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: Migration

Welcoming Western Tanagers

Luckily for us, New Mexico is a major migratory pathway, which makes Spring an exciting time to be living along the Rio Grande. Nearly half of all birds found in North America are migratory, meaning that they travel annually in order to access resources like food and nesting locations, and for some species, to escape cold weather. 

Western Tanager by David Powell

Since we are now quite nearly into May, most birds have made their move from wintering grounds to summer nesting grounds. Migratory birds tend to travel along natural land formations like mountains, rivers, or coasts. Most of New Mexico is in the Central Flyway, and the Rio Grande is a primary pathway for dozens of bird species making their way through this part of the country.

One striking species that travels to New Mexico to nest is the Western Tanager. Adult male Western Tanagers are nearly impossible to miss—they have a broader stature than warblers (which they are occasionally mistaken for), with mostly yellow bodies, contrastingly dark black wings and a striking, mottled red head. The more muted female is yellowish allover with similarly dark wings.

Female Western Tanager by Larry Rimer

Breeding in coniferous forests farther north or juniper-pine at lower elevations, they are also no stranger to backyard feeders in the springtime in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and further north. Since they primarily feed on fruit and insects, if you want to lure them to your little corner of New Mexico, provide jellies as food or stock your yard with suet and, of course, a bird bath.

Arriving primarily from Mexico and Central America, this species, like many songbirds, travel to their nesting territories by night to avoid predators. Research suggests that they use the Earth’s magnetic fields, and perhaps even star patterns to orient themselves.

Image by Keith Bauer

Throughout the Spring in our part of the world, you might spot Western Tanagers foraging among the trees or hear the males’ stuttering, ascending and descending song. Oftentimes, the call of the Western Tanager is compared to that of the American Robin, though it is often shorter.

Have you spotted any Western Tanagers in your neighborhood, backyard, or on a hike lately? Tell us in the comments! 

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Sandhill Cranes Return Once Again

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

I remember the first Sandhill Crane I ever saw vividly—it was the first winter I lived in New Mexico, nearly six years ago now—near the Rio Grande on south Fourth Street. It was an amazing sight, and continues to be. Second in size only to the Whooping Crane, how could anxious watchers ever cease to be impressed these large, graceful birds? Their gurgling call and shadows cast over the wintry high desert is a sure indication of the changing seasons; without fail, they return year in and year out to New Mexico. Though these large, red-capped bird dependably herald the changing seasons, there is still much to learn about their migration patterns, especially in the face of a warming planet.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

In New Mexico, the Rocky Mountain Sandhill Crane population’s migration habits are being closely studied by students and researchers at New Mexico State University. As the birds respond to changes in climate that have created water scarcity and loss of wetlands (meaning less habitat) they have taken to traveling back and forth between several wintering areas in New Mexico, in order to find more opportunities for foraging. This is just one observable difference in the behavior of cranes responding to a changing world, and a clear indication of the importance of this kind of research, which reveals essential details about survival rates.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

With a range that encompasses distant places like Alaska all the way up to Siberia, these stately birds make their way south each autumn to winter in places like New Mexico, even as far south as the state of Durango in Mexico. Winter flocks usually consist of several nuclear families; Sandhill Cranes mate for life, so these may be comprised of parents, their young, and maybe even “grandchildren.” Typically these loose groups will overnight in shallow waters, and during the day forage for a variety of insects, snails, plants and amphibians.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

A particularly good place to stand in awe of these impressive birds—one of the most ancient species on Earth—is, of course, at Bosque del Apache. Even if you missed out on the Festival of the Cranes, don’t worry, there are still plenty of months to see Sandhill Cranes; they likely won’t start their departure until March. If you have your heart set on a festival, you can put the Monte Vista Crane Festival in the San Luis Valley of Colorado in your planner for March of 2017. Hawks Aloft will be there! Otherwise, just head out your front door to the Rio Grande bosque and look up, you’re likely to glimpse them near water and hear their trumpeting calls, too.

Image by Steve Vender

Image by Steve Vender

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Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft

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The HAI Flier – Our Monthly Online Newsletter

Sandhill Crane in Flight.  Image by Doug Brown.

Sandhill Crane in Flight. Image by Doug Brown.

Sandhill Cranes will be returning to the Middle Rio Grande Valley any day now.  Did you know that the Rio Grande and the adjacent bosque have become de facto refugia for these magnificent birds because no hunting is allowed within the urban areas.   Read about this issue and more in the October issue of the HAI Flier.   It is your way to keep in touch with all of the studies and education programs of Hawks Aloft, and membership activities too.

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Steller’s Jays on the Move

Steller's Jay.  Image by David Powell

Steller’s Jay. Image by David Powell

Steller’s Jays are usually  birds of evergreen forests in the mountainous West, including New Mexico.  A common species, they can be found in wilderness, but also are regular attendees of campgrounds, parks, and backyards, where they are quick to spy bird feeders as well as unattended picnic items.

A generalist omnivore, like other corvids, the diet of a  Steller’s Jay includes insects, seeds, berries, nuts, small animals, eggs, and nestlings.  They also are known to consume garbage, unguarded picnic items, and feeder fare such as peanuts, sunflower seeds, and suet.  Steller’s Jays sometimes carry several nuts at a time in their mouth and throat, then bury them one by one as a winter food store.  Studies have shown that these intelligent birds can relocate their cached food items during lean food months.

Steller's Jay.  Image by David Powell.

Steller’s Jay. Image by David Powell.

But, when natural foods are scarce, such as during a drough, like the one that has occurred in New Mexico mountains this past year, they sometimes move, to lower elevations in search of sustenance.  An occasional movement of a species beyond its normal range in response to weather, or food supplies is called an irruption.  As I write this, we are receiving nearly daily reports of Steller’s Jays showing up in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, and in backyards throughout Albuquerque, considerably lower than their normal coniferous forest range.

Steller's Jay.  Image by Doug Brown.

Steller’s Jay. Image by Doug Brown.

These fascinating birds are hardy survivors!  Learn more about them on the Cornell All About Birds website, including their calls.

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Return of the Swainson’s Hawks

Four Swainson's Hawks soaring.

Four Swainson’s Hawks soaring

We get the greatest e-mails!  I just love the excitement and enthusiasm among those of you who are dedicated raptorphiles, watching and recording them as you go about your daily lives.  They’re BAAAAACK!  We got this great message from Georgia Santa-Maria this past weekend.

More Swainies Soaring

Up to 24 hawks were observed at one time soaring over Georgia’s property in Belen, NM.

Dear Hawks Aloft:

I took these pictures in my pasture, East of Belen, this morning– I’ve never seen a “flock” of hawks before, ever. There were up to 2 dozen birds at one point–too many to count. The most I could get in one frame was 9–but they were all over the sky overhead, and did not seem to be shy, or wary of us, (2 humans,) or my dogs, at all. I’m wondering if they were red-tails–they didn’t look like others I’ve seen before, but I’m curious. Also, is this behavior unusual? We saw one pair mate in a treetop nearby, and listened to their distinct calls, the normal “screee” sound, which was quieter than a lot of times, and a kind of warbling call that might have related to the mating, as it was audible just before, and when other birds landed in the trees briefly. In any case–I’m very excited and curious, and wanted to pass on this information to your people who may be doing research on these birds–Getting to see this was really thrilling!!

Georgia Santa Maria


One Swainie - more clear

Classic profile of a soaring Swainson’s Hawk. It’s wings are held in a slight upward V; the flight feathers are dark with a uniformly light-colored leading edge. The presence of a complete bib identifies this as an adult.

Thanks, Georgia, for sharing these images with us!  The birds you observed are Swainson’s Hawks, returning from their wintering grounds in Argentina.  They are the last of the large buteo hawks to arrive on their nesting grounds, largely due to their long migration, over 7,000 miles each way.  Their semi-annual journey takes up to two months each way!  It is the longest migration of all buteo species.

Swainies soaring

Swainson’s Hawks travel in groups, called kettles. Kettles of up to several thousand individuals have been recorded.

Only Swainson’s Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks routinely migrate in large flocks, called kettles.  By traveling in a group, individuals take advantage of thermals by watching others rise on the warming air currents.  It is an efficient way to travel long distances — rise in a thermal until it tops out at very high elevations; then soar without flapping until reaching the next thermal, trending slightly downward, until seeing the hawks ahead reach the next thermal.

Two Swainies

Two Swainson’s soar together above Belen, NM.

On their nesting grounds in western North America, Swainson’s Hawk (or Swainies as we call them!), these hawks eat a variety of small mammals, birds, lizards, and snakes in the spring.  However, during the summer months, when the grasshoppers bloom, they prey-switch to a diet that is almost exclusively grasshoppers.  On the grasslands of Argentina where they winter, they are called Locust Hawks!

A very cool sighting!  Thanks Georgia!

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Return of the Sandhill Crane and a Festival too!

Sandhill Crane. Image by Doug Brown

You can hear them long before you can see them.  Here in New Mexico, their cacophony heralds the onset of autumn.

Sandhill Crane, image by David Powell

Thousands of these special birds winter along the river in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. It is common to see them anywhere between Bernalillo and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Sandhill Crane image by Doug Brown

Bosque del Apache NWR holds their annual Festival of the Cranes from November 11-18, 2012.  Each day of the event features tours, presentations, and a wealth of knowledge of local birds, but also interesting subjects such as New Mexico geology, historic sites and much more.  It all wraps up on the weekend of November 17 and 18, with several booths and an art show at the refuge.

Sandhill Crane image by Doug Brown

Perhaps, if you are lucky, you will be able to view some amazing behaviors by the incredible cranes.  Hawks Aloft is presenting talks and tours Tuesday-Friday and will have an outreach booth on Saturday and Sunday.  We also will staff one of the observation decks at the refuge on those days!  Please join us!



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Heading South

Western Wood-pewee.  Image by Keith Bauer.

The seasonal change in birds occurs at a breakneck pace this time of year.  It seems as if it were only yesterday that we were relying on the songs of breeding birds to identify the different species.  Now, the bosque is relatively silent, with only chip notes, contact calls, and the occasional late song.  It makes our daily surveys far more challenging.   Many of ‘our’ summer birds are no longer here, like the Ash-throated Flycatcher and the Yellow-breasted Chat.  Or, if they are present, they are making themselves as discreet as possible.  New arrivals appear daily, birds that breed farther north, like the Rufous Hummingbird, or at higher elevations, like the Western Wood-pewee.  These little flycatchers are making themselves evident in the Rio Grande bosque, calling “Pee WEE”, from the tops of trees and exposed branches.  It makes sense that they are among the earliest of fall migrants as they have a long way to go.  Their wintering grounds are in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

Townsend’s Warbler.  Image by Keith Bauer.

Another soon-to-arrive fall migrant is the Townsend’s Warbler.  This little warbler breeds in the Pacific Northwest in coniferous forests from Alaska to Oregon. It winters in a narrow strip along the Pacific Coast, and in Mexico and Central America.   On their wintering grounds, they feed extensively on the sugary excretions of scale insects. Although Townsends usually forage in the tops of trees, they use patches of the honeydew-producing insects at whatever height they occur.  They fiercely defend territories around trees infested with the insects against other Townsend’s Warblers and also other birds.

Wilson’s Warbler.  Image by Keith Bauer.

Wilson’s Warbler is another common fall migrant, sometimes showing up in huge numbers.  These little yellow fellows with the bright black cap are energetic feeders and actively forage throughout all vegetation levels.  Often, they can be easily identified simply by their active behavior.   Although some Wilson’s Warblers winter along the Gulf Coast, the bulk of the population winters in Mexico.

September is an excellent time to spend time in the field as rarities can show up just about anywhere!  Grab your binocs and head out!

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Little Red Devil: Rufous Hummingbird

Image of Rufous Hummingbird by David Powell

All seems to be at peace in the world of the tiniest of birds, each seemingly willing to share the bounty provided by our feeders.  However, long about the Fourth of July, the little red devil arrives, the Rufous Hummingbird, fascinatingly ferocious!  He has a well-deserved reputation as the feistiest hummingbird in North America. The brilliant orange male is a relentless attacker at flowers and feeders.  He will sit and wait for an unsuspecting victim to attempt to feed and then attack with an accompanying ticking sound!  The little males then retreat to a guard post to watch for any other intruders.  However, at dawn and dusk when other hummies are tanking up, they become overwhelmed by the sheer number of other hummingbirds.  I recently watched two male Rufous Hummers feeding along with 4 others at my 6 port feeder in the early morning.   Rufous Hummingbirds are wide-ranging, and breed farther north than any other hummingbird. Look for them in spring in California, summer in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and fall in the Rocky Mountains as they make their annual circuit of the West.

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An Uncommon Visitor: Calliope Hummingbird

Image of Calliope Hummingbird by Doug Brown

The smallest bird in North America (north of  Mexico) is the diminutive Calliope Hummingbird.  It is the smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world, spending its winters in Mexico and breeding as far north as Canada and southern Alaska.  At 3.5″ long and a wingspan of 4.3″, they weigh about 2-3 grams, or 1/10 of an ounce!  They can be found in  mountain areas of the northwestern United States. Right now (early August), they are migrating through the Rocky Mountains and are as far south as central New Mexico on their way to their wintering grounds.  Watch carefully at your feeders!  At first glance, they appear to be miniature hummingbirds compared to the common Black-chinned and Broad-tailed.  Males also sport a magenta gorgette with distinctive trailing feathers that reach their shoulders.

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Along the River: an Ash-throated Flycatcher…

Ash-throated Flycatcher © David Powell
No reproduction of any kind without written permission.

Along the river, an Ash-throated Flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens) heralds his return to spring breeding grounds. Seen in Corrales Bosque on 4/18/2012.

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