Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shades of Cimarron

Rough-legged Hawk. Photograph by Douglas Brown

Flash back to two years ago, December 13, 2006. The day dawned cold and dreary, matching my trepidation about what was to come. The old red-tail had been limping for some time, and although the vet assured me that it was just arthritis, I doubted his judgement. Now, it appeared that her foot was rotating inward and she seemed to be in pain. I feared the worst, the big “C”, which is what my gut said. As I was getting ready to take her in for yet another set of X-rays, the phone rang.

I heard the deep voice of a man who said, “I found this hawk alongside the road. It’s been in my garage for two days and a garage is no place for a bird. If you won’t come and get it, then I’ll take care of it myself.” He sounded both kindly and crusty, like an old rancher who had seen much. I knew that he meant every word. I asked where he lived and he responded, “Roy”, a four-hour drive from Albuquerque. Fortunately, Ron, our raptor biologist, was available, and offered to drive up immediately to see what the bird might be. When we get these types of calls, speculation is rampant among the staff as to what we will actually find.

I once got a call from a couple that had an injured ‘eagle’ in their urban back yard. Sure enough, when I arrived, they had it locked in a tin shed, in an eagle-sized box. However, the box seemed lightweight for such a large bird. We brought the box out into the sunshine, and I opened it to reveal – a common nighthawk, a very small insect-eating bird that weighs about a quarter pound. But, that’s another story. On this day, Ron and I both agreed that he would be picking up a Ferruginous Hawk, common on the plains of northeastern New Mexico. Ron drove off to the north at the same time as I drove south to the vet.

Indeed, the news was not good. It would be the old gal’s final day as this set of X-rays clearly showed the deteriorating, twisting bones, eaten alive by cancer. I tried to put on a brave face, but oh, how this hurt! She had been my first bird, the one that inspired me to pursue this line of work. Tears streamed down my face as I sat, typing at my computer waiting for whatever Ron would bring back to the office.

He arrived an hour after the red-tail was gone, not the expected species, but instead a majestic arctic bird, a Rough-legged Hawk. He had an elbow injury, an old healed wound evident in the set of X-rays. He would not ever be able to fly well enough to be released and he joined our staff of educational ambassador as soon as the federal permits were processed.

Rough-legged Hawks nest in tundra or taiga in arctic and subarctic Alaska and Canada, and migrate over the boreal forest to winder in southern Canada and the northern United States. In New Mexico, they appear only occasionally and not at all in some winters. Only when frozen conditions to the north limit food availability, do ‘roughies’ move this far south. And, they generally are observed only from December-February.

How could it be that the bird had been in New Mexico long enough to have been injured, healed and fortuitously found alongside the road? He would have had to arrive by about October, much earlier than expected for this species. He was plenty fat, and showed no evidence of recent trauma. Who would have cared for him so well that every feather was absolutely perfect? He also was an adult, and knew that he belonged in the wild. Yet, he was relatively calm around his human captors. Many mysteries shrouded the majestic northern hawk stranded in the Southwest, never again to see his Arctic home.

We now have two years under our belt, and our relationship has grown. Training a wild bird to a public life in captivity always has its challenges and he was especially wary. He already was an adult bird, had known life in the wild, and possibly produced offspring. Being condemned to a cage, albeit large enough for flight, and forced to interact with a human on a daily basis was hard for him. For my part, I just wanted to gain his trust so that I might someday get close enough to pick him up.

The first year was spectacularly unsuccessful, with little evidence that he would one day be calm enough to display in public. Our Fish and Wildlife Service permit requires that each educational ambassador complete a minimum of twelve programs annually, and I began to wonder if he would ever reach that goal. Each morning, when I would deliver food, I would stay near and talk, sometimes about nothing, sometimes just sing-song words, but always in calm tones. As much as possible, I tried to reassure him that it would be okay, that I would never hurt him, and that we had to make this work as there were no other options.

Then, on one momentous day a few months ago, he trusted me enough to lower his head and eat in my presence, exposing his vulnerability. It was just one mouse, but it was a new threshold. Today, I can sometimes lay the mice at his feet, but not always. At other times, I only can approach within about three feet. He still retains his spirit and his wildness. I am thrilled and humbled to be a part of his life. He’s completed his 12 programs in 2008, and perhaps you will get to see him one day at a presentation. We call him Cimarron del Norte, refugee from the north.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Water Ouzel, an Ecological Indicator

American Dipper - Photograph by Tom Kennedy

We donned our cross-country skis at the East Fork of the Jemez River, expecting nothing much more than a glorious winter outing in a beautiful canyon. Brilliant sunshine belied the actual temperature as clouds of condensation fogged our glasses. The novice among us worried about the skill level required for the outing, as she clipped her spankin’ new boots in to her equally virgin cross country skis. As a winter wonderland, the Jemez back country is easy to access and provides a more solitary experience than the crowded trails of the Sandia Mountains. Only two more cars shared our space, an indicator of the near solitude that awaited.

As we neared the river, a flash of gray in motion caught my eye. A quick flit, and the bird disappeared behind the rocks. It was February, a month where our usual avian companions are the hardy ravens and Steller’s Jays. Most humans would not be expecting a birdwatching expedition but it soon became apparent that this outing would reveal special rewards. Cautiously, and as quietly as possible, we sneaked up to get a better view of the elusive gray bird whose plumage blended so well with the wet rocks. Only rippling, crystal clear water cascaded through the stream that drained the Valles Caldera. However, as we watched, a little gray bird popped up from beneath the surface with an aquatic insect firmly clutched in its bill.

First documented and christened “Water Ouzel” by John Muir, bird and stream once were considered inseparable. Present along fast-moving, clear, unpolluted mountain streams in the American West throughout the year, the American Dipper is almost exclusively associated with water. The behavior and biological adaptations of this aquatic bird are unique, combining aspects of songbirds with those of ducks. Their traits include and incessant dipping, hence the current name, and a blinking white eyelid. They appear frenzied as they dive into water, sometimes at near freezing temperatures, and use their wings to propel them underwater. They walk, swim and dive underwater. Their main foods are aquatic insects which they find under rocks and in crevices. Although insects are captured underwater, the bird brings them to the surface to eat.

Uniquely adapted to this special environment, dippers share many traits of waterfowl, including exceptionally dense feathering that allows them to remain dry and buoyant in the water. When swimming on the surface, they paddle rapidly with feet and wings. One account reports a dipper being swept over the brink of a waterfall in Yosemite. That bird emerged unscathed and flying at the base of the waterfall, only to return to the exact same spot where it had been previously foraging. Like ducks, dippers molt all their flight feathers at once, and are flightless from four days to two weeks. During this time, they are extremely secretive, taking short fluttering leaps and escaping predation by swimming above or below the water’s surface and hiding under logjams, tangled vegetation, or overhanging banks.

In fact, the very presence of an American Dipper in a particular watershed is an indicator of ecological stream health. As a free-flowing river, the Jemez meets the needs of this species, which requires unpolluted waters, free from agricultural discharges, and without clear-cut deforestation that opens habitat, increases water temperatures, and alters the entire aquatic food web. Upon removal of forest, soil becomes compacted, and erosion, silting, and runoff are accelerated.

Healthy dipper populations on upland rivers througout the world indicate healthy river ecosystems. Along the Jemez River, I’ve observed dippers at East Fork, Jemez Falls, and Soda Dam but only during the times of year when the river receives reduced recreational use. During the times when the river receives heavy use, the birds inhabit those areas that are less accessible to humans. At any rate, each dipper observation, regardless of the time of year, tells us that we are doing something right in managing the Jemez watershed.