Hawks Aloft Inc.
PO Box 10028
Albuquerque, NM 87184
Phone: 505 828-9455
Fax: 505 828-9769
E-Mail: gail@hawksaloft.org

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Hawks Aloft Blog

Blog Topic: Corporate Conservation

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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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.

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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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The Desert in Winter

The Journada del Muerto in Winter

The Journada del Muerto in Winter

Twenty years ago, we began doing raptor surveys of the Rio Grande and Estancia Valleys, monitoring during the months that raptors are resident, summer and winter.  I am fortunate to survey the desert grasslands of the Armendaris Ranch, owned by Ted Turner.  It’s one of the largest privately owned ranches in New Mexico and stewardship of the fragile environment is a priority.



They raise bison on the expansive ranch, but mostly there is little evidence that this land is grazed by anything other than wildlife.

Golden Winter Grasses that Frame the Fra Cristobals

Golden Winter Grasses that Frame the Fra Cristobals

The grasses are tall and golden at this time of the year, as well as abundant.  In many areas on the ranch, you could fool yourself that you were in a pristine environment, except for the road, of course.  Along with my survey partner, Chuck Brandt, we survey a 20 mile stretch of the ranch on the main ranch road.

Chuck Scans for Raptors

Chuck Scans for Raptors

At each of 20 stops, we scan 360 degrees in search of raptors, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Greater Roadrunners.  With the high pressure system riding high over the West, the temperatures last week were positively balmy with relatively light winds.

Playa at the Armendaris Ranch, a full month after the last precipitation.

Playa at the Armendaris Ranch, a full month after the last precipitation.

We haven’t had any rain in nearly 40 days, but when it does rain in the desert, it can be substantial.  Such was the case in late November, when the ranch received significant snow that closed the main ranch road and filled the playas.  Now, in mid-January, the playas still held bounteous water.

Chihuahuan Raven Kettle

Chihuahuan Raven Kettle

Chihuahuan Ravens were in abundance as we arrived, riding the winds in multiple kettles of up to 50 birds.  Chuck commented that, in his experience, the presence of loads of ravens boded poorly for raptor numbers.  But, to our surprise, we started off with at least one bird at every early stop.  But . . .

Loggerhead Shrike, image by Doug Brown

Loggerhead Shrike, image by Doug Brown

most of them were Loggerhead Shrikes, also known as butcherbirds, for their hunting habits.  They capture live prey and impale it on thorns and barbs to be consumed later.  In all, we tallied 12 Loggerhead Shrikes on this survey.

Lark Buntings on Armendaris

Lark Buntings on Armendaris

Also present were Lark Buntings, seen in huge flocks of a hundred or more.  Watching these flocks with their unique flight styles foraging on the roads and nearby shrubs is thrilling as they undulate in almost coordinated flight.  Of course, the other songbird present in large numbers was the Horned Lark.

Immature Golden Eagle

Immature Golden Eagle

But, the highlight of the day was sighting three individual Golden Eagles, not a common sight, so seeing three in one day was thrilling, even though the birds were distant.  We also counted Prairie Falcon, American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk, and Ferruginous Hawk.  It is clear that the management practices of the Armendaris Ranch benefit raptors and their prey!

Yucca in Winter

Yucca in Winter

Some folks have difficulty in finding much to appreciate in the desert at any time of year but, for me, it bespeaks unsurpassed beauty in nature.



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Help Hawks Aloft Win a new Sienna in the Toyota 100 Cars for Good Program!

Image by Bill D’Ellis

We don’t know much about her early history other than that she hatched in 1989, making her now 23 years old!  Our educational Swainson’s Hawk is a very handsome representative for her species and a huge hit at our educational programs statewide, ranging from pre-kindergarten to adult.  She is one of 25-30 raptors and one American Crown that comprise our feathered staff of avian ambassadors.

But for her, life revolves around parenthood!  Each year, she builds a nest and lays 2-3 infertile eggs that she patiently incubates until we remove them 2-3 months later.  Why do we leave them with her for so long?  Well, because the presence of ‘the’ eggs keeps her in motherhood mode in case any orphaned buteos find themselves in need of a mom!  She has raised babies for many years, of several different species too, Red-tailed, Ferruginous, Harris’ and Swainson’s hawklets!

We are a finalist in the Toyota 100 Cars for Good Program.  Our voting day is July 28!  That’s tomorrow!  Please go to the Toyota website on Facebook and vote for us!  Just to whet your appetite, check out our video about why we want to win a new Toyota Sienna.

Thank you for voting for us!  Please help us spread the word by sharing this with all of your friends and asking them to vote too!!!!

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Osprey Nesting Platforms

Image by Doug Brown

Osprey are fish-eating raptors that occur worldwide.  They are found almost exclusively near large bodies of water, although they sometimes “pack a lunch” and might be found consuming their catch far from water, particularly during migration.  The readily accept nesting platforms and have benefited from the installation of them near several of the larger reservoirs in northern New Mexico, particularly Heron, El Vado and Cochiti lakes.  We recently received the following question on the Hawk Talk feature of our website:

I have a cabin and several acres of land on the north side of Heron Lake in northern NM.  I have a tall dead ponderosa pine that I have seen used by hawks and eagles in the past.  There are no power lines anywhere near the tree.  The original top of the tree snapped off years ago, so the trunk of the tree is substantial all the way to what is now the top.  The top is still notably higher than all of the surrounding juniper trees and provides a view of the lake which is just a few hundred yards away downhill.

Recently I watched an osprey just sitting at the very top for over one hour.  In the past I have seen an osprey nest on a platform built by NORA on the south side of the lake.  So I thought it might be productive to build a platform at the top of my old ponderosa to promote an osprey building a nest there in the future.  Please send me info on what is the best way to build such a platform.  How much platform area is needed?  Should there be a lip around the edge?  If so, what size?  Should there be lots of drainage, or is solid plywood OK?  Is there a good book or leaflet guide you can point me to look at?  etc.  Any info you can send will be appreciated.

Thank you for your help!
Scott Slezak,  Albuquerque

So, we talked to our friends at PNM and received this response and several images from John Acklen, Senior Environmental Scientist.

This picture shows an Osprey platform that PNM installed up near Cochiti Dam.  It has been occupied every year for the last 15 years at leas, but blew down in heavy winds earlier this year.  It consists of one end of a wood reel used for utility wire.  You should be able to get one of these from your local utility, Northern Rio Arriba Electric Cooperative.   I suggest  getting a grape vine wreath and attaching it to the top of the reel top–maybe drilling some holes and wiring it into place.  It will create a nest substrate.  Michael’s at Wyoming and Montgomery has some nice ones (36″ in diameter).  We are planning to add a wreath to top of our platform and wire it securely in place for use in the 2013 nesting season. Another possibility is putting in some metal bolts into the reel top and weaving some sticks in between to get them going and secure the nest.

Hope this helps,  Scott

Best regards, John





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