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: Owls

Flammulated Owl Revelations

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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.

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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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Introducing Aztec

Photograph of Aztec by David Powell

Photograph of Aztec by David Powell

Although we’re not certain what happened to her, Aztec, the Great Horned Owl was brought to Hawks Aloft with some permanent injuries most likely caused by a collision with a car. She earned her name because she came to us from Aztec, New Mexico, in the Four Corners region, a small city near the Animas River, bordered by the ancient ruins at Aztec Ruins National Monument.

Photograph of Aztec by Keith Bauer

Photograph of Aztec by Keith Bauer

Aztec is a striking bird. One of the largest tufted owls in North America, Great Horned Owls like Aztec always attract attention. Aztec has fostered orphaned Great Horned Owlets in the past, and also has also provided Hawks Aloft educators with an opportunity to talk about raptor adaptations, owls in general, and the unique features of Great Horned Owls in particular.

Great Horned Owls are one of the most common owls in the United States. They are highly adaptable and make their homes in diverse landscapes—deserts, wetlands, grasslands, and urban environments—anywhere that there is some forested areas with semi-open spaces interspersed throughout.

Aztec at Bosque del Apache

Aztec at Bosque del Apache. Image by David Powell.

This common and easily identifiable species of owl is noted for its long, earlike tufts, the white patch on its throat, its heavily barred underbelly, and distinctive hoot. Below you can listen to the typical call of a Great Horned Owl.

The tone of the Great Horned Owl’s various calls can vary by region, but the deep series of 4-5 hoots is never so different that it can’t be readily identified. However, males and females are known to perform a call-and-response duet, wherein the sex of the birds are distinguished by their variation.

Great Horned Owls, like all raptors, are carnivores. Built for secrecy and stealth, these birds can take down birds and mammals that are larger than themselves. They’re not picky eaters and have one of the most diverse diets of raptors in the United States. They’ll feed on small mammals and rodents, as well as scorpions, snakes, loons, ravens, doves, insects, fish, other invertebrate and even cats and carrion—whatever is readily available. They are one of the only birds known to prey on skunks—they have a weak sense of smell—and the Executive Director of Hawks Aloft has even observed a Great Horned Owl that managed to snag a Red-tailed Hawk. It’s Great Horned Owl’s incredible adaptability that has made them one of the most successful predators in North America. Typically, these owls spot their prey from a perch and descend for the kill. Yet, illustrating their versatility, Great Horned Owls have even been observed stalking prey on the ground too.

A wild Great Horned Owl and owlets captured by Larry Rimer

A wild Great Horned Owl and owlets.  Image by Larry Rimer

Owls like Aztec are sometimes migratory, although most populations show fidelity to a single site year-round, where they remain in their monogamous pair—though outside of breeding season, the male and female often roost separately.

If you’ve fallen in love with Great Horned Owls and Aztec, consider supporting her as she lives out her remaining years with Hawks Aloft. Aztec’s injuries make her permanently non-releasable, so she requires care from our staff. If you’d like to support her by providing food, housing, and veterinary care check out our Adopt-A-Raptor Program.


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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. 2: What pine tree? Which clump?

And we're off!

And we’re off!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Miri

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Through the Eyes of an Intern, No. 1: Introductions!

Hello! My name is Mirinisa Stewart-Tengco (please call me Miri) and, in case you haven’t read the latest HAI Flier, I am the intern for this summer. I am very excited to be able to experience all the different facets of this wonderful organization.

For the first week I mostly worked with the educators, which was a good introduction as that was the side of HAI I was most familiar with. I learned how to conduct a basic single-visit school program, including learning some of the educational games—they’re a lot of fun, by the way, and I think that a lot of adults would benefit from playing these same games. (Seriously. There was one game about the effects of farmers putting pesticides on their crops, and it made me realize some of the very concrete and far-reaching outputs of even slight inputs to a system. Highly recommended for anyone who believes that their small actions have no effects on the wider environment.)

Photo of Aztec and Bubba by Mirinisa Stewart-Tengco, photos of Aires and Commodore by unkown

L-R: Aires (Swainson’s Hawk), Aztec and Bubba (Great Horned Owls), and Commodore (another Swainson’s), who all introduced me to my first day of work.

I also had the opportunity to visit a lot of the education birds…and clean their cages, of course! I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to quite get used to taking rat and quail remains off of their mats, but if it gives me the chance to hold birds like the adorable Shadow (a Western Screech Owl, pictured below), then hey, it’s worth it.

Miri and Shadow with Saya (our previous Education and Outreach Coordinator) in the background. Photo by Julia Davis

Shadow says: “Wow, you’ve been holding me for five minutes and I can already tell you’re new here.”

My own education has also included various falconry terms, including:

  • mews: an outdoor flight cage for a bird
  • jesses: the leather strips that attach to the bird’s legs, held by the handler and used to control the bird’s talons as those are its main weapons
  • swivel: the double metal ring that attaches the jesses to the leash and, through the leash, to the handler’s glove

As you can see, we take multiple precautions to make sure our birds stay safely under our control—safer for the birds, of course, but also safer for the spectators nearby. One of the scariest moments for me so far was during cage cleaning, when we had to grab the water dish from the red-tails’ mews; they are already some of the most aggressive birds that we have and, as they were nesting, it was unsafe for us even to attempt to clean the rest of their enclosure. Luckily, most of our raptors are friendlier!

Photograph by Mirinisa Stewart-Tengco

Handlers’ gloves for the birds kept at Gail’s house.

In the second week I had my first taste of field work, a morning of nest checks in the Bosque. I’ll talk about that in my next blog, by which time I will have gone out another time or two and will be able to give you a better insight to field work in general. I also will be assisting with my first educational program this Thursday. I have little experience in education, so stay tuned to see how this goes! Though, seeing as that cutie Shadow is one of the birds we’re bringing along, I’m sure the program will go well.

Until next time,

Miri

 

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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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Its a Heat Wave!

Owlet1This little fellow showed up laying in the shade on a damp lawn one day, in the back yard of Rich M., a Phoenix resident.  It’s HOT there!  Through a friend, he contacted  Chellye Porter, worried about the health of this recently fledged owlet.  So, Chellye called us.  Our thoughts ran to HEAT stress.  We suggested that the owlet might just be trying to keep cool.

 

Sure enough, every night the little fellow disappeared only to show up again in the rising heat the next day.  This went on for about 10 days and then the owlet moved on, apparently not in need of the cooling properties of shade and grass.  He has been seen roosting in a tree in the neighborhood, and occasionally returns to the cool grass.  Thanks to Chellye for sharing the story and to Rich M. for the image.  Clever owlet!

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The Hawks Aloft Raptor Rescue Team

What a week for wildlife rescue!  We rescued 5 birds last week. I think we set a record for us, and none of the birds were close to our home in Albuquerque.

On Monday, it was a Common Raven that had to be captured and rescued in Edgewood, NM.

On Tuesday, it was an American White Pelican and a Great Horned Owl in Carlsbad.

On Wednesday, it was a Prairie Falcon from Engle, NM (near Truth or Consequences).

And, on Friday, it was an American Kestrel from Alamogordo, NM.

Luckily, we have wonderful staff and volunteers who are willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice and pick up a bird for us.  One such volunteer is Chellye Porter, who along with her husband Jeff, are devoted Hawks Aloft supporters.  Chellye was called in for the pelican and owl rescue in Carlsbad.  Here is her story:

 

June 12, 2013 #1We got a call thya there was a baby Great Horned Owl and an American White Pelican that needed transport from Carlsbad to Santa Fe.   A short time later, I received a call from Brea Taylor of the Desert Willow Wildlife Rescue in Carlsbad, NM.  We made arrangements to meet in Roswell later that night.  So after work, Jeff and I drove to Roswell, meeting up with Brea in the Walmart parking lot for the exchange around 9 p.m.  We picked up the persnickety pelican that had a broken collar bone and needed surgery in Santa Fe.  He liked to poke at us through the holes in his cage.

June 12, 2013 #4

We also picked up a small box that contained the young owl. His nest had been built in an abandoned building and a construction company had unknowingly demolished it with the active nest inside. Unfortunately, his sibling did not survive.June 12, 2013 #2

After saying our good-byes, we became concerned about the small size of the owl box, and the lack of airflow given the fact it was still 95 degrees at 9 p.m.   When we peeked into the box, the owlet was hunched over, not able to stand, and panting.  Gali, our Executive Director,  said we needed to get him out of the box so he could have better airflow. Jeff went into Walmart and bought a cat carrier.  We then had to open the box, grab the owlet, and transfer him into the cat carrier while in the small confines of  our vehicle.    It wasn’t very pretty, but we got the job done.  The little owl seemed so much happier with a little more room and better airflow.

June 12, 2013 #5

Both birds settled down and were quiet for the duration of the drive home.   Jeff was so awesome with this transport and so conscientious about the birds’  comfort.  He kept adjusting the air conditioner so they weren’t too hot or too cold.  He kept the radio ever so quiet and kept shushing me if I made too much noise.  He was also very good about the pelican’s possible lack of footing with his giant webbed feet so he would slow down and go slow around the corners so the pelican wouldn’t fall over.   We arrived at home at 1 a.m. and the birds spent the rest of the night in our dark quiet garage.  The next morning. I handed the birds off to Lisa Morgan at the Hawks Aloft’s Office.

June 12, 2013 #6

We extend a huge thank you to Chellye and Jeff for another successful bird rescue and transport.  Thanks to all our wonderful staff and volunteers who help in these endeavors.   It was a crazy week, but it’s always worth the trouble in the end if we can rescue a bird.  We work with wildlife rehabilitators throughout the state, performing an avian ambulance service and doing our part to help save our avian friends who are in distress.

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More Owl Camouflage

 

Western Screech-Owl nestled in a cavity.  Photo by Doug Brown.

Western Screech-Owl nestled in a cavity. Photo by Doug Brown.

This Western Screech-Owl seems pretty obvious against the reddish bark of this tree.   Generally, owl plumage matches the color of the environment in which they live.  For instance, Great Horned Owls that live in a coniferous forest tend to be darker and grayer, while desert dwelling Great Horned Owls tend to be more of a sandy brown color.  The Western Screech-Owl is commonly found in deciduous riparian forests of western North America.  The most common large tree in these forests is the cottonwood which has a gray bark that perfectly matches the owl’s plumage – or should that be the other way around?

Can you see the owl?  Image by Wendy Brown.

Can you see the owl? Image by Wendy Brown.

In this photo, the Western Screech-Owl largely matches its background.  It would be difficult to see unless one were looking closely. Of course, I helped by cropping the image so the owl is more obvious.

WESO full size - small

Here’s what the image looked like before cropping.

At Hawks Aloft, we try to display our educational ambassadors in the most natural way possible. Our small owls are generally perched on a table top in easy view of the attendees, and we just thought it was time to find a more natural way to display them.  So, we came up with the idea of making a tree perch with bark that matches the color of their plumage so viewers can see just how well camouflaged owls can be.  Below is our first attempt with our red phase Eastern Screech-Owl perched on it.

Can you see me?  Photo by Mike Quaintance.

Can you see me? Photo by Mike Quaintance.

What do you think?

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Burrowing Owl Camouflage

The Burrowing is a variety of different shades of brown, ranging from light to dark.

The Burrowing is a variety of different shades of brown, ranging from light to dark.  Photo by Mike Quaintance.

When looking at our educational Burrowing Owl on display at Festival of the Cranes in Monte Vista, CO earlier in March, it is easy to discern the bird against the whitish background.  It seems that no one could miss the fact that there was a bird perched right in front of their eyes.  But, is this always true?

Burrowing Owl med size

Wild Burrowing Owl in a grassland with green vegetation.  Photo by Charles Cummings.

In this image, the owl is still rather obvious.

Disappearing owl.  Image by Charles Cummings.

Disappearing owl. Image by Charles Cummings.

When threatened, Burrowing Owls retreat into their underground burrows with only the tops of their heads above ground.  In this situation, the owl would be nearly invisible to the casual passerby.

The brown plumage of the Burrowing Owl helps it to blend into its surroundings.

The brown plumage of the Burrowing Owl helps it to blend into its surroundings.

This Burrowing Owl, photographed standing in front of its burrow on the side of an arroyo, has plumage that matches the soil.  It it were to crouch down, it would be difficult to detect.

 

Burrowing Owl. Image by Mike Stake.

Burrowing Owl. Image by Mike Stake.

 

Finally, this close-up image, shows how well this owl blends in with the background.  If it weren’t for the bright yellow eyes, you might never know it was there!

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