates. Last but not least, the dysfunctional melanin production in leucistic bird’s feathers may even make it harder for them to fly. Since melanin is an important structural component to feathers, birds lacking the proper amount of this pigment may have weaker feathers that are more prone to breaking and less able to insulate the body against cold and damp.

Leucism can be a great burden on the bird, however, it does remain rare. As such, when a birder spots a bird such as this, it allows for a moment of pause as we consider the great complexity of avian life, and the beautiful and observable variety among these amazing animals.


Maggie and Idaho

Maggie Grimason is senior editor and an educator at Hawks Aloft

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Flammulated Owl Revelations

flam-2

Photograph by Larry Rimer

“After hearing a female Flammulated Owl on Oso Ridge in 1996 while conducting a Spotted Owl survey, I returned to look for nest sites and found three Flammulated Owl nests in the first three cavities I checked!” David Arsenault explained of one of his first encounters with the small raptor. After that, he was hooked. For eleven years in a row he banded hundreds of Flammulated Owls each season on Oso Ridge, learning about their movements and territoriality. David has transferred his interest in the petite owl to his work for the Plumas Audubon Society in Northern California, where he employs a variety of strategies to learn about the secret life of the species.

The Flammulated Owl is the second smallest owl in North America, after the Elf Owl. These dark-eyed raptors breed in montane forests in western North America before traveling to Mexico to winter. Secretive and quiet, especially when a human is detected in the area, Flammulated Owls were once thought to be rare. Improved research strategies, however, have indicated they are common, though populations are declining overall.

 

David Arsenault in the stud area, photograph by Larry Rimer

David Arsenault in the study area, photograph by Larry Rimer

Since that fateful encounter 20 years ago, David has sought to study the migration patterns of these neotropical migrants with geolocators, genetics, and mark-recapture, as well as resolve questions around mate fidelity, nest site selection and distribution, the impact and use of nest boxes, and the varied effects of forest thinning on Flammulated Owl populations.

David spent a considerable amount of time in New Mexico, studying Flammulated Owls and other bird species for Hawks Aloft. Despite the fact that most of his work is in California these days, it recently took him to the Zuni Mountains in northwestern New Mexico, and he invited Hawks Aloft volunteer and photographer-extraordinaire, Larry Rimer to tag along and encounter this rarely photographed bird. “Other than the almost impassable dirt roads (even [when] dry) and the countless bug bites, it was fantastic,” Larry said about his experience, expounding on the mixed forests and the solitude of these rarely visited mountains.

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, the research group—which included university students, as well—checked known cavities and nest boxes, while searching for other possible nesting sites. The group averaged about ten miles on foot daily. Just before nightfall, the group would head out again, setting up mist nets to capture the owls and gather data—their weight, wing size, sex, etc.—before banding and re-releasing them.

flam-3

Photograph by Larry Rimer

 

The trip was a success. “Usually in California, they manage to capture three birds in three weeks,” Larry said. “Here we managed to capture 15 owls in 4 days.” This bodes well for David’s research. “I was concerned that more cavities were being lost to fallen trees and branches each year than were being created by Woodpeckers, so I put up … nest boxes,” David explained. Noting the success of the nest boxes he put up in New Mexico, he continued the project in California, where many were taken over by flying squirrels, but are utilized by Flammulated Owls as well.

In addition to the measureable success of the nest boxes, David’s research has also illuminated the migratory habits of these secretive birds—one of the geolocators fixed to an owl in northern California tracked the bird as far south as Jalisco, Mexico. The research that David is spearheading on the Flammulated Owl isn’t just providing new insights into how they live, but providing rewarding experiences for those who work with the birds, as Larry said, “This was a once in a lifetime learning experience. [I] feel so very lucky to have been allowed to be a part of it.”

Photograph by Larry Rimer

Photograph by Larry Rimer


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft 

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A Young Red-tailed Hawk’s Saving Grace

For two years, long-time Hawks Aloft friend and volunteer Larry Rimer monitored a Red-tailed Hawk nest site on the western edge of Rio Rancho, butting up to the escarpment near a network of large, high voltage power lines. When the nest revealed just two nestlings this year—as opposed to three the previous year—Larry paid closer attention to the site, visiting it at least weekly to “marvel at their beauty and study their behaviors,” as he put it.

On one recent auspicious Friday morning, Larry decided to check on the nest for the last time before heading out on a week-long research trip. The chicks “were close to fledging and [I] was hoping to see them fly,” he explained. Yet, when he arrived, only one of the chicks was in the nest. He lingered, observing the remaining nestling, realizing that it was not yet ready to fly, and worrying over what had happened to the missing chick. Maybe it had been predated by a Great Horned Owl?  Larry kept his vigil for more than two hours before deciding to head home. “Just then [I] noticed out of the corner of my eye something fluttering down at the base of one of the huge poles,” he explained. There, mired in the tar applied to the wooden electrical poles to keep them from rotting, was the other young Red-tailed Hawk, his feet and chest stuck in the now hardened tar. The previous day there had been a storm, and Larry’s best guess is that the gusts had knocked the bird from his nest and into harm’s way. “I couldn’t believe my luck in being in the right place, looking in the right direction, at the right time to find him,” Larry said.

The young Red-tailed Hawk stuck in tar. Photo by Larry Rimer.

The young Red-tailed Hawk stuck in tar. Photo by Larry Rimer.

 

The hawk's feet, covered in tar, before cleaning. Photo by Kariana Jones.

The hawk’s feet, covered in tar, before cleaning. Photo by Kariana Jones.

Larry called Hawks Aloft where he was advised to take the bird directly to Petroglyph Animal Hospital. Larry worked patiently under the watchful gaze of the adult Red-tails until the youngster was free. He then transported it Petroglyph, where Dr. Kariana Jones treated the bird for dehydration, and gave him an initial cleaning. Later in the day, the bird was taken to a Hawks Aloft rehabilitator, Jim Battaglia, who, along with Larry, Steve Elkins, Tony Giancola, Gail Garber, and Dean Balmer continued cleaning the bird with mineral oil, Dawn dish detergent, and Goo-Be-Gone.

Photo by Tony Giancola

Photo by Tony Giancola

 

Jim Battaglia hard at work. Photo by Tony Giancola.

Jim Battaglia hard at work. Photo by Tony Giancola.

 

Photo by Tony Giancola

Photo by Tony Giancola

After being thoroughly cleansed of tar, the young hawk recuperated overnight. The following morning Larry, along with his wife Kim, Steve Elkins, Tony Giancola, and others, took the bird back to his nest site and released him. He lingered on the ground before climbing a nearby fence pole, all the while calling for his parents. After a time, the parents showed up with a huge rabbit for breakfast and the young hawk called out joyously. He flew nearly 30 feet to a nearby post, and at that time, Larry left the family to their privacy.

The Red-tailed Hawk just after release. Photo by Tony Giancola.

The Red-tailed Hawk just after release. Photo by Tony Giancola.

 

The hawk's sibling looks on. Photo by Tony Giancola.

The hawk’s sibling looks on. Photo by Tony Giancola.

 

Photo by Tony Giancola

Photo by Tony Giancola

“I’ve had such a strong bond with this raptor, I’ve watched him grown from an egg to an almost flight ready hawk … It just couldn’t have turned out any better, with so many things falling into place to allow him to survive and be released back to his home nest,” Larry said of the experience. “It gives me hope for future rescues. I am one very lucky guy to have experienced this and [I] wouldn’t trade it for the world.”


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft

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If You Find a Baby Bird

Robin Fledgling 6-12

A Robin fledgling discovered by Hawks Aloft Executive Director, Gail Garber

As spring progresses and the promise of summer takes shape in the form of longer, warmer days, a flurry of activity is taking place overhead. Birds are breeding and nesting, and soon, all the effort of courtship and nest building will come to fruition as a new generation hatches. For outdoor enthusiasts and bird lovers—especially those who have taken the time to provide a habitat for local birds in their yards—it is not uncommon to find a young bird, seemingly helpless and marooned. Yet, weak and clumsy as they may seem, it is a rare occasion when these youngsters need our help.

Frequently, young birds found on the ground are recent fledglings. This means they are just testing out their flight skills and it is not uncommon for them to end up grounded. If the bird appears to be mostly fully feathered, usually with short tail feathers, able to hop around and take short flights, it is likely a fledgling. If there is no looming danger to the young bird, leave it alone. Fledglings, while taking their first flights and gaining independence, are still in the care of their parents who are likely nearby. Keep pets inside and allow the bird to find its own way home. If this is an impossibility, perch the bird in a shrub or the boughs of a low tree.

Young Ferruginous Hawks

Young Ferruginous Hawks

Occasionally a nestling may fall from, or be pushed from the nest before it is ready to fledge. If the bird is naked, or with very few feathers, it is safe to assume it is a nestling. If uninjured, take some time to try to spot the nest. If possible, simply place the nestling back in its home. The pervasive myth that if a young bird is handled by a human its parents will notice the scent and abandon the young is just that—a myth. If the nest can’t be located, you may engineer a small, makeshift nest from something like a berry basket or another small container with a few channels for drainage in the bottom. Line the container with soft materials and then secure it to a tree as near as possible to where the bird was found.

There are some exceptions to these general rules, however. If you find a bird, any bird, that has been injured by a cat, call a local wildlife rehabilitator. Almost always, a bird that has been attacked by a cat will need antibiotics. At Hawks Aloft we have a 24-hour raptor rescue hotline for birds of prey, and Wildlife Rescue, Inc. is also an option for birds and other animals that need rehabilitation. In addition, if the young bird is quite evidently injured (i.e. bleeding, wings drooped unevenly) or if you are absolutely certain that the bird’s mother is dead, secure the youngster in a warm, dry, and dark space and contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately.

Young Northern Harriers

Young Northern Harriers

The impulse to help the animals we love is strong, but sometimes that care and concern isn’t in the best interest of those we seek to help. Often, the best thing we can do for the young birds we discover grounded is to resist the urge to intervene. If you have any doubts or questions about the appropriate course of action if you’ve found a baby bird, don’t hesitate to contact Hawks Aloft or a another local wildlife rehabilitator.


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft

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Through the Eyes of an Intern, No. 5: Rescues

Lisa in the office, holding the Great Horned Owl we rescued

Lisa in the office, holding the Great Horned Owl we rescued

I finally had the chance to go on my first few rescues. Most recentl of which was a Western Kingbird, which is now recovering from its twisted knee joint; a Cooper’s Hawk with severe head trauma; and a Great Horned Owl, camping out on a family’s fence because of a broken left wrist. He was beautiful and impressive even in his crippled state. I don’t think I’ll ever forget casually glancing at the box into which Lisa, our rescue coordinator, had just wrestled him, and suddenly seeing nothing but one luminous, sunflower-yellow eye neatly filling one of the air holes in the box. No wonder great-horns are so often seen as symbols of power and strength; I wouldn’t even dare call the chicks “cute,” they’re too intimidating! We are unsure of his prognosis, but I’ll keep you updated for sure.

A better story is that of my first rescue, several weeks ago now:

It had been a long day. I’d been up since five a.m. to go on a Willow Flycatcher survey with our director, Gail, in the bosque just north of Alameda. That in itself was fantastic, as we saw everything from a flock of Eastern Bluebirds and Black Phoebes (which are probably my favorite just because they’re so adorable) to a Snowy Egret, two types of woodpeckers, and an Indigo Bunting. But it was nearing two p.m. and the afternoon sleepies were hitting me pretty hard—until Lisa, who sits at the desk behind me, turned around and said, “HEY. You wanna come with me on a rescue?”

Well, that woke me up. How could I say no? The one part of Hawks Aloft that I had not yet experienced was rescues, aside from the occasional raptors Lisa would bring in like just another briefcase and keep in the office while she finished up her computer work. (I kid! She treats all the birds with a healthy dose of respect and love, and if I were an injured bird, I’d certainly want her to be the one taking care of me!) We hopped in her car and headed for a vague address in Moriarty. An hour and a half later, I felt nothing but gratitude for the inventor of GPS and a burning curiosity as to what a rescue actually involved. Running around after a panicked bird? Bandaging wings and consoling stricken house owners?

A Prairie Falcon coming in for a landing on a cottonwood tree. Photo by Doug Brown

A Prairie Falcon coming in for a landing on a cottonwood tree. Photo by Doug Brown

Pulling into a beautifully landscaped yard, I was surprised to see the husband actually sitting on the lawn less than a foot away from the bird, which he had been able to approach and take in from his field. Pro-tip: you don’t want your face that close to talons that sharp, much less to pet it just inches away from an equally sharp beak. But I digress. Lisa identified it as a juvenile, probably female, Prairie Falcon, and quickly got to work, first picking up the falcon and looking at its head, then examining its wings for fractures. Here’s where it got interesting for me, since the falcon was clearly well enough to start biting Lisa’s fingers midway through the wing exam: I got to hold the patient! This involved two fingers of one hand around its neck and three of the other around and between its legs, securing its main defenses. After finishing with the wings, which seemed to be in fine condition, she force-fed it a liquid containing amino acids and various other nutrients, wrapped it in a towel, and set it inside the cardboard pet carrier she’d brought with her.

And that was that. Pretty standard procedure, from what I’ve watched of other rescues Lisa has performed; a quick physical and some hydration, then off to a caretaker’s house or a vet’s, depending on the severity of its injuries. A couple days later, she reported that the Prairie Falcon would be unreleasable due to near blindness in one eye. We’re hoping that it can become an Educational Ambassador. Fingers crossed that the permit comes through soon!

I really enjoy going out on rescues, the feeling that I’m doing something to improve a bird’s life, even if that improvement is euthanasia. Loss is a very real aspect of rescue work, and I think it’s probably a good topic for me to learn about in this small and humane way. Buddhism preaches non-attachment and acceptance of life’s innate mutability, but I’m pretty sure anyone could learn that much more personally from just one day’s experience as a rescuer.

A Swainson’s Hawk being harassed by a Western Kingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

A Swainson’s Hawk being harassed by a Western Kingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

To end on a happier note, though, I saw two raptors on our drive to and from picking up the Prairie Falcon. I later identified them (all by myself! go me!) as light-morph Swainson’s Hawks, the first time I’ve seen them as far as I know. Anytime I feel stuck—in my work, relationships, day-to-day life—I think about these beautiful raptors, who soar through the sky and make even the mundane necessity that is hunting a majestic occasion. I’m learning that if I keep my mind as open as their prairie habitats, anything can be awe-inspiring in its own small way.

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Saving the Black-necked Stilt, a U.S. International Boundary Water Commission Endeavor

Sometimes, or perhaps always, work projects do not proceed as planned. Such was the case in the lower Rio Grande near Anapra, New Mexico, where the U.S. International Boundary Water Commission (USIBWC) was performing maintenance operations to remove sediment accumulation in the river channel in front of an agricultural return drain. Operations underway the week of May 5, 2014 created a large island of sediment scooped up by heavy machinery. A surprise was in store for the crew when they returned to work on Monday, May 12. Apparently Black-necked Stilts found this barren patch of earth to their liking and set up nests over the weekend with eggs already present.

Project area for the US International Boundary Water Commission

Project area for the US International Boundary Water Commission. Image by USIBWC.

The Black-necked Stilt, a long-legged, strikingly black and white wading bird, nests on the ground. They tend to build above the water line on small islands, clumps of vegetation, or even, occasionally, floating mats of algae. Both females and males choose the site and trade off the nest construction duties; they look for places with soft substrate that can be scraped away to form the depression in which they nest. While one mate observes, the other scrapes into the dirt with breast and feet to form a depression about 2” deep. As they dig, they throw small bits of lining over their back into the nest, consisting of whatever material is closest to the nest, including grasses, shells, mud chips, pebbles, and bones.

Black-necked Stilt.  Image by Doug Brown.

Black-necked Stilt. Image by Doug Brown.

Back at the International Boundary Water Commission construction site, field crews surveyed the area and located some eggs on a large island of sediment that was being used to dredge out the channel. Three nests with a total of nine eggs had been documented by their environmental staff. The area was flagged and avoided. They contacted Hawks Aloft for recommendations, and we urged them to try to work around the nests. With a presumed egg-laying of May 10 or 11, hatch would be expected at about May 24 or 25.

Rio Grande low flows in the US International Boundary Water Commission project area.

Rio Grande low flows in the US International Boundary Water Commission project area.  Image by USIBWC.

This issue was further complicated by plans to release water from Elephant Butte dam for the purpose of irrigation beginning on May 25, 2014. Because the logistics of any attempt to change the irrigation releases would have required multiple agency approvals that would affect planned crop irrigation in the surrounding valley, it seemed impossible to achieve. Once water releases occurred, it was probable that the nests would be inundated, killing the embryos or nestlings not yet mobile enough to escape the rising water.

Black-necked Stilt in flight.  Image by Keith Bauer.

Black-necked Stilt in flight. Image by Keith Bauer.

The maintenance staff at the USIBWC established and maintained a buffer around the nesting site. The nesting stilts did not appear to be disturbed by the heavy equipment in the area but aggressively defended their nests when environmental staff came to monitor the nest sites. The big question; however, remained: Would the eggs hatch soon enough to allow the young to survive? It would be close!

On Thursday, May 22, 2014, ten Black-necked Stilt chicks were observed.  The two nests of four eggs had hatched. It was clear that there must have been an additional nest located near the project area.

Black-necked Stilt nestlings.  Image by David Powell.

Black-necked Stilt nestlings. Image by David Powell.

No work was conducted in the area over Memorial Day weekend, and water was released on schedule from the Elephant Butte dam on Sunday the 25th.  On Tuesday the 27th, two chicks and adults were still observed near the project site in the morning, but all Black-necked Stilts had moved out of the project area by the afternoon.  Disaster averted!

Black-necked Stilt nestlings hiding beneath parent.  Image by David Powell.

Black-necked Stilt nestlings hiding beneath parent. Image by David Powell.

We thank the USIBWC for proactively protecting these nests by mounding soil to divert water flows away from the nest sites and for establishing and maintaining buffer zones that enabled these Black-necked Stilts to produce young in 2014. We thank Rebecca Little Owl and Albert Flores, Environmental Protection Specialists, for their efforts to protect these nests and working collaboratively with Hawks Aloft to develop a mitigation plan.

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Through the Eyes of an Intern, No. 3: A foray into the world of plants

A really cool dead Ponderosa in the Jemez

A really cool dead Ponderosa in the Jemez

I’ve always been interested in plants. I find that expressing a high level of curiosity, which is to say, any curiosity, about these non-moving entities of the great outdoors to any of my “normal” friends will typically elicit even more of an eyeroll than talking about birds. Usually, I make myself feel better by telling myself that I just have more interesting interests than they do. I blame this enthusiasm on my dad, who, bless him, has spent most of our hikes together pointing out all the intriguing flora to me and collecting seeds and whatnot. (Love you, Dad.) I know this is an organization dedicated to birds, but I thought I’d take a little time to talk about the plants and habitats that support avian existence.

A popular drive-your-car-off-a-cliff location

Random picture: Jennifer refers to this as “a popular drive-your-car-off-a-cliff spot.” It also shows the difference in vegetation closer and farther from the stream, though part of that is due to the steepness of the cliff face towards the bottom of the picture.

A couple of weeks ago I went on my second field work camping trip, this time to the Valles Caldera and the Jemez area. It was gorgeous—of course. To me, I think of the landscape of northern New Mexico as lush, orderly, almost as though it’s intentionally well groomed, in contrast to the more unruly, freeform wilderness I saw in the southern half of the state. I’d guess that it probably has something to do with differences in vegetation. I’m no plant biologist, but from what I observed from the field work I’ve done, the Gila Mountains have a more oak trees and scattered bushes, whereas the Jemez forest has a fair amount of undergrowth between pines. These difference would be due to latitude, the distance north or south of the equator, as well as elevation. Ponderosas are rampant in both forests, naturally, and who doesn’t love these orange-colored, vanilla-scented giants?

A wild Jennifer conducting surveys in her natural habitat (the Valles Caldera national preserve)

A wild Jennifer conducting surveys in her natural habitat (the Valles Caldera national preserve)

The Jemez work was four different bird surveys, done in point-count style. That is, you get a predetermined set of points, usually 10-12, spread out over a particular area, and at each point you stand for ten minutes and record all the birds you see or hear. Jennifer Goyette, the biologist who I shadowed on this trip, was patient enough to answer all my questions about identification and bird calls. Have you ever tried differentiating five or ten bird species in the same area by call alone? I admire people like Jennifer who can do it almost effortlessly and still have brain-space left to help me learn a few calls along the way. I can definitely recognize Black-headed Grosbeak, Spotted Towhees, Warbling Vireos, Yellow-breasted Chats, and possibly White-breasted Nuthatches after that trip. Thanks, lady, you’re pretty cool!

The fabulous stream alongside the Gilman Tunnels (NM485)

The fabulous stream alongside the Gilman Tunnels (NM485)

Did I mention how beautiful it was? One morning’s work was along a stream near the Gilman Tunnels. The stream, like all water in the desert, created a strikingly green strip of land to either side of it. It’s packed with all sorts of flowers and bushes that wouldn’t be found anywhere else in this dry land, including what Jennifer calls “lemonade berry” (Rhus integrifolia). The berries were tasty and did not kill me, contrary to my initial suspicions/training that I should never put anything I find in the wild in my mouth (thanks, poisonous mushrooms, for making me paranoid…). The mathematical side of me is saying that there’s an inversely proportional relationship between the amount of vegetation found and the distance traveled from the water source—or, basically, there was a stark difference between how green the landscape was on opposite sides of the road. This also resulted in different amounts and species of birds found on either side of the road as well. For the most part, the side farther from the stream was fairly silent, while the closer to the water I looked, the more birds I could hear and see. It was a great day, especially because we ended our survey with a quick wade through the stream. Ah, so refreshing!

Mountain Bluebird

A Mountain Bluebird. Photo by Doug Brown

My favorite survey was the third because we actually got to do it within the Valles Caldera preserve. Despite the really bothersome cold I’d caught the day before, I could still marvel at the beauty of the landscape. At one point, I was able to identify a Mountain Bluebird just by the way it flew out to catch insects near its perch, called sallying or hawking behavior. I can’t wait until I can better identify birds, whether by plumage, call or behavior, and I feel so lucky to be able to learn so much about birds this summer!

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Mom & Dad Know What They Are Doing

Written by Lisa Morgan, Raptor Rescue Coordinator.

On June 7, we received a call from a retirement community in Rio Rancho about FIVE Cooper’s Hawk chicks that had been blown out of a nest high in a cottonwood tree. Two chicks survived the fall. We determined that the best option was to return the chicks to the cottonwood tree where their parents could continue caring for them – even though we could never locate the nest.

Cooper's Hawk Brancher.  Image by Sandy Skeba

Cooper’s Hawk Brancher. Image by Sandy Skeba

With the help of PNM Resources, and their tree climbing crew, Trees, Inc., we set about making an artificial nest in the tree from whence they came.  The crew first installed a human-constructed nest consisting of a wicker basket and natural nest lining materials.

Trees, Inc. staff installing the wicker basket nest.  Image by PNM Resources.

Trees, Inc. staff installing the wicker basket nest. Image by PNM Resources.

Once the nest was thoroughly secured in the tree, it was time to hoist the nestlings back up and into their new home, where their parents still waited even though it had been four days since the chicks were taken.

Bob Mongiello prepares to return a Cooper's Hawk nestling to its new nest.

Bob Mongiello prepares to return a Cooper’s Hawk nestling to its new nest.  Image by PNM Resources.

The two chicks settled right into their human-constructed nest, just as if they had always been there.  Dad Cooper’s Hawk even attempted to deliver food to his chicks while all this was in progress, although he was frightened off by all the commotion.

Re-nested Cooper's Hawk chicks.  Image by PNM Resources.

Re-nested Cooper’s Hawk chicks. Image by PNM Resources.

The biggest issue we contended with was  concerned citizens that continued trying to come to the aid of these chicks, disturbing their parents’ attempts to care for them.
In the end, it was a successful return once we were able to educate the neighbors about the privacy needs of the hawk family. Although it can be difficult to watch these youngsters on the ground, in nearly all cases it best to allow the families to stay together and the parents to continue caring for their youngsters.

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We thank PNM for allowing the use of their tree-climbing crew, Trees, Inc.  We also thank PNM Resources staff:  Thad Petzold, Ryan Baca, John Acklen, Stephen Saletta, and Bob Mongiello.

 

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Hummingbirds! Part 2

Ah, backyard birding; the only time when being out in the field means your main accessories are binoculars and perhaps a cup of coffee, not sweat-streaked sunscreen and a fine coating of high desert dust over everything. Now that you have your hummingbird feeder up, you love to watch all the hectic, jewel-bright buzzing around it! Only trouble is, you have no idea which birds you’re seeing. In this post I’ve put together a short visual guide to the types of hummers you’re likely to see around town this summer.

The most common type of nesting hummingbird in the Albuquerque area, especially the Bosque, is the Black-chinned Hummingbird.

A male Black-chinned Hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

A male Black-chinned Hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

A female Black-chinned Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

A female Black-chinned Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

They can be identified by their greenish backs and their black chins and throats; and if the sunlight hits the male’s feathers just right, you can see a thin strip of iridescent purple at the lower edge of their black throats. Females are less-excitingly colored, with a green back and grey chest, belly, and darker-spotted throat.

You’ll see them darting erratically from your feeder to catch insects, a staple of most hummingbird diets. And, while they don’t have the flashiest coloration, the males do perform impressive dives of up to one hundred feet to display during courtship and territorial defense. Remember, these birds are three and a half inches long on average, so that’s the equivalent of them traveling over three hundred body lengths in one dive.

Another fairly common species around here is the distinctive Rufous Hummingbird:

Male (left) and female (right) Rufous Hummingbirds. Photos by David Powell

Male (left) and female (right) Rufous Hummingbirds. Photos by David Powell

They are named for their unmistakable coloration, bright orange on the males and rusty-orange-and-green on the females. These birds, mostly the males, show up around July 4 after they have finished breeding in their northwestern nesting territories, sometimes as far north as southeastern Alaska, the northernmost of any hummingbird’s breeding range. They are also rather famously aggressive, gladly taking on other hummingbirds even twice their weight. If you hear fighting around your feeder after Independence Day, chances are it’s a rufous male defending his territory!

Around late July and August, the tiny Calliope will show up.

A male Calliope Hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

A male Calliope Hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

They are the smallest hummingbirds in North America north of Mexico (the smallest in North America and in the world are Bee Hummingbirds), small enough that their mass is about one-third that of the smallest North American warblers. They are also the smallest long-distance migratory birds, as they spend their winters in Mexico and the summer breeding season in the northwestern United States up into southwestern Canada. Males can be identified by their green upperparts, white underparts, and red-streaked throat. Females have a dull whitish throat and off-white to cinnamon-buff chest and belly.

A male Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

A male Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

Finally, you may see Broad-tailed Hummingbirds as they migrate through the Albuquerque area. Their backs are shiny green, with off-white undersides; males have a bright pink throat and females have a dark-spotted throat. The females can look like a female Rufous, but you can tell them apart by the much more orange-tinted sides on a Rufous.

A female Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

A female Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

They’ll be migrating to the next location of their favored habitat, subalpine meadows. One very neat adaptation to these chilly places is their ability to go into a torpor—yes, that’s a technical term—on cold nights, which means it slows down its metabolism and keeps its body temperature at about 54°F when the ambient temperature falls below 44°F. I mentioned in the previous post that female hummingbirds will include spider silk in their nests to make it more secure for the chicks;  for cold-climate birds such as these, lining the nest with silk also serves to insulate it and substantially decrease the required energy output of the incubating female.

And now you know how to identify the four common species of hummingbirds you’ll see in the Albuquerque/Bosque area this summer! If you have further questions, feel free to leave a comment below or submit it in the Ask an Expert section.

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Through the Eyes of an Intern, No. 2: What pine tree? Which clump?

And we're off!

And we’re off!

Well. So much has happened since my last post that I don’t even know where to start. I had my first real field work experience with Dave Parsons, a volunteer, and Jennifer Goyette, our very cool new biologist, three Thursdays ago, and I was planning to write about that. Then I had my first REAL field work experience a week ago, in the Gila National Forest. I spent the time with Mike Fugagli, one of our avian biologists, searching for Mexican Spotted Owl fledglings. Yes, I saw impressive adult owls and adorable baby owls. Yes, I camped in the car and didn’t shower for three days. And, yes, I got the notice to travel, packed up the car with food and camping gear, and drove six hours to a place I’d never been before within one day. I am slightly proud of myself, especially considering that this was my first long-distance solo road trip.

A clear-sky sunset from somewhere between Deming and Silver City

A clear-sky sunset from somewhere between Deming and Silver City

I loved this trip! If all field work were like this, I’d want to do it all the time. There’s something spectacular about being out on the open road: seeing everything on the side of the road from pink-flowered chollas in full bloom to huge solar panel arrays, watching birds (swallows maybe?) swoop in spectacular displays and almost hit my windshield, and feeling this delicious tension between full-throated adventure and “oh, goodness, will I ever find this mysterious campground?”. Sleeping with stars overhead and no lights around is amazing. The endless plains of grass and shrubs and rocks and hills to either side of the road; the huge sky, bright sun, and playful clouds above; they were ridiculously refreshing to me after eight months in cold cold, grey, close-set-forest of Massachusetts. Ahh, New Mexico. But I digress. I know very well that you all were expecting to read something about birds, not just my ramblings about driving on the highway (which starts to sound too much like a country song to me), so here you go:

Mike taking pictures of the first owl, the father of a nestling or two who hadn’t yet fledged (left the nest). Still, though, he looks pretty happy, so I’m guessing everything is going well with his kids!

Mike taking pictures of the first owl, the father of a nestling or two who hadn’t yet fledged (left the nest). Still, though, he looks pretty happy, so I’m guessing everything is going well with his kids!

This was the first Spotted Owl we spotted and, through some stroke of luck, I saw him before Mike. Lucky because that man is quite honestly one of the best bird identifiers and trackers I’ve ever met, and I feel so privileged to be able to work with him! Just sitting around the camp table on the first morning, drinking some cowboy coffee and watching the wildlife around us, he was able to identify at least four different bird species by either sight or call and show me two different nests right next to our campsite. Can I be like him when I grow up, please?

Picture of a mother (left) and her baby, by Mike Fugagli. Or, for another of just a fledgling, see this lady’s shot.

Photo of a mother (left) and her baby, by Mike Fugagli. For another of just a fledgling, see this lady’s shot.

We visited six nest sites, five of which had owls present. Four of those had fledglings, including two with two fledglings! This is actually very important because Mexican Spotted Owls are listed as threatened by the Fish and Wildlife Service and two fledglings are much harder to raise than just one. As Mike put it, it’s kind of like raising a cottonwood tree: easy at first because it grows quickly, nearly impossible to keep it going once it has a 30-foot diameter canopy since it has to be watered at the drip line, which is where the canopy ends—sort of an exponential increase in necessary inputs to get the same output/a not-dead tree in your yard. But back to owls: finding these guys—whether the adults, the fledglings, or especially their nest—was quite challenging. The title of this blog comes from the second-to-last site we checked, when Mike said that the nest was “a clump in that pine tree” and, naturally, there were about twenty such combinations in the direction he pointed. It was always rewarding when at last feathers materialized from bark and I could actually distinguish the owl. Probably my favorite memory is when I saw my first fledgling, or, as I like to call them, puffballs. There’s really no better way to describe these absolutely adorable young owls.

Fitting that a Capricorn (mountain goat) should try to scramble up this hill. This and its brethren had a greater than 30° incline in some places and I am most definitely counting them as sufficient cardio for the next two or three weeks.

Fitting that a Capricorn (mountain goat) should try to scramble up this hill. This and its brethren had a greater than 30° incline in some places and I am most definitely counting them as sufficient cardio for the next two or three weeks.

I was pretty sad that this trip was so short, despite climbing ridiculous hills and dealing with ever-present bugs and access roads that would be politely described as “extremely potholed.” But I’ll always keep the memory of this very first field work trip, and the best part is, I still have several weeks left of field work, including one next week to the Valles Caldera with Jennifer. I’ll write about that next time! Until then, happy trails.

-Miri

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