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

Logo: Hawks Aloft Inc.

Hawks Aloft Blog

Blog Topic: Conservation

West Nile Virus & Birds

Mosquitoes can breed in just a couple of tablespoons of water, which is why the gallons of water standing in the bosque are a little troubling when it comes to management of the pests. This year, heavy snowpack, coupled with early warming (before a late cold snap) caused the river to rise higher sooner and stay longer, causing flooding in the bosque. All these forces combined to create a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, bolstering their numbers considerably, and causing a concern for the city as early in the year as April. Since mosquitoes can go from egg to adult in a week, it is high time to start thinking about what we all can do to mitigate the concerns created by an increased mosquito population. At Hawks Aloft, West Nile Virus (WNV) is now at the front of our minds.

West Nile Virus was first detected in New Mexico in 2003. This, of course causes concern for humans—there were six confirmed cases of the virus in New Mexico last year, one of which resulted in death. It is also a concern for horses, who can be killed when infected, and dogs, in whom it can cause heartworm. And, it is also a very serious concern for avian populations. The last time mosquito populations boomed in our state, local Cooper’s Hawk and crow populations were devastated by an outbreak of the disease.

Mosquitoes are a primary carrier of West Nile Virus, which can be devastating to various bird species

Mosquitoes are a primary carrier of West Nile Virus, which can be devastating to various bird species

In birds, the mosquito-born pathogen creates a rapid, traumatic response, resulting in death rather quickly. Taken with the many other threats to birds—like cats, pesticide use, and habitat loss—WNV contributes to a huge overall decline across species throughout the entirety of the U.S. For example, a study released in 2015 indicated that Warbling Vireo populations had been reduced a full one-third solely due to WNV (killing 15 million of the 49 million total population). This strong impact on certain bird populations is related to the fact that the virus multiplies more quickly in an avian host than in, say, a mammal. Over 300 species of birds have been found infected with WNV, which is very troubling considering the very high rate of mortality among them once infected.

Our resilient Avian Ambassador, Aires

Our resilient Avian Ambassador, Aires

Hawks Aloft has been directly affected by the spread of this disease. One year, Aires, a Swainson’s Hawk that came to us in the mid-90’s after being hit by a car in Raton, was found listless on the floor of her mew. Panicked, her caretaker rushed her to Petroglyph Animal Hospital, where she was treated for WNV, spending considerable time in an oxygenated incubator hooked up to a continuous fluid drip until the virus ran its course.  Had she not been treated so promptly, the disease might have caused a plethora of awful symptoms including ataxia, weakness, tremors, loss of flight, blindness, rapid weight loss, and in its final stages, severe seizures. Aires recovered and is happy and healthy today, but many birds are not as lucky.

This year, anticipating the boom in pathogen-carrying mosquitoes, we have committed to vaccinating every single one of our beloved Avian Ambassadors against the virus—that’s 25 birds in total!—so that they will never know the suffering caused by this disease. The conservation work that these birds help us to do is invaluable, and we want to protect their health and safety at any cost, although it is an overwhelming financial burden. The total cost of the vaccinations is around $1,700, straining the budget of our small nonprofit. You can help us to protect our Avian Ambassadors—including many species from a small Saw-whet Owl to large Red-tailed Hawks, and even one American Crow—by making a donation in any amount you are able. Helping us protect our birds means helping to protect birds everywhere by allowing us to continue educating our community about the importance of avian life. Thank you for helping us to continue our mission and for sustaining our Avian Ambassadors through these hard times.

Warbling Vireo by David Powell

Warbling Vireo by David Powell

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Avian Habitat in Corrales

Corrales has always been known as the riverside oasis near the more urban Albuquerque, that somehow still maintains the feel of being far away. For this reason, it is perhaps one of the most accessible jumping off points for local birders and all-around nature lovers to take a stroll along the river and observe local flora and fauna, among those, bird species. Since 2004, Hawks Aloft staffers and volunteers have done just that—and specifically, have monitored the abundance of various bird species throughout the years and seasons.

Spotted Towhee, Image by Kristin Brown

Spotted Towhee, Image by Kristin Brown

Recently, our lead avian biologist, Trevor Fetz, compiled a brief report on the findings of these extensive surveys so far, as they relate to Corrales. (You can read the full report here, in the form of a downloadable PDF.) The report chronicles the findings across 22 different transects in the Corrales bosque (out of a broader 81 transects along the middle Rio Grande, that include outlying areas like Albuquerque). The report details the avian density along different transects, presenting the data as the number of birds per 100 acres. Avian richness is also indicated, that is, the number of different species observed. The numbers determined were then contextualized in light of different events such as drought, bank terrace construction, and thinning efforts on behalf of local governments. The report also importantly draws comparisons between two types of habitat present in the Corrales bosque—drain transects with understory vegetation and those without.

Lazuli Bunting, Image by David Powell

Lazuli Bunting, Image by David Powell

The surveys found that in recent years (about 2010-2016) avian density decreased (from preceding years, from about 2004-2010) during both summer and winter months—with winter bird density significantly lower from 2011-2016. It is important to note that drought was a significant factor in avian population declines from 2010-2014; however, despite more moisture post-2014, Corrales avifauna did not bounce back as quickly as other parts of the bosque. The report suggests that this could be attributed to vegetation thinning in the area, particularly of Russian olive, which provides essential habitat for many species of bird along the Rio Grande in Corrales.

Hawks Aloft will continue our work monitoring the middle Rio Grande bosque, in Corrales and beyond. However, this report, which takes into account more than a decade’s worth of findings, shows concern for some important developments to consider moving forward.

To read the full report, complete with charts and in-depth explanation of processes, head over to our Publications page, where you can find a link to the report by Trevor Fetz.

 

Bewick's Wren, Image by Kristin Brown

Bewick’s Wren, Image by Kristin Brown

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Decolonizing Nature at UNM

What does decolonization mean? And, how can one even begin to address the process of decolonizing something as big and full of meaning as nature? These are heady topics, and a recent conference in Albuquerque sought to address them in a multitude of ways. I was lucky enough to write an article for the Weekly Alibi about the recent Decolonizing Nature conference, hosted by UNM at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and in turn, attend some sessions on behalf of Hawks Aloft.

The conference, which was held between April 18 and 22, included an array of sessions that broached such topics as “Species, Place, Politics,” “Building Bridges—Art, Community, Humanities,” “Sustainable Communities,” “In the Borderlands,” and “Water is Life,” among many others. In addition, an art exhibition opened in conjunction with the conference at 516 ARTS and the UNM Museum of Art hosted a small film festival. Through this variety of mediums and topics, the organizers of the conference, led by Subhankar Banerjee, hoped to free minds when it comes to considering our planet and its fate, and to engage the community in a dialogue on its own broad-based health and happiness.

Goodbye to All of That

Virginia Colwell’s “Goodbye to All of That,” part of the Decolonizing Nature exhibition at 516 ARTS

In this process of shaking off prescribed notions of ways of being and interacting with the natural and constructed world, many vital and inspiring conversations took place. Each panel discussion allowed for brief lectures by a carefully chosen group of individuals and left ample time for questions and comments from the community. Jeanette Hart-Mann, who I interviewed about the conference, pointed out that the presenters were carefully chosen because they are individuals who aren’t just “writing glorious papers” for other academics but are actually doing the work that they think is meaningful in their field.

From "Golden Migration," a site-specific work by choreographer and dancer, Lisa Nevada

From “Golden Migration,” a site-specific work by choreographer and dancer, Lisa Nevada

Sitting in on “Species, Place, Politics” panel discussion was interesting, particularly because speakers were selected from a vast number of fields. What many might find surprising is that there were a large number of artists participating in the conference, always game to speak on how art can provide another language to discuss complex, nuanced topics. On this particular panel was local dancer and choreographer Lisa Nevada, and Silver City-based photographer (and former field biologist) Michael Berman, as well as UNM PhD candidate and biologist Carlos Carrion. Nevada talked about her site-specific art, Golden Migration, performed at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge; Berman presented photography from the border as a vehicle for discussion; and Carrion, a native of Ecuador, talked about Yasuni National Park in his home country, and its fraught future due to Ecuador’s economic reliance on oil.

"Macho Peak Looking North," Pinto Ranch, TX, 2007. By Michael Berman

By Michael Berman

Each presenter addressed the topic in subtle, nuanced ways, suggesting there are infinite ways to tackle such pressing issues, using your own very specific and personal talents. As Hart-Mann mentioned when I interviewed her, the root of our ecological problems is that we view ourselves and our world as fundamentally different; that we as humans are set apart from the natural world. If we are separate from nature, then exploiting it isn’t so problematic. The aim of the conference, in part, was to realize that we are a part of this Earth, and what we do it, we do to ourselves. We are not “Earthmasters” as the Decolonizing Nature program described, but Earthlings, a single part of the biological web much bigger than ourselves.


Maggie and Idaho

 

Maggie Grimason is senior editor and an educator at Hawks Aloft.

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All About the Christmas Bird Count

The Christmas Bird Count (also abbreviated as CBC) is the longest running citizen science project in the United States. Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, the count is performed annually near the end of December. Many bird experts and aficionados, as well as those of us who simply find ourselves dumbfounded and staring upwards quite regularly, commit to the count each year—but who started it? And why?

The first Christmas Bird Count took place in 1900. It was born in response to a burgeoning environmental movement, but also as a reaction to a noticeably dwindling number of birds. This population decline may have been related to a strong tradition of bird hunting for both sport and sustenance. In fact, prior to 1900, there had been a long-running tradition of going on a bird hunt every Christmas day. (This was known as a “Side Hunt” for some obscure reason.) Frank Chapman, an official at the American Museum of Natural History and an early member of the Audubon Society dreamed that instead of using all that man power for something destructive, like hunting, why not arm people with binoculars and do something productive, like a bird count?

A portrait of ornithologist Frank Chapman, taken for the American Museum Journal

A portrait of ornithologist Frank Chapman, taken for the American Museum Journal

Chapman worked hard to advocate for the Christmas Bird Count and, that year, 27 birders headed out into the field on Christmas morning. From that first bird count, the tradition has held strong, and today, a huge database of information exists from the annual Christmas Bird Counts. Participants from all over the world have joined in, and now these population gauges guide important conservation decisions and research, contributing to the protection of both birds and their habitat in a huge array of regions.

In Albuquerque, there are many established ways to get involved with the bird count.  For example, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge will be holding one on December 17 from 7am-4pm. More information on that here.  The Albuquerque Count will take place on December 18.  You can also find details on how to participate independently, or look for more groups in your area on the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count webpage.

Photograph by Frank Chapman, from his book "Camps and Cruises of an American Ornithologist," published in 1908

Photograph by Frank Chapman, from his book “Camps and Cruises of an American Ornithologist,” published in 1908


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft.

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Sandhill Cranes Return Once Again

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

I remember the first Sandhill Crane I ever saw vividly—it was the first winter I lived in New Mexico, nearly six years ago now—near the Rio Grande on south Fourth Street. It was an amazing sight, and continues to be. Second in size only to the Whooping Crane, how could anxious watchers ever cease to be impressed these large, graceful birds? Their gurgling call and shadows cast over the wintry high desert is a sure indication of the changing seasons; without fail, they return year in and year out to New Mexico. Though these large, red-capped bird dependably herald the changing seasons, there is still much to learn about their migration patterns, especially in the face of a warming planet.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

In New Mexico, the Rocky Mountain Sandhill Crane population’s migration habits are being closely studied by students and researchers at New Mexico State University. As the birds respond to changes in climate that have created water scarcity and loss of wetlands (meaning less habitat) they have taken to traveling back and forth between several wintering areas in New Mexico, in order to find more opportunities for foraging. This is just one observable difference in the behavior of cranes responding to a changing world, and a clear indication of the importance of this kind of research, which reveals essential details about survival rates.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

With a range that encompasses distant places like Alaska all the way up to Siberia, these stately birds make their way south each autumn to winter in places like New Mexico, even as far south as the state of Durango in Mexico. Winter flocks usually consist of several nuclear families; Sandhill Cranes mate for life, so these may be comprised of parents, their young, and maybe even “grandchildren.” Typically these loose groups will overnight in shallow waters, and during the day forage for a variety of insects, snails, plants and amphibians.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

A particularly good place to stand in awe of these impressive birds—one of the most ancient species on Earth—is, of course, at Bosque del Apache. Even if you missed out on the Festival of the Cranes, don’t worry, there are still plenty of months to see Sandhill Cranes; they likely won’t start their departure until March. If you have your heart set on a festival, you can put the Monte Vista Crane Festival in the San Luis Valley of Colorado in your planner for March of 2017. Hawks Aloft will be there! Otherwise, just head out your front door to the Rio Grande bosque and look up, you’re likely to glimpse them near water and hear their trumpeting calls, too.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft

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Call for Volunteers!

As we work toward expanding our raptor rescue program to areas in southern New Mexico, in communities like Las Cruces, the need for volunteers to help ensure the wellbeing of raptors of all shapes and sizes is becoming more and more apparent. Raptor rescue coordinators and mitigations experts Emiliano Salazar and Lisa Morgan have already conducted trainings in the Las Cruces area and have equipped a team of local bird-lovers with all the knowledge they need to assess, rescue and transport injured birds in desperate need of attention.

However, Las Cruces is a long drive down I-25 from Albuquerque. Currently, the greatest need that we have in this arena is for transport of these birds from relay points in Socorro and Truth or Consequences to Albuquerque and the expert care of our rehabilitators. If you reside in or around these flashpoint cities, we could use your help!

As a volunteer, you’ll receive recognition in our online newsletter, which is delivered to thousands of bird enthusiasts around the country each and every month. You’ll also receive basic training and the satisfaction that comes with knowing you’ve done some essential work to give an animal the best possible chance at a healthy life.

To get involved as part of our raptor rescue team, contact Raptor Rescue Coordinator Emiliano Salazar at emiliano@hawksaloft.org for details, training dates and more information on how you can help wild birds of prey across New Mexico.

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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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Adventures on the Armendaris

This summer the Hawks Aloft team was granted nearly unlimited access to the expansive Armendaris Ranch owned by Ted Turner. The ranch itself stretches from Truth or Consequences in the south all the way to Bosque del Apache, encompassing a whole mountain range and thousands of acres of habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

 

But we came for the bats. The Armendaris Ranch plays host to many lava tubes, and those lava tubes are the home of a massive maternity colony of Mexican free tail bats. When these bats make their nightly departure from the tubes, they put on quite a show—namely, the second largest bat flight in North America.

Image by Greg Basco

Image by Greg Basco

Braving a long, bumpy ride down many unmarked dirt roads, the staff and volunteers of Hawks Aloft finally made it to our home for the night, a patch of land near the opening of the tubes where we would be camping. As dusk settled over the landscape, the bats began their exit, and all throughout the night they continued. The impressive bat population in this area also means that there are a large number of raptors that feed on the bats, like Swainson’s Hawks.

image by Doug Brown

Image by Doug Brown

There was plenty of life on the ground, as well, including other birds like roadrunners and quail.

Image by Keith Bauer

Image by Keith Bauer

Image by Larry Rimer

Image by Larry Rimer

Unique mammals abound throughout the vast property. We were lucky enough to see oryx, bison, fox, and bobcats.

Image by Arash Hazeghi

Image by Arash Hazeghi

Image by Doug Brown

Image by Doug Brown

Image by Emmitt Booher

Image by Emmitt Booher

In addition to the abundance of fauna on the Armendaris, there is a wealth of native plants including cottonwood, willow, and native grasses.  The untouched landscape provides a great habitat for threatened and endangered species, such as the bolson tortoise.

Image by Emmitt Booher

Image by Emmitt Booher

The Armendaris Ranch is a fantastic example of what it means to be effective stewards of the land, and provided us with a great example of well managed New Mexican habitat.


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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. 4: One Last Field Trip

Once again, I am lucky enough to have spent an entire week, Monday through Friday, in the Jemez and Valles Caldera, doing bird surveys with Jennifer. This time I did not get sick and was able to fully enjoy all five days. Enjoy, indeed—it rained every night so the mornings were not so bitterly cold (as they can get, at 4:45 AM up in the mountains) and the afternoons were not so terribly hot. Everything was green and in full bloom. One route through the Valles Caldera was particularly memorable: the road was completely washed out about halfway through from the rains, so we walked the kilometer or so between points, right along the back edge of the huge main meadow.

This really doesn’t sound like a Vesper Sparrow. (Green-tailed Towhee, photo by Doug Brown)

This really doesn’t sound like a Vesper Sparrow. (Green-tailed Towhee, photo by Doug Brown)

I hear the area is known as “obsidian valley,” which makes sense because within each landslide was a considerable amount of obsidian, shiny black or translucent grey in its freshly-broken glory. Other treasures we encountered were a partial desert-dried elk skeleton (think Georgia O’Keeffe), the largest lichen patch I’ve ever seen, and an entire field of penstemons, complete with warring Rufous, Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Thinking back on it, the entire survey seemed to be in some kind of fairyland, where the unusual was common and even ordinary things became larger than life. The sunrise, the sheer variety of birds and meadow plants, the elk herd crossing the road in front of us, the beautiful coyote and strange crickets, everything came together to make it a magical morning.

Western Meadowlark, photo by Doug Brown

Western Meadowlark, photo by Doug Brown

In bird news, I can now identify several more songs, including those of Pygmy Nuthatches, Northern Flickers, Western Wood-Peewees, and the odd buzzing noise that Ash-throated Flycatchers make when pursuing insects. On the washed-out road around the Caldera, I could at some point distinguish between Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, and between Vesper Sparrows and Green-tailed Towhees (I don’t really know why they sound so similar to me). Several weeks of nothing but House Finch and White-winged Dove calls have now rendered me clueless, but I’ve started keeping a list of bird calls and identifying marks inside my bird book. Let’s hope it’ll help me stay at least somewhat literate with bird calls…

Pygmy Nuthatch, photo by Doug Brown

Pygmy Nuthatch, photo by Doug Brown

Speaking of Pygmy Nuthatches, Jennifer gave me a “homework” assignment to research these birds, I suppose to spread the cuteness. They’re her favorite birds, and after reading about them on Cornell’s All About Birds website, I can see why. They weigh about a third of an ounce and eat nine whole calories a day. Some breeding pairs use family members, typically last year’s male children, as helpers to build the nest, defend it, and feed incubating females and chicks. A creative way to deal with lazy teenage sons, I suppose. They will also huddle in groups during cold weather—”sometimes more than 150 individuals sleep in a single tree, stacked up in squares, triangles, diamonds, oblongs, or tiers of birds”—and are the only North American birds to combine that behavior with controlled hypothermia as a method of staying alive. And, as my dad says, you hear a name like “pygmy nuthatch” and just brace yourself for cuteness. If you’re in need of something to brighten up your day, go to the Cornell website and listen to the recording of their “twittering and piping calls,” which the website compares to a rubber ducky. Gosh, how adorable. Good choice, Jennifer, though I think my faves are still Ash-throated Flycatchers.

I’ll stop writing now so I can instead bombard you with beautiful photos from the long meadow walk through the Valles Caldera (click to enlarge). It was a bittersweet trip anyway because it was my last overnight field work this summer, plus I’m heading back to college all too soon. I’ll definitely miss these landscapes when I go back to Massachusetts!

Sunbaked bones, a butterfly, a cool cricket, a bumblebee on some larkspur, and an elk heading off into the woods

Sunbaked bones, a butterfly, a cool cricket, a bumblebee on some larkspur, and an elk heading off into the woods

Me: "Look at all the Christmas trees!" Jennifer: "Oh yes...when I see conifers, I just think of the baby Jesus."

From sunrise to midday, including valley mist, lichen-covered rocks, and a flawless stand of coniferous trees

Salsify, a daisy, some fuzzy plant, and a whole field of penstemons

Salsify, a daisy, some fuzzy plant, and a whole field of penstemons

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Signal Fire and Potential Effects on Mexican Spotted Owls

Mexican Spotted Owl photographed by Mike Fugagli

Mexican Spotted Owl. Photographed by Mike Fugagli

Hawks Aloft biologist Mike Fugagli warned us about this particularly elusive Mexican Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis lucida). With hundreds of hours of experience monitoring this species, he so far had been unable to locate the day roost of this male. Nearing what he thought to be the probable nest area, we found whitewash and a small gray owl pellet in a shady grove beneath a spreading oak. All the while, a pair of large black eyes watched the ten of us from above. Formal monitoring protocol calls for offering live mice to the male owl. His response determines the pair’s nesting activity. This fellow was not slow to respond, snagging the first mouse and delivering it to the nest in the cavity of a massive Gambel’s oak. Two more followed in quick succession, confirmation that this pair had already hatched young. Our work done, we departed the Pinos Altos range of the Gila National Forest for Albuquerque around noon on Sunday, May 11, 2014, pleased that things had gone so well.

Spotted Owl pair. Photographed by Mike Fugagli

Spotted Owl pair. Photographed by Mike Fugagli

Mexican Spotted Owls are particularly confiding, allowing close approach by humans, one of the many threats to the species.   It was listed as a threatened subspecies by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1993 with an estimated population of 777-1554 individuals (1995), due primarily to habitat loss due to timber harvest and the risk of catastrophic fire. The greater Gila region supports more than 50% of the known population of Mexican Spotted Owls, including all distinct genotypes within the subspecies. The Gila also serves as a demographic crossroads and source population making it particularly important to the long-term viability of the subspecies range-wide.

Of the 15 historically occupied Mexican Spotted Owl sites known in the Silver City Ranger District of the Gila National Forest, Hawks Aloft is monitoring six this year, all with currently active nests. The Pinos Altos range, affected by the still-burning Signal Fire, contains the majority of those birds. In 2012, Hawks Aloft monitored 12 owl territories in the Pinos Altos range and found 11 to be occupied, with seven of those sites containing confirmed pairs, an unexpected result as previous studies reported a substantial decline in the greater Gila region between 1990 and 2005. However, only one pair successfully produced young in 2012, probably due to drought and its negative effects on the species’ prey base.

Mother and baby Spotted Owls photographed by Mike Fugagli

Mother and baby Spotted Owls. Photographed by Mike Fugagli

The 2014 monitoring season began in late March when the owls initiated nesting activities. When the Signal Fire started on Mother’s Day, the 30 day incubation period had just ended with most pairs just starting to feed newly hatched owlets. Although only three PACs (Protected Activity Centers) so far have been directly impacted by the now nearly-5700 acre, human-caused blaze, all the birds inhabiting the tinder-dry forests of the American southwest remain threatened. With Stage 1 restrictions in place, all it can take is one careless person to ignite a fire on the windiest day this spring, a wildfire that potentially could have impacted Mexican Spotted Owl breeding productivity. The Forest Service and fire crews were atop this fire almost immediately and the weather cooperated the following days. We thank all of those who work so hard to protect critical habitat for one medium-sized owl and all the other animals that share the forest.

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