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: Research

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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Flammulated Owl Revelations

flam-2

Photograph by Larry Rimer

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

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

 

David Arsenault in the stud area, photograph by Larry Rimer

David Arsenault in the study area, photograph by Larry Rimer

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

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

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

flam-3

Photograph by Larry Rimer

 

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

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

Photograph by Larry Rimer

Photograph by Larry Rimer


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft 

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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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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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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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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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Hot, Dry Summer

by Trevor Fetz, Lead Avian Biologist

June brought the beginning of the summer field season for the Middle Rio Grande Songbird Study.  It was a hot, dry month in the bosque.  Bird numbers were lower than normal at most sites and across most species during June.  A particularly disturbing trend seems to be playing out with Black-headed Grosbeaks in the bosque. Up until the past few years, this was one of the more common bosque species during summer. Numbers have steadily declined over the past few years, but the bottom seems to have fallen out this year.  It is difficult to pinpoint the causes of the reduction in Black-headed Grosbeaks, but the ongoing drought conditions in New Mexico are certainly not helping.

Black Headed Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

A noteworthy detection in June was the confirmation of Virginia Rail breeding in the marsh at La Joya Game Management Area. Although we have recorded Virginia Rail at our marsh transects, we have never been certain that the species breeds there. But, on a mid-June visit I observed an adult rail and six little black fuzz-balls foraging in the mud. The adult immediately gave an alarm call and the fuzz-balls scurried into the dense cattails.

The steadily dropping water level in the marsh has led to an increase in rail detections. As the water level has dropped, the rails have been forced to come out into the open to reach the remaining pools for foraging.  Unfortunately, the marsh is likely to be completely dry within the next couple of weeks.  It looks like most of the hatch-year rails will soon be flighted. But the question is, where will they go? Suitable habitat is becoming increasingly scarce as conditions become increasingly dry throughout the middle Rio Grande.

Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail at La Joya

Birds are not the only creatures to suffer from the drought. For many species, the drought causes a decline in the food supply, which can result in a corresponding increase in mortality, especially of the young.  It also can drive animals into cities in search of food.  Let us hope that the recent July rains are an indication of a good monsoon season this year.

coyote

Coyote at La Joya State Game Refuge, crossing the rapidly evaporating marsh.

 

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Avian Monitoring on the Valles Caldera National Preserve

Valles Caldera National Preserve. Image by Erin Greenlee.

We are excited to be one of the science partners in the Jemez Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project that will restore and enhance 220,000 acres of forest within the Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest.  Our role is to monitor change in avian abundance and species richness relative to on the ground projects.  However, in 2011, the Las Conchas fire destroyed 156,000 acres, with a good portion of the fire burning on the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP).  So our first summer of surveys documented the differences in burned and unburned habitat in several vegetation types on the VCNP.

Three-toed Woodpecker. Image by Mark Justice Hinton.

This year was the first year, to our knowledge, of American Three-toed Woodpeckers breeding in the Valles Caldera. American Three-toed Woodpeckers prefer disturbed or recently burned mixed-conifer forests with insect infested snags. The lasting effects of the Las Conchas fire have provided ample habitat for these woodpeckers, and while it is not surprising they have started to breed in the recently burned forests, it is exciting to document.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Image by Doug Brown.

White-breasted Nuthatch. Image by Doug Brown.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet and White-breasted Nuthatch showed significantly lower numbers in burned forest plots than in unburned forest plots.

American Robin. Image by David Powell.

Mountain Bluebird. Image by David Powell.

American Robin, American Three-toed Woodpecker and Mountain Bluebird showed higher abundances in both burned ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forest plots.

Valles Caldera at dawn. Image by Erin Greenlee.

This past summer (2012) was the first breeding season for birds since the Las Conchas fire.   We are excited about our initial findings one-year post burn in the Valles Caldera and we look forward to seeing if/how avian density and richness change over the course of the study.

Check back for future results of this interesting project.

 

 

 

 

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