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Albuquerque, NM 87184
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Hawks Aloft Blog

Blog Topic: Habitat

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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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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Hummingbirds! Part 1

Summertime in New Mexico feels like it isn’t quite real until the hummingbirds appear—these tiny, jewel-bright creatures that grace us with their presence for a few seconds before zooming away. There are many ways you can be hospitable to these birds and encourage them to frequent your yard all summer!

A male Blue-throated Hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

A male Blue-throated Hummingbird, found in southern Arizona. Photo by David Powell

The best way you can help out hummingbirds is by feeding them with nectar. It’s quite simple: start with a ratio of 1 part white sugar to 4 parts water. 1:3 sugar to water ratio is also an option, if you prefer a sweeter syrup.

A feeding hummingbird with pollen on its beak. Photo by David Powell

A feeding hummingbird with pollen on its beak. Photo by David Powell

Boiling this mixture for cleanliness isn’t required, though the water needs to be heated enough to dissolve the sugar.  Clean your feeder with hot water (no soap) once a week or so, and replace the water if it looks cloudy as that’s a sign of spoilage. Most importantly, don’t add anything else, especially not red dyes, because these can be harmful to the hummers’ sensitive bodies. The red coloration on the feeders will be attractive enough to these birds.

Hang the feeder in an unobstructed area, and watch as your yard fills with beautiful hummingbirds!

Two hummingbirds feeding. Photo by David Powell

Two hummingbirds feeding. Photo by David Powell

Of course, you can also add flying and rooted beauty to your yard by planting a hummingbird garden: a variety of flowering plants that are particularly attractive to these birds. The Hummingbird Society has a list of eighteen suggested plants that will not only provide nectar but also perches and, in the case of Desert Willow and larger plants, shelter and nest-building sites. This is the nesting season for many birds, including hummers, and as such it is especially important to provide them a little extra help in these months.

Some quick facts about hummingbirds’ nesting:

  • Males have very little purpose during nesting except to spread their sperm as far and wide as possible. They do not help the female at all with incubation or raising the chicks.
  • A metallic green Costa Rican hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

    A metallic green Costa Rican hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

    Females build the nest alone. In it she includes a large ball of spider silk, which serves to keep the eggs and later the chicks snug and secure inside the nest, stretching as they grow.

  • One female will usually raise two chicks in a breeding season.
  • Rufous Hummingbirds, a fairly common species here in Albuquerque, will actually stay in their northwestern nesting territories until they are done breeding, around July 4. After that, the males migrate down here to breed with more females—again, these birds are on a serious mission!

In the next blog post, I’ll talk about how to identify some of the more typical species spotted here in Albuquerque. Until then, enjoy these beautiful birds when you see them!

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The Desert in Winter

The Journada del Muerto in Winter

The Journada del Muerto in Winter

Twenty years ago, we began doing raptor surveys of the Rio Grande and Estancia Valleys, monitoring during the months that raptors are resident, summer and winter.  I am fortunate to survey the desert grasslands of the Armendaris Ranch, owned by Ted Turner.  It’s one of the largest privately owned ranches in New Mexico and stewardship of the fragile environment is a priority.

Bison

Bison

They raise bison on the expansive ranch, but mostly there is little evidence that this land is grazed by anything other than wildlife.

Golden Winter Grasses that Frame the Fra Cristobals

Golden Winter Grasses that Frame the Fra Cristobals

The grasses are tall and golden at this time of the year, as well as abundant.  In many areas on the ranch, you could fool yourself that you were in a pristine environment, except for the road, of course.  Along with my survey partner, Chuck Brandt, we survey a 20 mile stretch of the ranch on the main ranch road.

Chuck Scans for Raptors

Chuck Scans for Raptors

At each of 20 stops, we scan 360 degrees in search of raptors, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Greater Roadrunners.  With the high pressure system riding high over the West, the temperatures last week were positively balmy with relatively light winds.

Playa at the Armendaris Ranch, a full month after the last precipitation.

Playa at the Armendaris Ranch, a full month after the last precipitation.

We haven’t had any rain in nearly 40 days, but when it does rain in the desert, it can be substantial.  Such was the case in late November, when the ranch received significant snow that closed the main ranch road and filled the playas.  Now, in mid-January, the playas still held bounteous water.

Chihuahuan Raven Kettle

Chihuahuan Raven Kettle

Chihuahuan Ravens were in abundance as we arrived, riding the winds in multiple kettles of up to 50 birds.  Chuck commented that, in his experience, the presence of loads of ravens boded poorly for raptor numbers.  But, to our surprise, we started off with at least one bird at every early stop.  But . . .

Loggerhead Shrike, image by Doug Brown

Loggerhead Shrike, image by Doug Brown

most of them were Loggerhead Shrikes, also known as butcherbirds, for their hunting habits.  They capture live prey and impale it on thorns and barbs to be consumed later.  In all, we tallied 12 Loggerhead Shrikes on this survey.

Lark Buntings on Armendaris

Lark Buntings on Armendaris

Also present were Lark Buntings, seen in huge flocks of a hundred or more.  Watching these flocks with their unique flight styles foraging on the roads and nearby shrubs is thrilling as they undulate in almost coordinated flight.  Of course, the other songbird present in large numbers was the Horned Lark.

Immature Golden Eagle

Immature Golden Eagle

But, the highlight of the day was sighting three individual Golden Eagles, not a common sight, so seeing three in one day was thrilling, even though the birds were distant.  We also counted Prairie Falcon, American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, and Ferruginous Hawk.  It is clear that the management practices of the Armendaris Ranch benefit raptors and their prey!

Yucca in Winter

Yucca in Winter

Some folks have difficulty in finding much to appreciate in the desert at any time of year but, for me, it bespeaks unsurpassed beauty in nature.

 

 

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The HAI Flier – Our Monthly Online Newsletter

Sandhill Crane in Flight.  Image by Doug Brown.

Sandhill Crane in Flight. Image by Doug Brown.

Sandhill Cranes will be returning to the Middle Rio Grande Valley any day now.  Did you know that the Rio Grande and the adjacent bosque have become de facto refugia for these magnificent birds because no hunting is allowed within the urban areas.   Read about this issue and more in the October issue of the HAI Flier.   It is your way to keep in touch with all of the studies and education programs of Hawks Aloft, and membership activities too.

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