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: Habitat

Welcoming Western Tanagers

Luckily for us, New Mexico is a major migratory pathway, which makes Spring an exciting time to be living along the Rio Grande. Nearly half of all birds found in North America are migratory, meaning that they travel annually in order to access resources like food and nesting locations, and for some species, to escape cold weather. 

Western Tanager by David Powell

Since we are now quite nearly into May, most birds have made their move from wintering grounds to summer nesting grounds. Migratory birds tend to travel along natural land formations like mountains, rivers, or coasts. Most of New Mexico is in the Central Flyway, and the Rio Grande is a primary pathway for dozens of bird species making their way through this part of the country.

One striking species that travels to New Mexico to nest is the Western Tanager. Adult male Western Tanagers are nearly impossible to miss—they have a broader stature than warblers (which they are occasionally mistaken for), with mostly yellow bodies, contrastingly dark black wings and a striking, mottled red head. The more muted female is yellowish allover with similarly dark wings.

Female Western Tanager by Larry Rimer

Breeding in coniferous forests farther north or juniper-pine at lower elevations, they are also no stranger to backyard feeders in the springtime in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and further north. Since they primarily feed on fruit and insects, if you want to lure them to your little corner of New Mexico, provide jellies as food or stock your yard with suet and, of course, a bird bath.

Arriving primarily from Mexico and Central America, this species, like many songbirds, travel to their nesting territories by night to avoid predators. Research suggests that they use the Earth’s magnetic fields, and perhaps even star patterns to orient themselves.

Image by Keith Bauer

Throughout the Spring in our part of the world, you might spot Western Tanagers foraging among the trees or hear the males’ stuttering, ascending and descending song. Oftentimes, the call of the Western Tanager is compared to that of the American Robin, though it is often shorter.

Have you spotted any Western Tanagers in your neighborhood, backyard, or on a hike lately? Tell us in the comments! 

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Simple Backyard Birding in Albuquerque

As we all social distance and stay home during what we hope is the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are searching for enriching activities to pass the time. Even if we make our way out to natural spaces, maintaining a distance from each other can be difficult. That’s why it’s best to get your bird watching done from your yard, if you have one. Even if you don’t, you can take a moment to appreciate the common species of birds that populate our city and are often quite easy to spot!

Some that you might catch a glimpse of throughout the city include: 

Image by Alan Murphy

Rock Dove

Often maligned, the Rock Dove, AKA the pigeon, is abundant throughout much of the world and chances are, this is the most common bird in your neighborhood, no matter where you live in Albuquerque. Even though they are familiar, take a moment to appreciate the resiliency of the species and their long-running relationship with human beings. For example, Egyptian hieroglyphics suggest that pigeons were domesticated over 5,000 years ago. For an added challenge, see how many variations in plumage you can spot on your block—rusty brown and even nearly entirely white are two possibilities. 

Image by Larry Rimer

Greater Roadrunner

That quintessential bird of the West. Their amazing adaptations give us pause—that they can eat a venomous snake or a scorpion, for example. Or that their moisture-rich prey offers them an opportunity to take in water in such arid climates as the Chihuahuan Desert. These birds are abundant in many parts of Albuquerque and throughout the spring, you may catch a glimpse of their elaborate courtship rituals.

Image by David Powell

Curve-billed Thrasher

Secreted away in chollas and paddle cactus, the Curve-billed Thrasher is almost as quintessentially Southwestern as the roadrunner. Easily identified by their long, curved bill, these birds are often spotted foraging for seeds, berries, insects, or even visiting low-hanging feeders. Next time you’re out in the yard, see if you can’t spot the yellow eyes of one of these thrashers peering back at your from a cactus. 

Image by David Powell

Northern Mockingbird

The Northern Mockingbird has an abundance of calls that makes its song sweet and entertaining. Feeding on fruit, insects, worms, and even the occasional small lizard, they are often visible perching atop trees, shrubs, and utility lines. Your yard might be particularly attractive to this species if you have an abundance of hedges, fruiting trees and bushes, and grassy patches for ground foraging. You might even be taking this time to plant some of these as you stay home, and with good reason—after all, who wouldn’t want a few resident Northern Mockingbirds around, sweetly singing even into the evening?

Image by Tony Giancola

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Among the most common hummingbirds starting to nest in New Mexico as spring sets in is the Black-chinned Hummingbird. The males have an easy-to-spot deep purple throat that usually looks black. Setting up a hummingbird feeder with four parts water to one part sugar (no food coloring!) can attract these lovely nesting-season visitors to your neck of the woods. 

Getting familiar with the birds around your home and neighborhood is a great way to spend some time as you social distance and hunker down to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. It’s also a great way to connect young kids to the natural world and encourage learning outdoors. Make the most of it, and let us know what birds you’ve spotted recently in the comments! 

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Animals and Forest Fires, Pt.1

The wildfires that recently raged in California’s North Bay have renewed concerns about the dangers and effects of forest fire across the West. After dealing with the immediate concerns—that the fire spread so uncontrollably and killed several dozen people and destroyed thousands of homes, businesses, and other developed spaces, many began to wonder about the less apparent effects, for example—what happens to wildlife during these events? Hawks Aloft supporters might be wondering in particular—what happens to birds during forest fires?  

Forest fires aren’t necessarily unnatural or bad. In fact, over millennia, many species have evolved to cope with fire where it is a natural part of the landscape. In fact, some organisms, like morel mushrooms, for example, only produce spores when stimulated by the heat of fire. Additionally, certain plants only seed in the aftermath of events such as these and young aspen trees thrive in the nutrient rich soil post-burn. Some birds benefit tremendously—take, for example, species of woodpecker, who when new habitats are formed in the wake of forest fire, swoop in and feast on bark beetles exposed in dying trees. Species like these actually benefit as a result of wildfire.  

Three-toed Woodpecker, image by Alan Murphy

Yet, October’s fires in California were caused by human activity, not natural events such as lightning. And with a rising global temperature, fire season is lasting longer, and individual fires are blazing for extended periods of time. When massive fires such as these attack landscapes where natural fire activity has long been suppressed, the impacts can be more far-reaching.  

Generally speaking, birds fly away, mammals run, and amphibians and other small animals burrow into the ground or hide in logs or under rocks. Young, weak animals, and nestling birds (during certain times of the year, of course) are the losers in these scenarios, because they are unable to flee to safety. Despite these inevitable casualties, usually direct mortality to avian life isn’t very broad or devastating during forest fires.  

What can negatively impact bird populations in areas of forest fire are things like air quality. Birds are circular breathers, so smoke from fires can damage their delicate respiratory systems. However, impacts like these haven’t been widely studied on bird populations, so it is difficult to gauge the number of birds who might have succumbed to these peripheral effects. 

For example, during a 1999 fire in the Everglades, smoke is thought to have contributed to the deaths of 50 adult White Ibises, and low-flying birds, by some accounts, suffer even more.  

In New Mexico, Hawks Aloft has spent five years monitoring birds in the Jemez, gauging various species responses to fire, and the habitats created in their aftermath. So far, what we have come to understand is that responses vary considerably across the 112 species documented there. Species of concern, like the Grace’s Warbler were far less present in burned habitat than unburned, while species like the Western Bluebird seemed to thrive in burned landscapes. A sample of information gleaned from our studies is pictured below.

Image by David Powell, featuring information gained through five years of study by Hawks Aloft staff

Every forest fire is different in its breadth and reach, and each habitat is different. It will take time and deliberate study to understand the impacts of California’s fires on the bird life there. As always and as a testament to the resilience of nature, some species will be hurt and some will thrive after this widespread blaze. What is assured, that given time, the forest will rebound and the habitat there will, once again, transform.  

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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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A Walk through Ridgecrest

I recently had the pleasure of housesitting in Southeast Albuquerque, near Nob Hill in the Ridgecrest area. A far cry from where I reside in East Downtown, this neighborhood is comparatively lush with trees, birdfeeders, sprinkler systems and birds. In my neighborhood, the list of bird species that I’ve tallied is fairly minimal—mostly species of dove, namely Rock and Mourning. During my time—and the many walks I took with the dog in my care, Pegasus—I was pleased to spot a few common birds that I don’t often see in my neighborhood.
I was happy to see among these a Downy Woodpecker. As Pegasus and I ambled through a pocket park (of which there are many in Ridgecrest) I heard the staccato cheeps of the bird less than four feet over my head in the low bough of a small tree. Easy to identify, with their checkered black and white wings and a flash of red on the head, I was thrilled to get a close look at the woodpecker before it no longer tolerated the presence of a human and an excitable dog, and flew off.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

As we strolled down the sidewalk of a residential street, I noticed movement in the bushes that bordered an adobe wall that separated the street from someone’s yard. Pausing, and carefully looking into the scrubby foliage, I saw a round-chested gray bird with yellow eyes flitting about, and then pausing to anxiously look back at me. It was a Curve-billed Thrasher, which I have had occasion to see in the foothills, but not often in a more urban environment. The most widespread of western thrashers, this species can make their home in a variety of terrain, which explains its welcome presence in many a yard throughout the city.

Curved-billed Thrasher, Image by Doug Brown

Curved-billed Thrasher, Image by David Powell

Ridgecrest, like East Downtown, is not without its doves, though I spotted a larger population of White-winged Doves in Ridgecrest than other varieties (though I heard many Mourning Doves, too). These lovely square-tailed doves, with perfect scallops of white along the wing edge perched above Pegasus and I along powerlines and in high trees. Increasingly common across the west, you can find these birds
not only in urban environments, but also in open woods and desert thickets.

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American Robin, Image by Gail Garber

This neighborhood also boasted a lot of American Robins—which are always a pleasure to hear in the morning—and American Crows. Common as these two are in nearly any neighborhood (literally any neighborhood—just look at a range map for these two species) both resilient birds are fun to watch as they make their way through the world. I suppose that’s the joy of birding in your own neighborhood,
wherever that may be. A walk down local streets, taking time to pause and appreciate what’s common, may present a moment of realization of how amazing it is to coexist so closely—in our own yards and neighborhoods—with such diverse and interesting species of animal.
What birds have you seen in your neighborhood lately?

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Maggie Grimason is a writer and editor 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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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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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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