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

Logo: Hawks Aloft Inc.

Hawks Aloft Blog

Blog Topic: Rio Grande Bosque

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! 

Add your comment!

Avian Habitat in Corrales

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

Spotted Towhee, Image by Kristin Brown

Spotted Towhee, Image by Kristin Brown

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

Lazuli Bunting, Image by David Powell

Lazuli Bunting, Image by David Powell

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

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

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


Bewick's Wren, Image by Kristin Brown

Bewick’s Wren, Image by Kristin Brown

Add your comment!

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

2016-01-20 08.49.07-1



Maggie Grimason is a writer and educator at Hawks Aloft

1 comment - Add your comment!

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.

Add your comment!

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.

2 comments - Add your comment!

100 Minutes of Solitude

Gail-Surveys-700x525Bosque Surveys

I’m back at home in Albuquerque now after a month of some interesting travel.  I immediately morphed back into my bird girl persona, up at 4:30 or 5:00 each morning in order to count birds in the bosque (the riparian forest along the river).  Most of the songbirds are heard rather than seen, so photos are slim pickins!  But, some of my favorites are larger and more photogenic, like

GHOW-Sandia-Pueblo-2013-473x700 Great Horned Owl

this Great Horned Owl trying desperately to hide among the dense vegetation.  I would have never seen him/her except for the raucous calls and keks of the local Cooper’s Hawk who had discovered and was loudly objecting to his presence.

COHA-chicks-7-9-13-700x595 Cooper’s Hawk nestling

But, Mama Cooper’s Hawk was merely trying to protect her three babes from a potential predator.  Being along the river at dawn is an amazing experience.  There are NO other people around, just me and nature.  It feeds my soul.  And, I see some extraordinary sights.  One day as I was trying unsuccessfully to photograph a Turkey Vulture, I nearly missed seeing this little fellow about 10 feet away and right at eye level.

Porcupine-in-bosque-6-13-700x516 Porcupine

I am a lucky woman!

Along-the-River-6-25-13-1-700x525 Along the Rio Grande

Of all the things I do, these early morning bird surveys are my favorite. The solitude, the interaction with nature, the beautiful scenery, the feeling that I am contributing to our Hawks Aloft mission – this is what gets me up at 4 in the morning and keeps me going!

Add your comment!

A Hawkish Encounter

Baby Coopers Hawks

There’s nothing cuter than baby Cooper’s Hawks!  These are ‘branchers’, meaning they have climbed out of the nest but are still not quite ready to fly!  Mama Hawk is standing guard nearby.  These babies are in a nest in the Bosque that I monitor in spring and summer.
Immature Cooper’s Hawks have vertical brown streaks on their breast, a pale nape with thin streaking, and a brown back with white spots, as well as a rounded tail which is banded with a broad white terminal band, and yellow eyes.  Adult Cooper’s Hawks have a slate gray back, a dark gray “cap”, a long thin, rounded, banded tail, and red eyes.
Mama Coopers Hawk
Here’s Mama Cooper’s Hawk, standing guard over her babes and not liking me being nearby.  Like all mothers, she is very protective of her babies.
Angry Mama Coopers Hawk
Understandably his photo is blurry!  I took my leave of the nest!

Add your comment!

Happy Fourth of July!!!

The Fourth of July is the day we celebrate our American Independence, but bird lovers in New Mexico also celebrate another event that typically happens right around the beginning of July. Rufous Hummingbirds start to pass through on their fall migration!

Rufous Male - Photo by David Powell

Rufous Male – Photo by David Powell

The male Rufous Hummingbirds have a bright orange, iridescent gorget  and rufous-red head and back. They are the feistiest hummingbirds you will see at your feeders. They guard the feeders tenaciously against other, often larger hummingbirds that need a little drink.

Rufous Male - Photo by David Powell

Rufous Male – Photo by David Powell

Typically the first Rufous Hummingbirds we see are the males, and later in July and in August we see the females and first years. The males are free to migrate home first, because they contribute very little to the process of raising babies; in fact they are just sperm donors. The female does all the hard work of building her nest and raising the babies.

Rufous Female - Photo by David Powell

Rufous Female – Photo by David Powell

David Powell captured this female hummingbird sitting on her nest in Albuquerque, NM. A major component of a hummingbird nest is spider silk. This allows the nest to grow along with the nestlings.

Nesting hummingbird - Photo by David Powell

Nesting hummingbird – Photo by David Powell

Rufous Hummingbirds breed further north than any other hummingbird, and are seen as far north as Alaska. In fact I saw a beautiful male Rufous Hummingbird in early June of this year in Halibut Cove, Alaska.

Juvenile Rufous-Hummingbird - Photo by Doug Brown

Juvenile Rufous-Hummingbird – Photo by Doug Brown

Rufous-Hummingbird - Photo by Doug Brown

Rufous-Hummingbird – Photo by Doug Brown

Like other hummingbirds, they eat insects as well as nectar, taking them from spider webs or catching them in midair.

Rufous-Hummingbird - Photo by Doug Brown

Rufous-Hummingbird – Photo by Doug Brown

Rufous Hummingbirds are also unusual in that their spring migration follows a route along the Pacific coast while their fall migration goes through the Rocky Mountains and right through Albuquerque.

Rufous-Hummingbird - Photo by Doug Brown

Rufous-Hummingbird – Photo by Doug Brown

3 comments - Add your comment!

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

As the first rays of the sun crest the hills to the east, Sandhill Cranes and light geese (Snow Goose and Ross’ Goose) burst into flight.  Perhaps a hunting Bald Eagle is within their view, or maybe they just decided to move to feeding grounds at the same time.  The cranes arrive along the Middle Rio Grande and at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge  in October and stay as late as March.  The wildlife viewing during this time is unparalleled.

Image by Keith Bauer

Add your comment!

Icicle Bracelets

Image by Doug Brown

Sandhill Cranes roost in ponds and along the river, in large part because they are safer from land-based predators like coyotes. On cold nights, however, the water freezes around their legs as they sleep. In the morning, when they take off, they then wear an icicle bracelet.

Add your comment!