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

Through the Eyes of an Intern, No. 5: Rescues

Lisa in the office, holding the Great Horned Owl we rescued

Lisa in the office, holding the Great Horned Owl we rescued

I finally had the chance to go on my first few rescues. Most recentl of which was a Western Kingbird, which is now recovering from its twisted knee joint; a Cooper’s Hawk with severe head trauma; and a Great Horned Owl, camping out on a family’s fence because of a broken left wrist. He was beautiful and impressive even in his crippled state. I don’t think I’ll ever forget casually glancing at the box into which Lisa, our rescue coordinator, had just wrestled him, and suddenly seeing nothing but one luminous, sunflower-yellow eye neatly filling one of the air holes in the box. No wonder great-horns are so often seen as symbols of power and strength; I wouldn’t even dare call the chicks “cute,” they’re too intimidating! We are unsure of his prognosis, but I’ll keep you updated for sure.

A better story is that of my first rescue, several weeks ago now:

It had been a long day. I’d been up since five a.m. to go on a Willow Flycatcher survey with our director, Gail, in the bosque just north of Alameda. That in itself was fantastic, as we saw everything from a flock of Eastern Bluebirds and Black Phoebes (which are probably my favorite just because they’re so adorable) to a Snowy Egret, two types of woodpeckers, and an Indigo Bunting. But it was nearing two p.m. and the afternoon sleepies were hitting me pretty hard—until Lisa, who sits at the desk behind me, turned around and said, “HEY. You wanna come with me on a rescue?”

Well, that woke me up. How could I say no? The one part of Hawks Aloft that I had not yet experienced was rescues, aside from the occasional raptors Lisa would bring in like just another briefcase and keep in the office while she finished up her computer work. (I kid! She treats all the birds with a healthy dose of respect and love, and if I were an injured bird, I’d certainly want her to be the one taking care of me!) We hopped in her car and headed for a vague address in Moriarty. An hour and a half later, I felt nothing but gratitude for the inventor of GPS and a burning curiosity as to what a rescue actually involved. Running around after a panicked bird? Bandaging wings and consoling stricken house owners?

A Prairie Falcon coming in for a landing on a cottonwood tree. Photo by Doug Brown

A Prairie Falcon coming in for a landing on a cottonwood tree. Photo by Doug Brown

Pulling into a beautifully landscaped yard, I was surprised to see the husband actually sitting on the lawn less than a foot away from the bird, which he had been able to approach and take in from his field. Pro-tip: you don’t want your face that close to talons that sharp, much less to pet it just inches away from an equally sharp beak. But I digress. Lisa identified it as a juvenile, probably female, Prairie Falcon, and quickly got to work, first picking up the falcon and looking at its head, then examining its wings for fractures. Here’s where it got interesting for me, since the falcon was clearly well enough to start biting Lisa’s fingers midway through the wing exam: I got to hold the patient! This involved two fingers of one hand around its neck and three of the other around and between its legs, securing its main defenses. After finishing with the wings, which seemed to be in fine condition, she force-fed it a liquid containing amino acids and various other nutrients, wrapped it in a towel, and set it inside the cardboard pet carrier she’d brought with her.

And that was that. Pretty standard procedure, from what I’ve watched of other rescues Lisa has performed; a quick physical and some hydration, then off to a caretaker’s house or a vet’s, depending on the severity of its injuries. A couple days later, she reported that the Prairie Falcon would be unreleasable due to near blindness in one eye. We’re hoping that it can become an Educational Ambassador. Fingers crossed that the permit comes through soon!

I really enjoy going out on rescues, the feeling that I’m doing something to improve a bird’s life, even if that improvement is euthanasia. Loss is a very real aspect of rescue work, and I think it’s probably a good topic for me to learn about in this small and humane way. Buddhism preaches non-attachment and acceptance of life’s innate mutability, but I’m pretty sure anyone could learn that much more personally from just one day’s experience as a rescuer.

A Swainson’s Hawk being harassed by a Western Kingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

A Swainson’s Hawk being harassed by a Western Kingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

To end on a happier note, though, I saw two raptors on our drive to and from picking up the Prairie Falcon. I later identified them (all by myself! go me!) as light-morph Swainson’s Hawks, the first time I’ve seen them as far as I know. Anytime I feel stuck—in my work, relationships, day-to-day life—I think about these beautiful raptors, who soar through the sky and make even the mundane necessity that is hunting a majestic occasion. I’m learning that if I keep my mind as open as their prairie habitats, anything can be awe-inspiring in its own small way.

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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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The Warbler Guide: A Book Review

The Warbler Guide
Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle
Princeton University Press, 2013
http://www.thewarblerguide.com/

Written by Jennifer Goyette, Biologist

If you are anything like me you gleefully anticipate the release of a new bird guide. But then, you glance at your overstuffed shelf (shelves?) of bird guides and ask yourself, “do I really need another?” How many bird guides does one person need? If this is the case, let me help release you from consumer guilt.

The Warbler Guide is a fantastically well thought out tool for parsing out a notoriously difficult group of birds. If you are new to bird identification, perhaps warblers are an impenetrable tangle of yellow, white, and grey flashes of feathery frustration. Or maybe you have been at it for ages and ID trouble with this one group is preventing you from feeling a sense of accomplishment. Whether you consider yourself expert or novice, this book brings together everything you might need to strengthen your ability to identify warblers. Furthermore, techniques outlined within the book can help strengthen observational skills, which are helpful for all types of animal identification challenges.

The layout of The Warbler Guide provides a systematic visual approach to identify warblers by color pattern, range, habitat, and behavior. Several pages are dedicated to each species, and rather than lengthy written descriptions the space is dedicated to multiple photos of each species at every conceivable angle, followed by comparison species, and an additional photo section on ageing and sexing.

Also provided, and of equal importance to visual cues, are visual aides to help distinguish warbler songs. At first glance, this information may seem daunting. However, with a little practice listening to songs while viewing spectrograms, a person can gain another tool to make identification easier. I have been conducting field work for more years than I like to admit, and can tell you that without my ears I would be unable to identify half or more of the birds I encounter while in the field. As a companion to the book, the authors have partnered with the Macaulay Library of Natural Sound to make an audio guide (see their website for details).

But the book is so big, you say. Yes, it is. I would not take it in the field with me. However – lucky for us – the authors have provided downloadable, quick guides on the book website. Personally, I have found these useful and been able to confirm multiple warblers to species, by keeping the quick guides on my iPhone.

I have made room for one more book on my shelf. The Warbler Guide came out a few months ago, so many of you might already have it. But some of you might still be in the land of indecision.  If so, I encourage you to take a peek and see if this book is for you.

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Saving the Black-necked Stilt, a U.S. International Boundary Water Commission Endeavor

Sometimes, or perhaps always, work projects do not proceed as planned. Such was the case in the lower Rio Grande near Anapra, New Mexico, where the U.S. International Boundary Water Commission (USIBWC) was performing maintenance operations to remove sediment accumulation in the river channel in front of an agricultural return drain. Operations underway the week of May 5, 2014 created a large island of sediment scooped up by heavy machinery. A surprise was in store for the crew when they returned to work on Monday, May 12. Apparently Black-necked Stilts found this barren patch of earth to their liking and set up nests over the weekend with eggs already present.

Project area for the US International Boundary Water Commission

Project area for the US International Boundary Water Commission. Image by USIBWC.

The Black-necked Stilt, a long-legged, strikingly black and white wading bird, nests on the ground. They tend to build above the water line on small islands, clumps of vegetation, or even, occasionally, floating mats of algae. Both females and males choose the site and trade off the nest construction duties; they look for places with soft substrate that can be scraped away to form the depression in which they nest. While one mate observes, the other scrapes into the dirt with breast and feet to form a depression about 2” deep. As they dig, they throw small bits of lining over their back into the nest, consisting of whatever material is closest to the nest, including grasses, shells, mud chips, pebbles, and bones.

Black-necked Stilt.  Image by Doug Brown.

Black-necked Stilt. Image by Doug Brown.

Back at the International Boundary Water Commission construction site, field crews surveyed the area and located some eggs on a large island of sediment that was being used to dredge out the channel. Three nests with a total of nine eggs had been documented by their environmental staff. The area was flagged and avoided. They contacted Hawks Aloft for recommendations, and we urged them to try to work around the nests. With a presumed egg-laying of May 10 or 11, hatch would be expected at about May 24 or 25.

Rio Grande low flows in the US International Boundary Water Commission project area.

Rio Grande low flows in the US International Boundary Water Commission project area.  Image by USIBWC.

This issue was further complicated by plans to release water from Elephant Butte dam for the purpose of irrigation beginning on May 25, 2014. Because the logistics of any attempt to change the irrigation releases would have required multiple agency approvals that would affect planned crop irrigation in the surrounding valley, it seemed impossible to achieve. Once water releases occurred, it was probable that the nests would be inundated, killing the embryos or nestlings not yet mobile enough to escape the rising water.

Black-necked Stilt in flight.  Image by Keith Bauer.

Black-necked Stilt in flight. Image by Keith Bauer.

The maintenance staff at the USIBWC established and maintained a buffer around the nesting site. The nesting stilts did not appear to be disturbed by the heavy equipment in the area but aggressively defended their nests when environmental staff came to monitor the nest sites. The big question; however, remained: Would the eggs hatch soon enough to allow the young to survive? It would be close!

On Thursday, May 22, 2014, ten Black-necked Stilt chicks were observed.  The two nests of four eggs had hatched. It was clear that there must have been an additional nest located near the project area.

Black-necked Stilt nestlings.  Image by David Powell.

Black-necked Stilt nestlings. Image by David Powell.

No work was conducted in the area over Memorial Day weekend, and water was released on schedule from the Elephant Butte dam on Sunday the 25th.  On Tuesday the 27th, two chicks and adults were still observed near the project site in the morning, but all Black-necked Stilts had moved out of the project area by the afternoon.  Disaster averted!

Black-necked Stilt nestlings hiding beneath parent.  Image by David Powell.

Black-necked Stilt nestlings hiding beneath parent. Image by David Powell.

We thank the USIBWC for proactively protecting these nests by mounding soil to divert water flows away from the nest sites and for establishing and maintaining buffer zones that enabled these Black-necked Stilts to produce young in 2014. We thank Rebecca Little Owl and Albert Flores, Environmental Protection Specialists, for their efforts to protect these nests and working collaboratively with Hawks Aloft to develop a mitigation plan.

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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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Mom & Dad Know What They Are Doing

Written by Lisa Morgan, Raptor Rescue Coordinator.

On June 7, we received a call from a retirement community in Rio Rancho about FIVE Cooper’s Hawk chicks that had been blown out of a nest high in a cottonwood tree. Two chicks survived the fall. We determined that the best option was to return the chicks to the cottonwood tree where their parents could continue caring for them – even though we could never locate the nest.

Cooper's Hawk Brancher.  Image by Sandy Skeba

Cooper’s Hawk Brancher. Image by Sandy Skeba

With the help of PNM Resources, and their tree climbing crew, Trees, Inc., we set about making an artificial nest in the tree from whence they came.  The crew first installed a human-constructed nest consisting of a wicker basket and natural nest lining materials.

Trees, Inc. staff installing the wicker basket nest.  Image by PNM Resources.

Trees, Inc. staff installing the wicker basket nest. Image by PNM Resources.

Once the nest was thoroughly secured in the tree, it was time to hoist the nestlings back up and into their new home, where their parents still waited even though it had been four days since the chicks were taken.

Bob Mongiello prepares to return a Cooper's Hawk nestling to its new nest.

Bob Mongiello prepares to return a Cooper’s Hawk nestling to its new nest.  Image by PNM Resources.

The two chicks settled right into their human-constructed nest, just as if they had always been there.  Dad Cooper’s Hawk even attempted to deliver food to his chicks while all this was in progress, although he was frightened off by all the commotion.

Re-nested Cooper's Hawk chicks.  Image by PNM Resources.

Re-nested Cooper’s Hawk chicks. Image by PNM Resources.

The biggest issue we contended with was  concerned citizens that continued trying to come to the aid of these chicks, disturbing their parents’ attempts to care for them.
In the end, it was a successful return once we were able to educate the neighbors about the privacy needs of the hawk family. Although it can be difficult to watch these youngsters on the ground, in nearly all cases it best to allow the families to stay together and the parents to continue caring for their youngsters.

PNMlogo-ColorPos cmyk 300dpi

We thank PNM for allowing the use of their tree-climbing crew, Trees, Inc.  We also thank PNM Resources staff:  Thad Petzold, Ryan Baca, John Acklen, Stephen Saletta, and Bob Mongiello.

 

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Hummingbirds! Part 2

Ah, backyard birding; the only time when being out in the field means your main accessories are binoculars and perhaps a cup of coffee, not sweat-streaked sunscreen and a fine coating of high desert dust over everything. Now that you have your hummingbird feeder up, you love to watch all the hectic, jewel-bright buzzing around it! Only trouble is, you have no idea which birds you’re seeing. In this post I’ve put together a short visual guide to the types of hummers you’re likely to see around town this summer.

The most common type of nesting hummingbird in the Albuquerque area, especially the Bosque, is the Black-chinned Hummingbird.

A male Black-chinned Hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

A male Black-chinned Hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

A female Black-chinned Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

A female Black-chinned Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

They can be identified by their greenish backs and their black chins and throats; and if the sunlight hits the male’s feathers just right, you can see a thin strip of iridescent purple at the lower edge of their black throats. Females are less-excitingly colored, with a green back and grey chest, belly, and darker-spotted throat.

You’ll see them darting erratically from your feeder to catch insects, a staple of most hummingbird diets. And, while they don’t have the flashiest coloration, the males do perform impressive dives of up to one hundred feet to display during courtship and territorial defense. Remember, these birds are three and a half inches long on average, so that’s the equivalent of them traveling over three hundred body lengths in one dive.

Another fairly common species around here is the distinctive Rufous Hummingbird:

Male (left) and female (right) Rufous Hummingbirds. Photos by David Powell

Male (left) and female (right) Rufous Hummingbirds. Photos by David Powell

They are named for their unmistakable coloration, bright orange on the males and rusty-orange-and-green on the females. These birds, mostly the males, show up around July 4 after they have finished breeding in their northwestern nesting territories, sometimes as far north as southeastern Alaska, the northernmost of any hummingbird’s breeding range. They are also rather famously aggressive, gladly taking on other hummingbirds even twice their weight. If you hear fighting around your feeder after Independence Day, chances are it’s a rufous male defending his territory!

Around late July and August, the tiny Calliope will show up.

A male Calliope Hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

A male Calliope Hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

They are the smallest hummingbirds in North America north of Mexico (the smallest in North America and in the world are Bee Hummingbirds), small enough that their mass is about one-third that of the smallest North American warblers. They are also the smallest long-distance migratory birds, as they spend their winters in Mexico and the summer breeding season in the northwestern United States up into southwestern Canada. Males can be identified by their green upperparts, white underparts, and red-streaked throat. Females have a dull whitish throat and off-white to cinnamon-buff chest and belly.

A male Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

A male Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

Finally, you may see Broad-tailed Hummingbirds as they migrate through the Albuquerque area. Their backs are shiny green, with off-white undersides; males have a bright pink throat and females have a dark-spotted throat. The females can look like a female Rufous, but you can tell them apart by the much more orange-tinted sides on a Rufous.

A female Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

A female Broad-tailed Hummingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

They’ll be migrating to the next location of their favored habitat, subalpine meadows. One very neat adaptation to these chilly places is their ability to go into a torpor—yes, that’s a technical term—on cold nights, which means it slows down its metabolism and keeps its body temperature at about 54°F when the ambient temperature falls below 44°F. I mentioned in the previous post that female hummingbirds will include spider silk in their nests to make it more secure for the chicks;  for cold-climate birds such as these, lining the nest with silk also serves to insulate it and substantially decrease the required energy output of the incubating female.

And now you know how to identify the four common species of hummingbirds you’ll see in the Albuquerque/Bosque area this summer! If you have further questions, feel free to leave a comment below or submit it in the Ask an Expert section.

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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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Baby Cooper’s Hawks Return to the Wild

We thank PNM, who generously provided their professional tree-climbing crew to put a makeshift nest high in a tree for baby Cooper’s Hawks. The original nest and five nestlings were blown out of a tree in Rio Rancho during last Sunday’s high winds and dust storm.

“Dusk was coming, dust was everywhere and the wind was blowing hard. No one was out in the nasty weather but me and the PNM linemen,” said rescuer Lisa Morgan, Raptor Rescue Coordinator.

Coo[er's Hawk Nestlings

Coo[er’s Hawk Nestlings

  Unfortunately, only two of the birds survived the fall. Today those two were returned to the area where their parents were last seen. Tree climbing crews from PNM’s vegetation management department helped secure the new man-made nest high in a Cottonwood tree and delivered them to their new home.

While crews were working to renest the chicks, the father returned to the area to watch over his nestlings.

“PNM has a longstanding commitment to avian protection. We have enjoyed our partnership with Hawks Aloft, Inc. through many different programs designed to protect birds in New Mexico,” said John Acklen, project manager, PNM Environmental Services. “We certainly hope these little Cooper’s Hawks thrive in their new home.”

Cooper’s Hawks may “dive-bomb” pedestrians who come close to their nests. This activity will subside within the next few weeks. People should wear hats, carry umbrellas and avoid areas where Cooper’s Hawks are nesting.

With headquarters in Albuquerque, PNM is the largest electricity provider in New Mexico, serving 500,000 customers in dozens of communities across the state. PNM is a subsidiary of PNM Resources, an energy holding company also headquartered in Albuquerque. For more information, visit PNM.com.

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Hummingbirds! Part 1

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

A male Blue-throated Hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two hummingbirds feeding. Photo by David Powell

Two hummingbirds feeding. Photo by David Powell

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

Some quick facts about hummingbirds’ nesting:

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

    A metallic green Costa Rican hummingbird. Photo by David Powell

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

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

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

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