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

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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Call for Volunteers!

As we work toward expanding our raptor rescue program to areas in southern New Mexico, in communities like Las Cruces, the need for volunteers to help ensure the wellbeing of raptors of all shapes and sizes is becoming more and more apparent. Raptor rescue coordinators and mitigations experts Emiliano Salazar and Lisa Morgan have already conducted trainings in the Las Cruces area and have equipped a team of local bird-lovers with all the knowledge they need to assess, rescue and transport injured birds in desperate need of attention.

However, Las Cruces is a long drive down I-25 from Albuquerque. Currently, the greatest need that we have in this arena is for transport of these birds from relay points in Socorro and Truth or Consequences to Albuquerque and the expert care of our rehabilitators. If you reside in or around these flashpoint cities, we could use your help!

As a volunteer, you’ll receive recognition in our online newsletter, which is delivered to thousands of bird enthusiasts around the country each and every month. You’ll also receive basic training and the satisfaction that comes with knowing you’ve done some essential work to give an animal the best possible chance at a healthy life.

To get involved as part of our raptor rescue team, contact Raptor Rescue Coordinator Emiliano Salazar at emiliano@hawksaloft.org for details, training dates and more information on how you can help wild birds of prey across New Mexico.

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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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A Young Red-tailed Hawk’s Saving Grace

For two years, long-time Hawks Aloft friend and volunteer Larry Rimer monitored a Red-tailed Hawk nest site on the western edge of Rio Rancho, butting up to the escarpment near a network of large, high voltage power lines. When the nest revealed just two nestlings this year—as opposed to three the previous year—Larry paid closer attention to the site, visiting it at least weekly to “marvel at their beauty and study their behaviors,” as he put it.

On one recent auspicious Friday morning, Larry decided to check on the nest for the last time before heading out on a week-long research trip. The chicks “were close to fledging and [I] was hoping to see them fly,” he explained. Yet, when he arrived, only one of the chicks was in the nest. He lingered, observing the remaining nestling, realizing that it was not yet ready to fly, and worrying over what had happened to the missing chick. Maybe it had been predated by a Great Horned Owl?  Larry kept his vigil for more than two hours before deciding to head home. “Just then [I] noticed out of the corner of my eye something fluttering down at the base of one of the huge poles,” he explained. There, mired in the tar applied to the wooden electrical poles to keep them from rotting, was the other young Red-tailed Hawk, his feet and chest stuck in the now hardened tar. The previous day there had been a storm, and Larry’s best guess is that the gusts had knocked the bird from his nest and into harm’s way. “I couldn’t believe my luck in being in the right place, looking in the right direction, at the right time to find him,” Larry said.

The young Red-tailed Hawk stuck in tar. Photo by Larry Rimer.

The young Red-tailed Hawk stuck in tar. Photo by Larry Rimer.

 

The hawk's feet, covered in tar, before cleaning. Photo by Kariana Jones.

The hawk’s feet, covered in tar, before cleaning. Photo by Kariana Jones.

Larry called Hawks Aloft where he was advised to take the bird directly to Petroglyph Animal Hospital. Larry worked patiently under the watchful gaze of the adult Red-tails until the youngster was free. He then transported it Petroglyph, where Dr. Kariana Jones treated the bird for dehydration, and gave him an initial cleaning. Later in the day, the bird was taken to a Hawks Aloft rehabilitator, Jim Battaglia, who, along with Larry, Steve Elkins, Tony Giancola, Gail Garber, and Dean Balmer continued cleaning the bird with mineral oil, Dawn dish detergent, and Goo-Be-Gone.

Photo by Tony Giancola

Photo by Tony Giancola

 

Jim Battaglia hard at work. Photo by Tony Giancola.

Jim Battaglia hard at work. Photo by Tony Giancola.

 

Photo by Tony Giancola

Photo by Tony Giancola

After being thoroughly cleansed of tar, the young hawk recuperated overnight. The following morning Larry, along with his wife Kim, Steve Elkins, Tony Giancola, and others, took the bird back to his nest site and released him. He lingered on the ground before climbing a nearby fence pole, all the while calling for his parents. After a time, the parents showed up with a huge rabbit for breakfast and the young hawk called out joyously. He flew nearly 30 feet to a nearby post, and at that time, Larry left the family to their privacy.

The Red-tailed Hawk just after release. Photo by Tony Giancola.

The Red-tailed Hawk just after release. Photo by Tony Giancola.

 

The hawk's sibling looks on. Photo by Tony Giancola.

The hawk’s sibling looks on. Photo by Tony Giancola.

 

Photo by Tony Giancola

Photo by Tony Giancola

“I’ve had such a strong bond with this raptor, I’ve watched him grown from an egg to an almost flight ready hawk … It just couldn’t have turned out any better, with so many things falling into place to allow him to survive and be released back to his home nest,” Larry said of the experience. “It gives me hope for future rescues. I am one very lucky guy to have experienced this and [I] wouldn’t trade it for the world.”


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft

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Raptor Vocalizations

We’ve all seen and heard it. In commercials for an all-American truck, in movies about the wild, wild West. All too often producers depict a soaring bird, frequently an eagle or even a vulture, and tracked over the shot is the call of a Red-tailed Hawk.

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Image by Larry Rimer

Raptors are thought of as strong and tenacious animals, but that doesn’t always mean they have the vocalizations to match—the ubiquitous cries of the Red-tailed Hawk being the exception. Most raptors in fact have a weaker, high-pitched call. For example, here is a common vocalization of the fierce Bald Eagle:

Image by Doug Brown

Image by Doug Brown

You may think that, if the Bald Eagle doesn’t have a sharp, robust cry, then surely the Golden Eagle does. However, you may not find this to be true either. Take a listen:

Most of the studies done on bird vocalizations emphasize, unsurprisingly, songbirds. Oscine birds (a subset of Passeriformes) include the Brown Thrasher, Hermit Thrushes, and Starlings who illustrate great range with their complex voice boxes. These birds often emit sounds ranging from buzzes and clicks to trilling and warbling.

Birds of prey’s calls don’t tend toward the musicality displayed by songbirds, but are still interesting, varied, and quite often beautiful. Take for example this lovely, common call from the Red-shouldered Hawk:

Frequently film makers will even use a shot of circling Turkey Vultures paired with the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk. However, Turkey Vultures are largely silent birds, and vocalize primarily when very agitated and then it sounds a great deal more like a hiss, even a roar, then a cry.

Image by Doug Brown

Image by Doug Brown

 

Surely no one expects a Hollywood movie to truly reflect reality, and the objective of truth in advertising is often overlooked. A quick review of raptor vocalizations illustrates these points in a simple, often funny way. The next time you hear the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk emitting from a television or movie screen, take a moment to quietly fact-check the content of what you’re seeing, or better yet, head outside to find the authentic music of raptors and songbirds across New Mexico.


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft 

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If You Find a Baby Bird

Robin Fledgling 6-12

A Robin fledgling discovered by Hawks Aloft Executive Director, Gail Garber

As spring progresses and the promise of summer takes shape in the form of longer, warmer days, a flurry of activity is taking place overhead. Birds are breeding and nesting, and soon, all the effort of courtship and nest building will come to fruition as a new generation hatches. For outdoor enthusiasts and bird lovers—especially those who have taken the time to provide a habitat for local birds in their yards—it is not uncommon to find a young bird, seemingly helpless and marooned. Yet, weak and clumsy as they may seem, it is a rare occasion when these youngsters need our help.

Frequently, young birds found on the ground are recent fledglings. This means they are just testing out their flight skills and it is not uncommon for them to end up grounded. If the bird appears to be mostly fully feathered, usually with short tail feathers, able to hop around and take short flights, it is likely a fledgling. If there is no looming danger to the young bird, leave it alone. Fledglings, while taking their first flights and gaining independence, are still in the care of their parents who are likely nearby. Keep pets inside and allow the bird to find its own way home. If this is an impossibility, perch the bird in a shrub or the boughs of a low tree.

Young Ferruginous Hawks

Young Ferruginous Hawks

Occasionally a nestling may fall from, or be pushed from the nest before it is ready to fledge. If the bird is naked, or with very few feathers, it is safe to assume it is a nestling. If uninjured, take some time to try to spot the nest. If possible, simply place the nestling back in its home. The pervasive myth that if a young bird is handled by a human its parents will notice the scent and abandon the young is just that—a myth. If the nest can’t be located, you may engineer a small, makeshift nest from something like a berry basket or another small container with a few channels for drainage in the bottom. Line the container with soft materials and then secure it to a tree as near as possible to where the bird was found.

There are some exceptions to these general rules, however. If you find a bird, any bird, that has been injured by a cat, call a local wildlife rehabilitator. Almost always, a bird that has been attacked by a cat will need antibiotics. At Hawks Aloft we have a 24-hour raptor rescue hotline for birds of prey, and Wildlife Rescue, Inc. is also an option for birds and other animals that need rehabilitation. In addition, if the young bird is quite evidently injured (i.e. bleeding, wings drooped unevenly) or if you are absolutely certain that the bird’s mother is dead, secure the youngster in a warm, dry, and dark space and contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately.

Young Northern Harriers

Young Northern Harriers

The impulse to help the animals we love is strong, but sometimes that care and concern isn’t in the best interest of those we seek to help. Often, the best thing we can do for the young birds we discover grounded is to resist the urge to intervene. If you have any doubts or questions about the appropriate course of action if you’ve found a baby bird, don’t hesitate to contact Hawks Aloft or a another local wildlife rehabilitator.


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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft

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Differentiating Western and Eastern Bluebirds

After fielding a number of inquiries about how to differentiate between Western Bluebirds and Eastern Bluebirds, Gail asked me to use my space in this month’s online to detail how to distinguish these two closely related species from one another. Both species of bluebirds can now be found in the middle Rio Grande bosque year-round, but this was not always the case. During the early 1980’s Middle Rio Grande Biological Survey (Hink and Ohmart 1984), Eastern Bluebird was considered to be an uncommon winter visitor to the bosque and Western Bluebird was considered a rare visitor to the bosque between October and March. By the time we started our Middle Rio Grande Songbird Study in 2004, both species were regularly present in the bosque in at least small numbers during the winter. We began encountering Eastern Bluebirds breeding in the bosque in small numbers during summer 2004. By 2009, Eastern Bluebird had become a relatively common bosque breeder in areas with mature cottonwoods and/or large cottonwood snags. We did not begin detecting Western Bluebirds breeding in the bosque until 2011. But, Western Bluebirds have also become relatively common bosque breeders over the past two or three years, and may now be a more common bosque breeder than Eastern Bluebirds.

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           Eastern bluebird by David Powell

Male bluebirds are easier to identify to species than females. Males of both species have dark blue backs, wings and heads, with orange breasts. But, male Western Bluebirds have blue throats, while the male Eastern Bluebirds have orange throats. The orange on Western Bluebirds continues from the breast onto the scapulars (but NOT onto the sides of the neck) and down the back. In some individuals, nearly the entire back can be orange. In contrast, the orange on male Eastern Bluebirds continues from the breast and throat only onto the sides of the neck, with the scapulars and back remaining entirely blue. Another field mark to consider when differentiating males of these two species is belly color (this is often the quickest and easiest way to differentiate these two species). Eastern males have white bellies, while Western males have blue bellies. For those of you with particularly keen eyesight, Eastern Bluebirds (apparently) have somewhat larger bills than Western Bluebirds.

Western Bluebirds, photo courtesy of National Park Service

Western Bluebirds, photo courtesy of National Park Service

The females of these two species are more drab in coloration and more difficult to differentiate. Females of both species have bluish-gray coloration on their backs, wings and heads, as well as faded orange breasts. But, the overall patterns of coloration in females generally follows that of their male conspecifics. Female Western Bluebirds have bluish-gray throats and necks, while Female Eastern Bluebirds have white throats with orange continuing from the breasts onto the sides of the neck. Western females may have some faint orange coloration on their scapulars and backs, which the Eastern females lack. As with males, belly color can often be the easiest way to differentiate the females of these two species: Western females have grayish to bluish-gray bellies while Eastern females have bright white bellies.

When I encounter bluebirds in the field, the first things I look at are throat color and belly color. If the throat color is the same as the head color and the belly color is blue (in males) or gray to bluish-gray (in females) then I know I’m looking at Western Bluebirds. If the throat color differs from the head color and the belly is white, then I know I’m looking at Eastern Bluebirds. One final note: During winter these two species may occur in mixed flocks (and on rare occasions may be joined by Mountain Bluebirds) in the middle Rio Grande valley. This usually occurs in prime winter foraging areas with large Russian olive and/or New Mexico olive berry crops (or other vegetation supporting large berry crops). In general, however, these species seem to prefer the company of their own species.

Good luck with your bluebirding!

Eastern Bluebird by David Powell

Eastern Bluebird by David Powell

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Get to Know Amanda Schluter, Hawks Aloft Intern

Amanda Schluter joined Hawks Aloft this January as a seasonal intern during a lull in her work season with the U.S. Forest Service. Amanda comes to Hawks Aloft with a strong background in field surveys and with lots of enthusiasm.

Amanda in the Grand Tetons during the summer of 2015

Amanda in the Grand Tetons during the summer of 2015



What’s your educational background?

I graduated in 2011 from the University of New Mexico with a BS in Biology and Biological Anthropology.

Cave in Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff, AZ. Taken in Summer 2015.

Cave in Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff, AZ. Taken in Summer 2015.


Tell us about your work history with the National Forest Service

After graduation, I worked as a biological science technician at the Cibola National Forest in the Mt. Taylor Ranger District for the summers of 2012 and 2013. My job was to conduct Mexican Spotted Owl and Northern Goshawk surveys for the majority of the field season (April through August). Because my employment was partially funding by the forestry division of the district, I also assisted them in timber sale layouts after the bird surveys were complete. I also assisted the Rangeland Management team with various surveys and recreation needs with campground and trail maintenance. This was a great way to understand the different roles of the various groups within the forest service.

For the 2014 field season, I worked in Pioneer, California on the Eldorado National Forest, located south of Lake Tahoe along Carson Pass. The majority of my work consisted of doing Northern Spotted Owl and Northern Goshawk surveys but I also was able to assist with stream bank alteration surveys and yellow-legged frog surveys.

For the 2015 field season with the Forest service, I worked in Flagstaff, Arizona in the Coconino National Forest. I was still mostly doing Mexican Spotted Owl and Northern Goshawk surveys. I also surveyed for Peregrine Falcon, narrow-headed garter snake, northern and lowland leopard frog, bats, and some sensitive plant species. I also assisted in the relocation of a prairie dog colony. This forest is unique because it has a large number of Spotted Owls which made surveying for them very fun.

Bear River Reservoir in Eldorado National Forest. Taken Summer 2014.

Bear River Reservoir in Eldorado National Forest. Taken Summer 2014.


How did you hear about Hawks Aloft?

I heard about Hawks Aloft from one of the volunteers, Chellye Porter. She heard about my work history and thought that I would be interesting in volunteering. She then put me into contact with Gail.

What has been your favorite experience so far at Hawks Aloft?

I have had a lot of survey experience but I had never surveyed for songbirds. I have really enjoyed that experience. I really appreciate how it makes you slow down and pay attention to your surroundings. Plus, I enjoy seeing the birds and identifying them.

I also really get a lot of enjoyment from visiting local schools for education programs. All the students have been really great and love to learn about the different raptors that we bring. Their excitement is contagious and it is great to teach someone something new.

Landscape from Coconino National Forest

Landscape from Coconino National Forest


What do you hope to learn here and how will it inform your future work?

Since the majority of my work in the past has been surveys for raptors, I really wanted to learn more about the songbird surveys and also migratory bird surveys. I also am interested in getting a different work experience beyond that. Being able to handle the birds and teach others about them is very appealing to me.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

Outside of work, I like to go camping and hiking a lot with my dog, Dexter. I also love crafts like knitting, crocheting and card making. Most weekends my friends and I will go to a local brewery or out to eat somewhere.

Amanda near Lake Tahoe, in California, Summer 2014

Amanda near Lake Tahoe, in California, Summer 2014

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Introducing Aztec

Photograph of Aztec by David Powell

Photograph of Aztec by David Powell

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

Photograph of Aztec by Keith Bauer

Photograph of Aztec by Keith Bauer

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

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

Aztec at Bosque del Apache

Aztec at Bosque del Apache. Image by David Powell.

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

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

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

A wild Great Horned Owl and owlets captured by Larry Rimer

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

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

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


2016-01-20 08.49.07-1

 

Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft

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Through the Eyes of an Intern: Part 1

 

Education Specialist Taylor Tvede teaching students about Harlan the Red-tailed Hawk.

The first few weeks of my internship were spent assisting with education programs at local elementary schools.  Half of the programs consisted of bringing two avian ambassadors  to the school and giving a presentation regarding the bird and its history. The other half of the program was an activity to teach the students concepts about natural science. Since I have a history of work with the U.S. Forest Service, I found one activity, the fire ecology game, to be very interesting.

The fire ecology game consisted of having children act out two different scenarios that represent the very different outcomes of forest fires. In the first scenario, the children are divided into groups of mature healthy trees, immature trees, dead trees on the ground or mature unhealthy trees (these are given a bug to represent their illness). The mature trees were spaced out evenly with immature trees kneeling under them. One student is then given “the fire stick” and told to tap their classmates that are sick or dead trees. This action leaves the healthy mature trees enough room to stretch out and the immature trees enough room to grow.

Can you spot the wildlife? Taken in the Coconino National Forest in Flagstaff, Arizona by Amanda Schluter

Can you spot the wildlife? Taken in the Coconino National Forest in Flagstaff, Arizona by Amanda Schluter

The next scenario in the activity represented a forest that has had wildfires suppressed for years. Students were divided into the same groups as before with some assigned as healthy, mature trees and others as immature trees kneeling under them. Among these were still the unhealthy trees, which were again given plastic insects to distinguish them. Then, without any of the students moving an inch, the immature trees were told to stand up.  Everyone became very crowded. Then the unhealthy trees gave one or two of their bugs to a tree that was standing next to them, spreading their disease because the forest had become overcrowded. Then the student that represented fire went through and tapped all the sick and dead trees. After the fire, there were very few or no trees remaining.

From The Eldorado National Forest, Amador Ranger District. Taken by Hannah Wheelen

From The Eldorado National Forest, Amador Ranger District. Taken by Hannah Wheelen

The purpose of this exercise was to demonstrate that not all fire is bad for the environment. At the beginning of the exercise the students all believe that fire can only be bad. Beginning in the 1890s many of the forests in New Mexico have had fire suppression in place and have become overgrown. Prior to the suppression of fires, New Mexico forests were subject to frequent low intensity fires every few years. Because of this, forests did not become overgrown, which, in turn, kept future fires from burning out of control. With new scientific studies, this history has come to light and the Forest Service, along with other government agencies, is working to remedy past mistakes. This often requires forest-thinning projects followed by controlled burns.

Fire is such an important part of southwestern ecology. In fact, many plant species will only reproduce after a fire. The increase in plant reproduction is due to the nutrient rich soil, the increase in water availability, and newly available real estate opened up by the fire. Firefighters have noted that deer and elk will follow behind a fire and eat the burnt grass like they are attending a neighborhood barbeque. Many predators can be found in burn areas because their prey is attracted to the nutrient rich plants that are found growing there.

At first glance this appeared to be a strange cloud by upon further inspection it was discovered to be the King Fire (2014) on the El Dorado National Forest. This picture was taken from Pioneer , CA approximately 60 miles away  by Amanda Schluter

At first glance this appeared to be a strange cloud by upon further inspection it was discovered to be the King Fire (2014) on the El Dorado National Forest. This picture was taken from Pioneer , CA approximately 60 miles away by Amanda Schluter

When a fire burns out of control in an overgrown forest, there can be devastating repercussions. Not only can people lose their homes, but, if all the trees in an area are burned, this can create many hazards. Without the trees, there can be severe flooding and mudslides. In addition, if there are no mature trees in an area, the landscape cannot be repopulated. After catastrophic fires, tree saplings are often planted in the area, but it can take decades before noticeable change is seen.

Picture of the scar from the Little Bear fire from the Gila National Forest that occurred in 2012, Picture was taken in 2014 by Amanda Schulter

Picture of the scar from the Little Bear fire from the Gila National Forest that occurred in 2012, Picture was taken in 2014 by Amanda Schulter

Fire ecology is a complex concept and many adults are still unaware of its importance in the balance of an ecosystem—especially that of the southwest. Teaching students about the importance of fire ecology will lead to a future generation that has a greater understanding of the ecosystem that they live in.

Sunset in the Eldorado National Forest on the Amador Ranger District taken by Hannah Wheelen.

Sunset in the Eldorado National Forest on the Amador Ranger District taken by Hannah Wheelen.


 

References:

Touchan, R., Allen, C.D. and Swetnam, T.W., 1996. Fire history and climatic patterns in ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of the Jemez Mountains, northern New Mexico. UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE FOREST SERVICE GENERAL TECHNICAL REPORT RM, pp.33-46.

Swetnam, T.W. and Dieterich, J.H., 1985. Fire history of ponderosa pine forests in the Gila Wilderness, New Mexico. In Proceedings—symposium and workshop on wilderness fire. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-GTR-182, Ogden, UT: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station

 Dieterich, J.H., 1983. Fire history of southwestern mixed conifer: a case study. Forest Ecology and Management, 6(1), pp.13-31.


 

Amanda Schluter Bio Image

 

Amanda Schulter is a field technician for the U.S. Forest Service and the current intern at Hawks Aloft. 

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