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

New Mexico Wildlife Rehabilitators’ Alliance Symposium

On Saturday, April 7, Hawks Aloft is very pleased to be hosting the inaugural event from the New Mexico Wildlife Rehabilitators’ Alliance. This one-day symposium will happen in conjunction of two days of classes brought to us by the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council.

The IWRC is putting on two full-day classes–one in basic wildlife rehabilitation, and the other on pain and wound management. On the third day of the symposium, the New Mexico Wildlife Rehabilitators’ Alliance will convene for educational sessions that address the impacts of energy development on wildlife, the 30-year Eagle Law, and extended discussion of permitting, laws, regulations, and how we can increase collaboration for the benefit of wildlife throughout the region.

Head over to our event page to register for the event!

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Animals and Forest Fires, Pt.1

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

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

Three-toed Woodpecker, image by Alan Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What’s Up with Avian Flu?

You may have heard a lot about avian influenza (AKA avian flu or bird flu) a lot in the news lately—and it probably sounded quite scary! In an effort to assuage some of the mounting fear on the topic, we thought we’d explore what avian flu is, how it is spread, and how it behaves in the human, as well as the bird body. While avian flu has had an impact across the globe, in actuality, its effects have remained minimal. So, what is the deal with avian flu? And who does it effect?

Avian flu is a highly pathogenic disease (dubbed H5N1, with variations on the disease being numbered H5N2-9), which is quite common in wild birds. Many birds carry the virus in their intestines, but it does not make them sick or impede a heathy life in any way. Despite its mostly innocuous behavior, it is highly contagious among most birds (and across species). Researchers have been studying the way it is transferred and how wild bird bodies process and adapt to the disease since it was first isolated from terns in South Africa in 1961.

Avian Flu was first isolated in Terns in South Africa. This image by David Powell

Avian Flu was first isolated in Terns in South Africa. This image by David Powell

Birds transfer the virus between one another through saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. As mentioned above, generally, this doesn’t cause any problems, at least until the virus comes in contact with a domesticated species of birds, which includes chicken, duck, and turkey—all of which human beings like to eat. Outbreaks among poultry, in turn, put people at risk of becoming sick.

The effects in human beings vary depending on the strain—but people can’t catch the disease from wild birds, only from handling infected poultry. Symptoms in human beings include fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, eye infections, and respiratory diseases.

In recent months, there have been outbreaks of avian flu in China, Taiwan, Belgium, South Africa, and the U.S., though in these instances, not every outbreak has led to sickness in humans. In fact, despite widespread concern, last year only one death from avian flu was recorded in the United States—the result of infection contracted at a turkey farm in Indiana.

The disease isn’t easy for humans to contract, thankfully, and it is difficult for humans to pass amongst each other. Since the avian flu is mostly relegated to domestic, farmed birds, it shouldn’t impede any of your birdwatching or appreciating in the slightest! Wild birds, resilient as ever, don’t suffer with avian flu in the way that other species do. Another reason to watch in wonder as they pass by overhead!

Unfortunately, farmed domestic birds are most vulnerable to Avian Flu

Unfortunately, farmed domestic birds are most vulnerable to Avian Flu

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West Nile Virus & Birds

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

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

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

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

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

Our resilient Avian Ambassador, Aires

Our resilient Avian Ambassador, Aires

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

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

Warbling Vireo by David Powell

Warbling Vireo by David Powell

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Avian Habitat in Corrales

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

Spotted Towhee, Image by Kristin Brown

Spotted Towhee, Image by Kristin Brown

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

Lazuli Bunting, Image by David Powell

Lazuli Bunting, Image by David Powell

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

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

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


Bewick's Wren, Image by Kristin Brown

Bewick’s Wren, Image by Kristin Brown

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Decolonizing Nature at UNM

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

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

Goodbye to All of That

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Michael Berman

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

Maggie and Idaho


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

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Ravens Hatching

In early April, Hawks Aloft, along with longtime partner American Tower Corporation and Nexius Solutions participated in the mitigation of a raven nest near Portales. The video below, graciously edited and produced by Steve Elkins, tells the story of the young ravens who were given a chance at life.

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Leucism in Birds

Several weeks ago Hawks Aloft staff made the trip to Monte Vista, Colorado for the Monte Vista Crane Festival. Upon their arrival they started to hear rumors of a Red-tailed Hawk haunting the edges of the wildlife refuge. But this was no ordinary Red-tailed; defying the colors that dominate the species, this was a largely white Red-tailed Hawk, with only the occasional rust or brown feather that birders might expect when it comes down to identifying such a bird.

The leucistic Red-tailed Hawk spotted in Monte Vista, Colorado. Image by Larry Rimer

The leucistic Red-tailed Hawk spotted in Monte Vista, CO. Image by Larry Rimer

This particular hawk—a leucistic one—isn’t an entirely common sight, and Hawks Aloft staff and volunteers were thrilled to spot it on their first day out. It is hard to get an accurate grasp on how common leucism is in birds, but Project FeederWatch, an extensive online database of bird species observed and reported by citizen scientists, has recorded only about 1,600 leucistic birds of any species out of 5.5 million distinct birds indicated. But what exactly is leucism? And why does it happen at all, albeit infrequently?

Leucism is a blanket term for abnormal plumage conditions caused by genetic mutations. This genetic inheritance prevents a pigment—melanin—from being carried and deposited in the bird’s plumage. This condition can end up looking like the Red-tailed Hawk spotted in Colorado, or it can also be displayed as white patches throughout the body, in places where they wouldn’t normally occur in a species. Sometimes the condition also manifests as an overall paler plumage in the bird, as if its color was diluted.

Leucism is quite different than albinism, another similar (and similarly unusual) condition in birds. Considered to be extremely rare in the wild, albinism is marked by a total lack of melanin. Leucism, notably, only impacts the bird’s feathers, while albinism is apparent in the feathers and elsewhere. For example, albino animals almost always sport red eyes, as well as pale pink or red skin, feet and bills. Leucistic birds usually have normally colored eyes, skin and feet; the condition of leucism only impacts the feathers.

Image by Larry Rimer.

Image by Larry Rimer

Although it is quite exciting to see a leucistic bird in the wild, they do face certain challenges that make their lives difficult. These birds, without the protective camouflage that other animals have, become more vulnerable to predators. Additionally, plumage colors play an important role in courtship and mating; as such, many leucistic birds may be unable to find suitable mates. Last but not least, the dysfunctional melanin production in leucistic bird’s feathers may even make it harder for them to fly. Since melanin is an important structural component to feathers, birds lacking the proper amount of this pigment may have weaker feathers that are more prone to breaking and less able to insulate the body against cold and damp.

Leucism can be a great burden on the bird, however, it does remain rare. As such, when a birder spots a bird such as this, it allows for a moment of pause as we consider the great complexity of avian life, and the beautiful and observable variety among these amazing animals.

Maggie and Idaho

Maggie Grimason is senior editor and an educator at Hawks Aloft

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Intermediate Raptor Handling Class

On March 3, a small group of Hawks Aloft staff and volunteers gathered for a second time to acquire greater skill and comfort when it comes to working with our team of more than 20 permanently injured birds of prey. Raptor handling classes are a unique and important part of working at Hawks Aloft and provide an interesting way to interface with the bird species that are at the core of our mission.

Jeannine with Aztec

On this particular occasion, volunteers Mary and Brigitte, Raptor Rescue Dispatcher Jeannine, and I, sat down at Executive Director Gail’s house in Rio Rancho, eagerly awaiting a lesson from Gail and Education Coordinator and raptor handling aficionado Julia Davis on how to safely and comfortably work with our larger Avian Ambassadors. For this lesson, we were joined by Celeste, a Barn Owl, Aztec, a Great Horned Owl, and Idaho, a Swainson’s Hawk who came to us last year with feather damage. Each of these birds requires specific knowledge in order to keep them relaxed and happy on the glove, which was a key a point in this intermediate raptor handling class.

Bridgette with Idaho

Julia and Gail strongly emphasized the need to be familiar with each bird’s distinct needs. Do they have trouble balancing on the glove? Do they jump for the box when it is time for them to be put away, or, alternatively, do they tend to jump out of the box as soon as you swing open the doors? Do they tend to bate, and if so, do they require special attention to get resituated? This detailed knowledge of each particular bird’s personality and needs was strongly emphasized in this class series so far.

Mary B. with Aztec

Secondarily, with more advanced handling skills, more advanced knowledge of each bird’s species as a whole makes for broader insights into who each bird is, and allows the handler to better answer questions and confidently work with the bird while simultaneously delivering programming at events in the future. As such, another key component to these intermediate handling classes was discussing and sharing knowledge about each bird species. We all took turns explaining the range of each species, their behavior and habitat, as well as sharing some facts that make each unique. Taken as a whole, the classes have provided great insight not just into how best to work with birds on the glove, but into the a variety of raptor species, as such, these expansive classes have been worthwhile for all involved.

Maggie with Idaho

Maggie with Idaho

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Building Better Futures for Birds, Linemen, and Customers

Photo by Aaron Dailey

Photo by Aaron Dailey

Earlier this month the Farmington Electric Utility System partnered with a number of other agencies to successfully relocate existing nests of Osprey near Navajo Dam and create safer artificial nesting sites. The project stands to create a ripple of positive effects—successfully creating a safer environment for birds and humans, as well as allowing for better service to be delivered to subscribers throughout the area. Below, environmental scientist Aaron Dailey of Farmington Electric Utility System unpacks the importance of this project.

How did you come to this project?

Dailey: We have been seeing an increase in Osprey breeding pairs coming in to the Navajo Dam area and trying to build nests on FEUS (Farmington Electric Utility System) energized powerlines … It has been difficult to remove nests [and] reduce the birds’ and human linemens’ risk associated with dealing with these large nests.  Pole fires have become a frequent problem due to [them].  We had one platform installed at the base of Navajo Dam, so last year, we decided to get a wholesale project going in earnest to prevent Osprey from building nests on FEUS power poles and associated equipment. We strategically planned the locations to be more attractive and higher up than the existing nests in hopes [of] luring the birds to the alternative platforms.

Working with Navajo Dam State Parks, USBR (US Bureau of Reclamation), and NMDGF (NM Department of Game and Fish) we were able to set up a well-coordinated project plan and execute this plan prior to the migratory Osprey returning in spring 2017.

Photo by Lindsay Balmer

Photo by Lindsay Balmer

What were your specific concerns when it came to these birds and their choice of nest?

Will the Osprey prefer the alternative platforms and cease building nests on FEUS poles/equipment?

Will this increase the population of Osprey such that new breeding pairs that survive and reproduce [will] be an issue down the road?  What is the carrying capacity and did we plan the proper amount of alternative platform locations to provide for this?

Can we maintain the continued level of inter-agency cooperation to monitor and prevent Osprey from building nests on FEUS poles and ensure they nest on the alternative platforms?

We also ensured that the platforms and materials used will withstand several decades of use.

What was the process like from surveying until completion?

It took about a year from start to completion. This was mostly [to] ensure that all agency needs were met and approvals through all agencies were obtained.  A detailed project plan was provided, conference calls were planned and conducted, site surveys were done, then the big event–where we showed all the FEUS management, agency stakeholders, representatives, and [other] interested parties how we were constructing these platforms–occurred on March 9, 2017.  Everyone got to help build one [and] felt a sense of accomplishment and inclusion, [as well as gained an understanding of] how sturdy and well-built these platforms are.

The USBR wanted to ensure that they could continue to perform dam maintenance activities.  At first, the USBR did not want any platforms installed in the Primary Jurisdiction Area because they felt that they had been admonished one time by USFWS as they were performing maintenance activities too close to an Osprey platform.  Through discussion with USFWS PhD level biologists and other agency members, the USBR allowed for two alternative platforms to be installed in the Primary Jurisdiction Area, as this was agreed by all to be the best management practice here.

Photo by Aaron Dailey

Photo by Aaron Dailey

How do both birds and humans stand to benefit from this project?

This will reduce the birds’ risk of being electrocuted.  They will be able to have nests that will not be removed once they take to the alternative platforms.  FEUS ensures compliance by not moving nests once these nests are active, so pole fires are less of a concern at this point.  Also, FEUS linemen will not have to risk going up and battling pole fires, risking their safety by going up … to remove old nests, etc.

The strategically placed nest platforms can be viewed easily by the public at a distance, which should interest birders that visit NM State Parks.  One alternative nest platform is located right by the Navajo Dam Marina Visitors Center.

It is a win-win for all.

What do you think was particularly exemplary about this mitigation?

The level of cooperation from State Parks, NM Department of Game and Fish, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Bureau of Reclamation was outstanding.  We were able to pool our resources in order to make this mitigation a success and save money along the way.  State parks was able to do the cultural surveys, and USBR was able to the environmental assessment, and FEUS was able to donate the labor and platform hardware in order to save money, time, and effort overall.

What is the current status of these nests?

We have six alternative Osprey platforms installed and ready for Ospreys to inhabit.  Where there were existing nests on FEUS powerlines, these have been removed and placed on the new alternative Osprey platforms.

Photo by Aaron Dailey

Photo by Aaron Dailey

What do you hope others stand to learn from your work on this project, and in other similar projects?

That through cooperation and collaboration these projects are possible and everyone wins, especially the birds.

For more background on this project, check out the coverage provided by the Farmington Daily Times below or download a PDF of the article here!

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Maggie Grimason is a senior editor & educator at Hawks Aloft. 

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