Monday, December 14, 2009

A Few of My Favorite Things

Arizona Sister. Photo by Steve Cary

‘Tis the Season! Black Friday notwithstanding, seasonal holiday gifts will soon be on the minds of most of us. If you are one of the many with a birder or bird lover in the family, gift buying for such a specialized interest might present a substantial challenge: trying to find something meaningful and affordable that the recipient doesn’t already own. Being of the bird-watching type myself, I’ve found a few “can’t live without” essentials that are now part of mountain of gear the HAS to live with me, just in case I might need it.

The most exciting new-to-me birding toy is iBird Explorer Pro. This nifty app for the iPhone/iPod touch is a field guide that references 891 species of birds found in North America. In addition to photographs, illustrations, range maps and habitats, it also includes songs and some calls for each species. Having access to the vocalizations is unbelievably helpful even for experienced birders when puzzling over a heard-only bird. The database is searchable in a variety of ways that help to narrow down choices for identification. At only $30.00, it is highly affordable and amazingly portable. I take it with me on all my surveys; however, being a responsible birder, I do not use it to try to call birds in for closer observation which often can disturb nesting birds that are responding to what they view as an intruder in their territory.

All that is affordable about iBird Explorer Pro is offset; however, by the need to also own an iPhone or and iPod. I opted for an iPod touch, with full video capacity, setting me back about $225. Still, I think the investment is well worth the cost.

Most birders have a fascination with all things in nature, particularly things with wings, namely bats, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. Steve Cary, lead naturalist for New Mexico State Parks, has spent 18 years gathering photographs and life history information for his new book, “Butterfly Landscapes of New Mexico”. This positively gorgeous book is a readable, illustrated guide, not only to the butterflies, but also to the specific landscapes that support them throughout the state. Did you know that New Mexico has one of the highest number of butterfly species among the states because of its diverse habitats? Naturalists have identified 103 species of butterflies and skippers in the Los Alamos area, and over 150 in the Jemez Mountains. At only $18.45 (, no home should be without this book.

Digiscoping, a relatively new word in the vocabulary of this birder, has become the latest rage among photography buffs. Simply stated, it means placing your digital camera up to a spotting scope to magnify your image 40-60 times in order to photograph birds or other animals that are too distant to otherwise capture in image. At prices ranging from $49.99 and up (, I found the Vortex Universal 28-45mm Small Digital Camera Adapter to be the entry level adaptor for securely attaching a camera to your spotting scope.
This camera adapter will attach most 3-4x optical zoom digital cameras to a wide variety of spotting scopes and fits on spotting scope eyepieces with an outside diameter of 28mm to 45mm

Another treat in the wildlife watching department are the motion detection cameras that can be set up near a feeder or water source that are triggered by the animals that visit, a great way to observe natural behaviors of wild animals. I know of one such camera that captured a whole flock of Pinyon Jays taking a bath, a badger that stopped for a drink, and a pair of foxes in addition to countless songbirds. I found the 5.0 Megapixel Digital Motion-detection Camera for $99.95 ( Triggered by heat and movement, these simplified all-weather cameras take multiple images to capture backyard wildlife action. This particular camera will run for 21 days of continuous operation on one set of batteries. There also are many other brands of motion detection cameras; however this is the least expensive that I found.

For the young birder in the family, one of the best books to come along is “Raptor! A kid’s guide to birds of prey”, by Christyna M. and Rene Laubauch and Charles W.G. Smith. This beautiful book is among the best raptor guides for young and old alike. The richly illustrated digest covers topics ranging from anatomy, behavior and habitat -- to binoculars, migration, bird watching and simple ecology. The text is so concise and balanced that the book will be as fascinating to adults as it is to younger audiences. It is a must for the family library, and a treasure trove for visual learners. ($10.17 at

With the wide array of birding equipment, books and other specialty items, the most difficult part of writing this annual installment of my column is deciding just which items to include. In my next column, we’ll look at a few of the favorite things of wild birds. I am positively itching to begin conducting some experiments to see what the birds at my place prefer!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Old Cottontop

Scaled Quail. Photo by David Powell.

I knew that I should be driving slowly on the back roads of P-J land, shorthand for pinyon-juniper, because of the myriad of small animals that just might decide to cross the road at the exact same time as my vehicle arrived. It’s happened to me before, even though I try my best to be alert to animals that have evolved over millions of years without the hazards wrought by high speed vehicles that have only been around for about 100. Once, a little House Wren inadvertently committed suicide by flying right into the side of my car. Another time, a Lesser Goldfinch crossed the road in front of my car, right at hood height. I picked tiny little, bright yellow feathers from my air filter after that, all that remained of a formerly vibrant songbird. Then, at night there are the rabbits! They sit quietly, nearly invisible, but as a car approaches, they run, first off the road and then right back onto the road, sometimes right beneath the wheels.

But, there is one group of birds that I find particularly endearing, quail, and they also tend to hang out near back country roads. In New Mexico, the two most common species are the Scaled Quail and the Gambel’s Quail. Often, I’ll catch a glimpse of one individual, generally standing beneath the shade of a low shrub. When I see that one bird, I just KNOW to drive slow, because it is NEVER just one bird. Spooked by the car, the observed bird waits until I am almost upon it and then dashes across the road, followed by one, then another, and finally a whole covey of them, sometimes up to fifty strong.
Gambel’s Quail are the ones with the curly top knot, most common in the southern part of New Mexico. In our neck of the woods, we more often find their cousins, the Scaled Quail, also called Cottontop, so named for the distinctive white top-knot on its crest. They usually run from predators rather than fly, which is precisely why they are at greater risk of car strikes.
Because Scaled Quail are usually seen running or flying away, folks often don’t get a chance to give them a good, once-over viewing, and to marvel at their buffy breast feathers, spectacularly edged with dark brown, giving them a lovely scalloped look. It’s one of those cases where nature achieved subtle perfection in design, since the scalies actually do blend in with their surroundings despite their elaborate plumage.

Common in the lower elevations of New Mexico, they call to each other as they wander through brushy arroyos, cactus flats, sagebrush and pinyon-juniper woodland. They charming call, “pay-cos, pay-cos,” has become synonymous with the arid lands which they call home. Here, they wander along, picking up insects, seeds, and berries as they go, opportunistically foraging for whatever foods are available. They are often found around ranches, farms, and even on the outskirts of urban centers. They readily come to seed placed on the ground or in platform feeders positioned low to the ground, and have become a familiar and much loved back yard bird. However, their nests are extremely well hidden, often in dense, shaded vegetation, under brush piles, old machinery, and along fields, and very difficult to detect.

Scaled and Gambel’s Quail populations cycle through “booms and busts” generally associated with drought years where low rainfall results in a lack of succulent foods. During these times, quail suffer widespread reproductive failure. Succulent vegetation is especially important to quail during drought periods, as it is to other desert dwellers that must obtain their fluids from moisture in the plants they consume rather than water.

Scaled Quail are a high priority species for many North American bird conservation initiatives due to long-term population declines. Although quail are game birds, hunting does not appear to be a factor in their decline. However, like many other upland game birds of the desert Southwest, they are particularly vulnerable to overgrazing by livestock, which has severely reduced feeding, nesting, and roosting cover in many areas.

So, the next time you are meandering along a back country road, remember to give a bird a brake. If you take the time to stop, look, and listen, you just might be in for an eye-popping extravaganza, especially during the spring and summer when Mom and Dad Quail have little ones. They look like cotton balls on short, little legs as they race along behind their parents. Wait until the whole covey passes and then wait a tad longer. There’s often a straggler racing to catch up.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Meet the Butcherbird: Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike. Photo by Doug Brown.

Far from home, along the Texas Gulf Coast, the birding had been exceptional for our small group of wanderers. We’d already covered many of the noted birding destinations such as High Island and Bolivar Flats, and now were looking for wetland obligate species at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Houston.

Initially, I thought that the gray bird with the white wing patches might be a Northern Mockingbird, but its flight was direct, nothing like the undulating, almost flirtatious flight pattern of the mockingbird. Indeed, the Loggerhead Shrike seemed to be a bird on a mission, with a purpose for alighting on the bare branch of a tree only about 30 feet distant. It just sat without moving though, and our birding group soon lost interest. We turned our attention to the numerous wetland birds, remarking on the Least Bittern lurking in the vegetation and the abundant Northern Rough-winged Swallows gracefully swooping over the open water, snaring aerial insects.

Suddenly, a piercing shriek broke the otherwise idyllic sounds of nature. As one, our heads turned toward the sound, only to witness two birds, shrike and swallow, locked in mortal combat. It seemed improbable that the shrike even would have tried to capture the swallow, so buoyant and aerially superior in flight, but it did just that. As we watched with mixed emotions, the shrike first pinned the hapless swallow to the ground, biting its neck, and then flew off out of sight with the victim firmly clamped in its bill.

Loggerhead Shrikes are medium- sized songbirds with bird of prey personalities. At first glance, the shrike hardly appears to be a predator, but it regularly preys on insects, lizards, mice, and birds, hence the common name, “Butcherbird”. Its head is large in proportion to the rest of its body, hence the name “Loggerhead”, which also means blockhead. Not a kind moniker for the little fellow trying to make a living on larger than average-sized prey for songbirds. Although it is technically classified as a member of the order, Passeriformes, to which all songbirds belong, its behavior mimics that of its larger, distantly related cousins, raptors.

Like a raptor, the shrike scans for food from perches. It kills by biting prey in back of neck, cutting the spinal cord. Because it lacks the strong feet and talons of a raptor necessary to hold down and tear its food, it uses thorns and barbed wire to hold large prey while it rips it up, and may wedge prey into a fork in a branch for the same purpose. In some cases, an individual will store, or cache, several carcasses for later consumption and, occasionally a cache cactus or barbed wire fence might be festooned with bodies. Like a raptor, it has a strongly hooked bill for gripping flesh. And, like a falcon it has a strong notch or "tooth" near the bill tip that helps sever the spinal cord of its prey.

Although these attributes sound like a recipe for success, the outlook for the total population is not rosy. Significant declines in this once abundant species have been documented across almost the entire United States since at least the 1970s. Scientific estimates place the total population somewhere between 2.9 and 4 million birds, down from about 10 million birds 40 years ago. This represents a population decline ranging between 60-70%.

In New Mexico, Loggerhead Shrike frequents open pinyon/juniper woodland and deciduous forest. Because they require large territories to adequately support themselves and their offspring (up to 7 per clutch), densities are low, and the bird might be difficult to locate. Keep an eye out on those mockingbirds that also have large white wing patches on their gray bodies. Perhaps you will be lucky and find one with a distinctive black face mask – that would be a Loggerhead Shrike.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Tale of Two Kestrels

Female American Kestrel. Photo by Keith Bauer.

Male American Kestrel. Photo by Doug Brown.

They’ve been called ‘sparrowhawk’ for their habit of preying on songbirds, but in actuality, insects, small lizards and mice are more common fare for North America’s smallest falcon, the American Kestrel. About the size of a robin, the kestrel is four ounces of power-packed muscle, sinew, and determination, trademarks of the little guy, the one who flies harder and fights tougher.

I once watched a male kestrel take on a female Cooper’s Hawk that had intruded into his territory. The Cooper’s Hawk is a bird-eating specialist and no slouch in the flight department, regularly capturing and killing birds as large as pigeons and even pheasants. It also weighs about four times as much as a male kestrel. The little guy’s only advantage was the speed and agility common to all falcons. I heard his battle cry, “killy, killy, killy” long before I saw anything. Within a few seconds, a harried looking coop flapped furiously away from the white cliffs where the kestrel pair were nesting with the little guy in hot pursuit. He would rise above the coop, and then plummet down to attack her back, over and over. In one instance, she turned just as he reached her, rolling onto her back and presenting those dangerous feet right in his face. In that same instant, I knew that he was a goner and that his mate would not be able to rear their clutch of young alone. But, pluck and perseverance served him well, and I watched them fly off together into the distance with the smaller figure keeping up a relentless attack, dive-bombing her repeatedly as they flew out of sight. A few minutes later, he returned victorious, circled the cliff, and took up his position above the nest cavity near the top of the cliff where he could continue his daily patrol, keeping all intruders away from his family.

Kestrels build their nests in cavities, ranging from tree cavities to holes in cliff faces to cracks in the eaves of buildings. A couple of years ago, a pair successfully reared four young in the cavity of an expansion joint of interstate 40 where it crossed the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. The cavity ensures that the female and young are well protected from the elements and other predators. It also makes monitoring nest success a challenge because the young are not visible until after they emerge. Within the first few days after the young falcons leave the nest, they are flightless. There isn’t enough space in the cavity for them to stretch their wings and exercise their flight muscles. However, their lungs and voices are fully developed and it is a simple matter to spot the youngsters loudly begging, killying, and calling from their various perches. If you keep a watch on a falcon family, you’ll notice that the babes have very short tails, perhaps an adaptation for the cramped quarters of their nursery. Within a few days, however, the young falcons master flight and the entire family leaves the area.

Like all falcons, kestrels have black eyes, and are built for speed with long, pointed wings. However, the similarity with their larger cousins, the merlin, peregrine falcon, and prairie falcon, ends there. The kestrel is a predator but, as a small bird, it is also prey. They have two spots on the back of their head, called false eye spots. The purpose of these spots is to confuse a predator that might attack from the rear into thinking that it is tackling the kestrel head on, and give the falcon a better chance to escape. Kestrels also have two black vertical stripes on their heads, one directly below the eye, and the other slightly farther back. The purpose of the dark mark, called a malar stripe, is to reduce glare from the sun, much like that of football players that paint a black stripe below their eyes.

Males and females have different plumages, and can be easily identified. Females have a back and tail with horizontal brown and black bars with a vertically streaked breast. The more colorful males, have handsome bluish gray wings, a clear buffy breast, and a striking rufous tail with a single black bar at the end.

In fact, I once heard a story from one of our volunteers, a young birder named Lindsey Porter. Because Lindsey and her family are such strong supporters of Hawks Aloft, we asked her to do the honor of giving our newest educational bird, a male American Kestrel, his name. She thought about it for several days before deciding. She told me that when she was learning about raptors, a man told her that she could always tell the boy kestrels from the girl kestrels because every day when the boys got up, they put on their blue Superman cape! We call Lindsey’s kestrel, Clark Kent.

Kestrels adapt well to human activities and often live near businesses and homes in both urban and rural areas. Many people welcome the plucky little birds with the big attitude, not just because they are entertaining, but because they help to reduce rodents and insects. You, too, might be able to attract a kestrel family to your property, particularly if you live near open fields with an abundance of food. Kestrels are known to adapt well to artificial nest boxes. You can find several different nest box plans on the World Wide Web as well as pre-made boxes ready to install in your backyard.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fastest Bird in the World: Peregrine Falcon

Adult Peregrine Falcon in Flight. Photo by Doug Brown.

Fact or Fiction? Various accounts report top speeds ranging between 100 and 250 miles per hour for the Peregrine Falcon. Most, however, agree that in a stoop (when the bird is diving on prey) that it is indeed the fastest on our planet. Recent technology enabled a team of scientists, lead by falconer and researcher, Ken Franklin, to attach a speed monitor similar to those used in sky diving to his falconry bird, Frightful. National Geographic filmed her remarkable descent as Frightful adjusted her body’s position to become as streamlined as possible once the lure (a leather pouch designed to look like a bird) was released. Although some might argue that since the bird was lifted aloft via aircraft, possibly skewing the results, Frightful reached a top speed of 242 miles per hour while diving on a lure, impressive in the extreme.

Extreme might be one of the adjectives that best describes this remarkable species. Throughout history, humans have been held spellbound by the aerial acrobatics of the peregrine and other large falcons. Few other North American species have been as highly regarded and romanticized in the second half of the 20th century. The peregrine is among the most studied of all wild birds, with over 2,000 scientific publications. The falcon has been eulogized in numerous books and poems, and appears in a wide variety of art dating back several centuries. Its daredevil acrobatics undoubtedly inspired the sport of falconry, where participants may witness these remarkable flights close at hand. During the heyday of falconry in the Middle Ages, the peregrine was the most prized of hunting hawks and reserved for the pleasure of the aristocracy. Severe penalties were incurred for harming a wild falcon or robbing her eyrie (nest).

Revered to reviled: After the introduction of firearms, and conversion of land to agriculture, the sport of falconry declined, and peregrines came to be regarded as vermin, relentlessly persecuted by gamekeepers, hunters, egg-collectors, skin collectors, pigeon fanciers, and others. From the 18th century until the mid 1900s, this attitude persisted and humans destroyed many thousands of peregrines, eggs, and young worldwide. It should be noted that this attitude extended to all raptor species, not just falcons. Yet, falcon populations were remarkably resilient to hunting pressure. One estimate reported a decline of only 10-18% in occupied territories by the 1930s and it was impossible to determine the if they were permanently deserted.

By World War II, the peregrine was viewed as a menace to the all important carrier pigeons, and the British Air Ministry undertook a campaign to eradicate the falcons in the south of England. The control measures resulted in the systematic destruction of 100 or more eyries and shooting about 600 falcons each year. However, within 10 years after the persecution ended, falcon pairs were again present at 80% of those eyries. However, a far greater threat to its survival loomed on the horizon: pesticides.

Vanished: In the mid 1960s, researchers and falconers realized that Peregrine Falcon populations were in deep trouble in North America. A population crash had been occurring for the past 10-15 years, on a parallel with declines of the species in Europe. Except for one eyrie that continued to be occupied until the 1980s, peregrines had vanished east of the Mississippi River. They probably also disappeared from most eyries in the Rocky Mountains at about the same time, although it was not until the 1970s that adequate surveys took place and verified the suspicions of scientists. By 1980, no active eyries could be found in Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming. Suddenly, it seemed as if only 15-20% of the former total population in the lower 48 United States survived.
DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) was considered to be a safe and effective insecticide in the 1940s and 1950s. It was used as an agricultural insecticide, and to combat lice and mosquitos responsible for the spread of human diseases such as typhus, and malaria. There were no known significant adverse effects to either animal or human health, that is, until Peregrine Falcon populations, along with other birds such as the Bald Eagle and Osprey crashed.
When DDT use was widespread, daily doses of the chemical accumulated in the fatty tissue of the peregrine. The stored chemicals acted to "block" the movement of calcium during eggshell formation causing the shells to be "thin." Peregrine falcon eggs broke and embryos died at an alarming rate. The peregrine became the cause célèbre for the fledgling environmental movement, lead by the publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book, Silent Spring.

By 1970, the peregrine was federally protected in the United States, and the chemical culprits were banned in North America by 1972. Peregrines were have since made a strong recovery, thanks in large part to extensive captive breeding and release programs implemented by The Peregrine Fund of Boise, Idaho. They were officially de-listed on August 20, 1999, although they remain a state-listed species in New Mexico.

Lessons learned from the plight of the peregrine have worked their way into science curriculums throughout the U.S. Most third and fourth grade students understand what the words “endangered” and “extinct” mean. We are extremely fortunate that falcon watching of this charismatic bird alerted the world to a problem in time for there to be a resolution. Will we be as lucky in the future?

Anatomy of a Rescue

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). Photo by Doug Brown

The Peregrine Falcon, a highly visible and charismatic species, was proverbial “Canary in a Coal Mine” that alerted us to the dangers of pesticides. Its precipitous decline, discovered in the 1960s, lead to worldwide concern among ornithologists, researchers, and falconers, who convened conferences to assess the situation and implement plans to prevent the falcon from disappearing altogether. Efforts to breed and release falcons began in late 1960s by several different organizations, including the Peregrine Fund, which was founded at Cornell University in 1970 and lead by ornithology professor, Tom Cade.

The P Fund, as it is often referred to now, began breeding falcons in captivity for release to the wild in an attempt to prevent further declines. They successfully bred and released more than 4,000 falcons from 1974 to 1998, resulting in a minimum of 700 re-established breeding territories in North America. The non-profit organization is currently based at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.

Peregrines, like other falcons, do not build nests but use naturally occurring cavities (scrapes) on cliff edges, often near water, where the female (referred to as ‘falcon’) lays her eggs on sand or gravel. Generally, these nest sites, called eyries, have an expansive view of the surrounding habitat from which the female can watch for intruders and the male (tiercel) can scan for prey. Peregrines prey almost entirely on birds in New Mexico, including doves, swifts, flickers, jays, meadowlarks, and others. At one eyrie, the remains of 62 bird species were identified. I’ve also watched them hunt for bats emerging from a cave at dusk, and research shows that they are opportunistic, taking other animals on occasion. They can take birds up to the size of ducks and pheasants, hence the nickname, Duck Hawk.

It’s the unique hunting style of the peregrine that has earned the admiration and adoration of countless numbers of falcon fanatics worldwide for, indeed, this falcon has circumpolar distribution, except for Antarctica. The falcon climbs high into the sky, watching for aerial prey below with eyesight that is 8-10 times the distance and acuity of the human eye. Once prey is sighted, the bird tucks its body into the celebrated stoop at speeds of 200 miles per hour or more, and dives on often unsuspecting prey. At the last moment, the falcon swings her balled feet forward and strikes the victim, knocking it unconscious. The falcon then swoops to pick up the prey, and using her tomial tooth (an extra notch on the underside of the upper bill unique to falcons), breaks the prey’s neck. The falcon then descends to the ground with the prey to eat.

Because the peregrine had been extirpated (absent) east of the Mississippi River, but was still present in the West, initial reintroduction efforts focused on this region. Early release sites were located on bridges over rivers that simulated natural falcon habitat and also allowed easy human access, often near major metropolitan areas. The birds took well to these releases and a small population began to thrive. However, although humans thought that the bridges might be an ideal habitat, the peregrines had other ideas about preferred nesting sites. The falcons began to move into cities where they nested on ledges of skyscrapers, and dined on the ubiquitous urban avifauna, notably the Rock Pigeon. It seemed that, in the falcon’s eyes, the city had everything that they needed: suitable eyries and an unlimited food supply.

An additional benefit accrued to the peregrines that took up residence in urban centers, an adoring public. As people became aware of the plight of the peregrine and began to notice the rare falcons nesting outside their high rise, high rent offices, they became falcon watchers and peregrine protectors.

Today, the everyday activities of countless pairs of urban nesting peregrines are chronicled via webcams and falcon watches on the web and in local newspapers. My web search for peregrine falcon news results turned up 119 stories less than 30 days old. This includes last week’s exploits of “Early Bird” a 37-day-old peregrine falcon that leapt from his eyrie on the 12th floor of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City. Although the first flight went well, the second did not. He crashed into a flower bed and returned to his nest box by volunteers who keep an eye on the falcons. The volunteers, known as the Peregrine Falcon Watchpost Team, will be on hand from dawn to dusk for roughly the next 10 days in case "Early Bird" or his sibling decides to try again.

Closer to home, peregrines have been observed in downtown Albuquerque although no nesting has been known to occur. Certainly, the falcons are finding ideal hunting conditions in our southwestern city, complete with an abundant pigeon population. One falcon watcher called to excitedly share the intimate details of the recent kill outside her high rise office window.
Not all peregrines have migrated to urban centers, and New Mexico still has a population that eschews city life for the solitude of wilder country. However, getting to see one in the back country is uncommon, even in the appropriate habitat. They remain a state listed threatened species by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
The plight of the peregrine was the impetus for increased research, monitoring and conservation of all bird species. After their success in reintroducing peregrines, the P Fund pioneered propagation and release techniques for numerous species worldwide. Other species released to restore wild populations include the Aplomado Falcon, Bald Eagle, Bat Falcon, California Condor, Harpy Eagle, Madagascar Fish Eagle, Mauritius Kestrel, Orange-breasted Falcon, and Prairie Falcon. However, bringing a species back from the brink of extinction is the least desirable and most expensive way to save a species. The annual costs for recovery of the Peregrine Falcon were placed at more than $5.4 million in the 1990s. Thus, the shared goal of “keeping common species common” is the mantra that drives most conservation efforts today.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Babes in the Woods

Northern Mockingbird. Photo by Doug Brown

Just another day in field, this time near the end of the nesting season. My expectations were low, particularly because this area had been mechanically cleared, leaving either an open, weedy field, or a cottonwood forest mostly devoid of understory vegetation. That, combined with the weariness that results from too many very early mornings, and the impending July heat and humidity, left me dreading the next three hours it would take to complete the survey. I trudged out to the start point, dutifully arriving before sunrise and, looking to the east, visually confirmed that this would be yet another futile exercise in negative data collection.

But, as I slowly traversed the transect line, my ears thrilled to the calls of birds that make a living on the edge: forest edge, meadow edge, and the interface that connects them. The first surprise was the call of a bird I’d never before heard at this site, a Northern Mockingbird. And, it sounded none too pleased. Scanning with my binoculars, I found the bird with a large bug firmly clamped in its bill calling for its fledgling. The youngster quickly responded, getting a bit of breakfast, and then diving into the shrubs nearby. Suddenly, Mom (or Pop) took offense at the presence of another bird, shrieking a warning and taking chase. Each time the hapless intruder tried to land, the mockingbird dove on it, shrieking a warning. They moved, snag to snag, tree to shrub, as Mom harassed the other, as yet unidentifiable, bird until it moved beyond the invisible line that formed the mockingbird’s territory, the area it had claimed for its own family.

My curiosity aroused by the scuffle, I scanned for the loser of the battle. It was an American Kestrel, the smallest North American falcon and normally not a threat to a mockingbird which is almost the same size. However, this falcon also was a fledgling, one of three young that the kestrel parents had produced. Although certainly no threat to the mockingbirds, the little falcon was getting a lesson in territory boundaries, not to be crossed with impunity. Each time the little falcon landed, the mockingbird stooped and the falcon ducked, before taking off for a safer perch. Soon it was joined by its siblings and the three nosily flew from tree to tree, practicing takeoffs, turns, dives, and precarious landings. Carefree, with no worries, but with new knowledge of the invisible territory fence to the south, these kestrels were unaware of all other dangers, and secure in their assumption that food would be forthcoming via their parents indefinitely.

Before I moved beyond the kestrel family, however, Mom coyote took exception to my presence in her territory. She howled; she barked; she warned. Now, I had intruded beyond her invisible territory line, and was a potential threat to her babies, who also were out of their den and beginning to explore their new world. She stayed with me, always out of sight behind a shrub, incessantly barking. Mentally, I tried to let her know that I bore her family no ill will and that I would soon pass by. My silent message, “Please stop! I mean you no harm, and I can’t hear any bird calls with all this racket.” It did no good. She kept up her noisy vigil until I passed beyond the boundary line on the other side of the territory.

Moving into the woods, my first sight was of Dad Cooper’s Hawk carrying prey toward the nest, pursued by three noisy, begging fledglings. Although I couldn’t see the nest antics as the youngsters squabbled for food, it was easy to envision the action. One baby hawk secured the prize while the other two loudly expressed their displeasure, moving to nearby perches and resuming their endless whiny, begging calls. At this time in their lives, their food demands are so great that it takes the combined efforts of both parents to hunt for enough prey to satisfy their offspring. (Cooper’s Hawks are primarily bird-eating hawks and it takes an average of 67 robin-sized birds to successfully rear a single young). Eventually, the din subsided as the hawk babies turned their attention to exploring their new, forested world, and I resumed counting birds.

As I began to near the forest edge, however, a fierce ‘killy-killying’ broke through the otherwise peaceful reverie of compatible bird calls. Killy! Killy! KILLY! Clearly, the kestrel family was on the attack, and based on the decibel levels, it was a substantial effort to eject a perceived threat. It wasn’t until I cleared the forest edge that I was able to see the source of their distress, a fledgling Cooper’s Hawk that had dared to fly beyond its forest territory and had perched in a branch on the edge of the opening. Coops are mortal enemies of kestrels who are just about the right size for prey. However, baby Coop had no idea yet, that he/she would ever had to hunt for food. He also was unaware that .
his territory ended at the edge of the forest. There the little hawk sat, with the supreme confidence of a toddler, completely exposed in a foreign land. Clearly, he had a few lessons left to learn.

Mortality rates in the avian world run high. About 7 of every 10 youngsters do not survive to one year. Although they are biologically equipped with survival tools, hunting, flight, and a healthy fear of humans are learned skills. As I watch the young of the year bumble along, the avian equivalent of toddlers-on-the-loose, I am amazed that any of them survive. The ones that do, learn their lessons quickly for, in the wild, a single mistake might be the last one they ever make.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Gray Vireo - A better photograph

Photograph by Mike Stake

Pinyon-Juniper Woodland: Paradise or Purgatory?

Gray Vireo (Vireo vicinior)

“Chu-weet! Che-o! Teedle-e! Chu-u!” The distinct syllables rang out across the pinyon-juniper Woodland (P-J), the song of the Gray Vireo, a New Mexico state-listed as a threatened species. This small, gracefully gray bird has become the New Mexico poster child for one of the most underappreciated but abundant habitats within the state. A recent estimate is that there are 55.6 million acres of pinyon-juniper in the west. It can be rugged country, with steep canyons and hillsides dotted with shrubby trees not much taller than a human. Not much to offer in the way of shade. Often, there’s not much in the way of grasses or shrubs either. Most folks avoid hanging out here. Much of it has been given it over to cows.

More than 70 different bird species breed in the P-J woodland, although you’d be unlikely to see more than 20 to thirty at any one site. These woodlands support the highest proportions of obligate or semi-obligate birds among the forest types in the West. Species that are considered “obligate” are only found nesting in prime habitat condition, birds like the Gray Vireo, which is precisely why there is so much concern about its population trends. Additionally, a high percentage of the total world population of this species breeds in New Mexico, giving our state a high level of responsibility for its well-being.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in P-J country the last couple of years, especially during May and June, when birds are nesting, conducting early morning surveys of all the species present. I’ve grown very fond of this special suite of birds, found nowhere else. The birds of my morning surveys are the very same species that birders worldwide have on their wish list if only they knew where to find them. Actually, it’s not all that hard, once you develop a fondness for all things P-J.

My morning friends range from the spectacularly colored, yellow and black Scott’s Oriole and the laughing call of the Pinyon Jay, to the cute antics of the Juniper Titmouse, all going about their business, just getting by in life. The song of the Black-throated Sparrow greets me at nearly every stop. The Ash-throated Flycatchers are enormously entertaining as they race around chasing each other, oblivious to my presence. The raucous call of the Cassin’s Kingbirds positively make me laugh. And, of course, one could never forget the Northern Mockingbird. He sings the song of all the others, just a few repeats of each and then moves on to another call. He sings all day and all night. If you are camping in P-J country, it seems as if he is singing right into your ear, without pausing for breath, all night long. It was he, along with the pinyon gnats that taught me to sleep in the back of my car. And sometimes, if you are very lucky, you get to hear or see a rarity, like the Gray Vireo.

Mature stands of P-J, with grasses and shrubs in prime condition, and gently sloping hills host the greatest diversity and populations of birds. When there is a nearby water source, the numbers can be simply astounding. One day, I arrived at my designated point to find not one or two, but some 40-50 Pinyon Jays. This site was clearly a Garden of Eden for its residents.

At other location, birds are few and far between, as are the grasses and shrubs. My companions at this site are of the bovine variety, mostly seeking refuge beneath the sparse canopy of the shrubby trees. Water isn’t much in evidence either and the ribs of the cattle show prominently. I wonder how the females will be able to produce enough milk to feed their scrawny offspring. All the emergent edible vegetation seems to have been already eaten. This could be a poster child of another sort, one for poor range management. Most of the birds have flown the coop to better pastures. Even the eagles and hawks are few and far between, for there is little food for their prey, the jackrabbit and cottontail.

We study birds because, much like the canary in the coal mine, they are indicators of biological integrity and ecosystem health and they are quite sensitive to environmental changes. The results of studies like these help land managers, landowners, and others practice best management practices and work toward a system in which multiple uses can co-exist in a beneficial environment.

Our studies have given me the opportunity to really know and understand an unappreciated habitat, and to learn a whole new set of bird songs and habits. It’s a cool place, that P-J, definitely of a different sort! If you’re lucky you might just hear “Chu-weet! Che-o! Teedle-e! Chu-u!”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Life as a Little: Hummingbirds

Black-chinned Hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri). Photo by David Powell.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be the smallest being in a land of giants? A place where even insects prey on your kind? Welcome to the world of hummingbirds, where reports abound of hummies being snatched in mid-air by the likes of roadrunners, jays, flycatchers, and your favorite pet feline. There’s even a report of a hummingbird snatch by an alert mountain lion in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert Museum. Even the praying mantis, that slow motion insect, sometimes dines on the most diminutive of birds. Lest you wonder if I am filling your head with grisly stories worthy of Snopes, check it out yourself. Just Google “hummingbird eaten by praying mantis” and see what turns up, some 4,130 hits including a YouTube video.

One might wonder just how the little guys are faring since most everything views them as a snack. Not much to worry about here though, because the top predator on the planet has a special fondness for the tiniest of North American birds, but not as a diet supplement. Yes, it is we, the two-legged, land-locked of this planet, that are enmeshed in a love affair with hummingbirds. We watch over, photograph, feed, and protect the little fellows, sometimes to the tune of many thousands of dollars annually per household. Some individuals report usage of up to 50 pounds of sugar a week.

What this means in scientific terms is that the introduction of exotic plants and feeders has produced a widespread energy subsidy that may maintain unnaturally large populations in times of flower scarcity, or when the natural nectar supply is reduced due to drought, insects, or weather. Our stocked feeders have helped increase populations in urban and suburban settings, leading to an overall increase in the species, as evidenced by range expansion and previously unoccupied habitats that are now occupied. Some hummingbirds now overwinter far north of their former range, including a handful that survive Albuquerque winters, almost entirely due to well-maintained feeders.

The two most common nesting hummingbirds in New Mexico are the Black-chinned and Broad-tailed. Both are present in the state, although the Black-chinned is often found at lower elevations, in riparian woodlands. In high quality habitat along rivers, black-chins might be found every 100 meters (33 feet), and this birder can tell you from personal experience that it happens. In the Middle Rio Grande bosque, the Black-chinned Hummingbird is the most common nesting bird, and it’s all-out war as males battle over the rights to sire offspring. Did you know that you actually can distinguish the different hummingbirds by calls?
Surveys here produce not single entries, but 2-3 birds at a time, often locked in combat or issuing battle cries of tiny warriors as they zoom past your head at warp speed.

Hummingbirds have many unique and interesting adaptations too, all necessary for survival. A hummingbird tongue has 2 grooves. Nectar moves through these grooves via capillary actions and the bird squeezes nectar into its mouth when it retracts its tongue. It drinks by extending its the tongue through a nearly closed bill at a rate of about 13-17 licks per second and consumes an average of 1/5 fluid ounce in a single meal. In cold weather, a hummingbird might eat 3 times its weight in food a day, a whopping ½ ounce for a bird that weights 1/10 - 1/5 ounce! However, natural nectar and sugar water alone are not adequate sustenance. Insects comprise a large portion of their diet, and the young are fed insects almost exclusively. Just watch hummies hovering above a slow moving stream. They are hawking insects, the no-see-ums that are a plague on all outdoor-loving people.

Their resting heartbeat is 480 beats and their resting breathing rate is 245 breaths per minute when it is 91 degrees – makes one hyperventilate just thinking about all that hyper-speed. At 55 degrees, their breathing rate increases to 420 breaths per minute! Hummingbirds survive cold nights by going into torpor. This is a state in which the bird’s heartbeat and breathing slow to such a degree that movement is impossible. A torpid hummingbird can be picked up easily, and has no power to move. However, warm it in your hand for just a little while, and the little fellow will spring to life and zoom away.

So for now, in mid-June, we should maintain our feeders by regularly cleaning them with a bleach solution to control mold, mildew, and bacteria. They should be filled with a solution of 1 part sugar to 4 parts water that has been boiled and cooled.

But, soon, probably about July 1, another hummie will arrive, the tiny Rufous Hummingbird, the little red dude. I call him Attila the Hum, for his fearsome guarding of all the hummingbird feeders on your property. He sits in wait for any unsuspecting local species to attempt to drink and then immediately dives upon them to drive them away from ‘his’ feeder. To help reduce the aggression, provide him with one feeder that contains a stronger elixir, a mix of 1 part sugar to 3 parts water. He might just decide to keep that one and leave the other, lesser quality feeders alone.

At any rate, it is important to keep feeders clean and filled until two weeks after your last hummingbird observation of the year and to put them out again in the spring about two weeks before their normal arrival, about April 1 in central New Mexico. You just never know. Perhaps your feeder will be the one that sustains a little throughout the long New Mexico winter.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Family Affair: American Avocet

American Avocet. Photo by David Powell

The two American Avocets stood, silent but alert, in the shallows of a New Mexico wetland. Brilliant slivers of crimson in the eastern sky heralded the onset of the day. The female had been assiduous in her companionship, and eventually the male accepted her presence. Now, the two were rarely far from one another. Like a pair of ballet dancers, the birds were the epitome of elegance with their striking feathers and graceful, upturned bills, the silhouette of their image reflected in the mirror of the glassy surface of the water.

The dance began when the female slowly and deliberately leaned forward, stretching her neck as far as possible, submerging her bill into the water. This was the cue for the male to begin his solo performance. He began to preen his feathers on the side nearest his mate, dipping his bill into the water and lifting it to his breast. With the second dip, he shook his bill splashing water on the pair. He continued, moving in an ever increasing frenzy of vigorous splashing, until he joined the still motionless female, and they became one. After, in the grande finale of their ritualized dance, the pair stood side by side with necks intertwined, and ran as one through the shallows.

Avocets prefer to nest on islands within a wetland, if possible, because it provides some protection from predators. Their nest-search, which also is part of the pair formation, includes ritualized scraping displays. The final nest site often is somewhat elevated with a clear view from which the pair can scan for predators. Sometimes, females lay eggs in the nest of another female, who then incubates the eggs. Avocet eggs have been found in the nests of other species too, such as gulls. Likewise, eggs of other species sometimes are found in avocet nests. So, an avocet parent might raise a mixed species family that could include Black-necked Stilts or even terns.

Modern day parenting is the norm, where both parents take turns incubating the average size clutch of four eggs. Early on, the male performs on the bulk of incubation. In warmer areas, with relentless sun baking the sandy shores, incubation consists of cooling, rather than warming, the eggs. Parents soak their belly feathers before sitting on the nest. Evaporative cooling prevents the eggs from getting too warm.

For a vulnerable chick, life on the edge of a wetland is precarious. Young are up and out of the nest within 24 hours. Day old chicks can already walk, swim, and dive. Older, but still flightless, chicks can dive and swim up to 21 feet underwater using their wings and feet. If the nest is on an island, chicks follow their parents and swim to the shore, where they are raised in a nursery area with shallow water and dense vegetation for cover. Often, several avocet pairs will cooperatively raise their young in a communal nursery. Here, the chicks might a brooded by different parents.

Often, female parents abandon the nursery before the young a fully independent, leaving the remainder of the care with the males. Maybe, just maybe this is part of the reason why he is reluctant to initiate courtship, knowing what his parenting duties will be, and why avocets rarely have the same mate the following season.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What's in a Name: Wood Warblers

Yellow Warbler. Photo by David Powell
Yellow-rumped Warbler. Photo By David Powell.

Imagine sitting on the deck overlooking the Jemez River on the first beautfiul spring morning spring morning of the year. The streamside vegetation is bursting with new green verdance. As the caffeine from your coffee or tea begins to work its morning magic and the sleep induced blurriness clears from your eyes, you realize that today the world is a little different. Tiny little birds of brilliant yellow, black, green, and blue flit among the tree tops and bounce across the streamside vegetation oblivious to your presence. They’re in a hurry, these little birds, gobbling up bugs as if they’ve not eaten in a long time, hastily replenishing their fat reserves. Every so often, one of them appears to forget the business of survival, and bursts into song, often from the very top of a very exposed perch, as if he were warbling his presence to the world. Indeed, he is doing just that but, in truth, he cares little for planetary interest. His serenade is meant for only one, a certain special female.

Warblers, properly known as wood warblers, have long captivated bird watchers with their diversity, bright plumages and sprightly behavior. Most of them winter in Mexico, Central and South America, and return to our latitudes in late April and May. Down south, during the winter, they were busily eating as much as possible, mostly insects, so they could produce an entirely new set of iridescent feathers and attain prime breeding condition. They’re hungry when they arrive after their long journey, often feeding voraciously in the densest vegetation of the very tops of the tallest trees. Warbler watching is not for the faint of heart. There’s actually a name for this particular sports injury, “warbler neck”. It feels as if your binocular strap is literally going to sever your head from your body. It hurts

I clearly remember a trip to southern Arizona, to the upper reaches of the Chiricahua Mountains on a quest for rarities, one of which was the Olive Warbler. The habitat preference of this little fellow is the tip top of the tallest pines. We heard him sing almost as soon as we arrived and occasionally saw something flit way up there. My neck loudly proclaimed its discomfort as I searched through the tips of the pine forest without capturing one in my binoculars. Then, just when I was about to give up, I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to stand with bowed back and bent neck. My friend and I decided to lay down in the grass and watch from a more natural body postition. Voila Olive Warbler added to my checklist

Warbler watching is not for everyone, but some dedicated birders travel far afield to places like High Island, Texas each spring. This tiny island on the north shore of the Gulf of Mexico hosts the first trees and shrubs seen by trans-gulf migrants after flying nonstop across hundreds of miles of water, a nonstop trip of 36-45 hours across the hostile ocean. Exhausted, the tiny birds fall from the sky, resting and eating within easy sight of the average birder.

Our western warblers make and overland journey north along the spine of the continent and its watersheds. While many species migrate through, only a few stay to nest: Yellow-breasted Chat (our largest warbler), Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow, MacGillivray’s, Grace’s, and Virginia’s Warblers are the most common Jemez nesting warblers.

Insect larvae comprise the bulk of the diet of all warblers, although fruit and nectar are seasonally important for some species. Just as species occupy widely differing habitats, their feeding styles vary widely. Some are gleaners, patiently plucking insects from leaves and bark, moving slowly and reaching for the next morsel, like our Grace’s Warbler that probes pine needles, bark, and crevices in the ponderosa pine forest. Some skulk in dense vegetation, often along streams, picking insects from clusters of dead leaves on the ground or bark and vegetation just above, like MacGillivray’s Warbler. Others prefer to hang from or flutter beneath vegetation, gleaning prey from the underside of leaves, like the Wilson’s Warbler that migrates through New Mexico and breeds in our northernmost coniferous forests. This tiny, bright yellow fellow with the solid black cap is constantly on the move. In fact, “the bird that can’t stop moving” is one of the ways to help identify the species. Some warblers, like the Yellow-rumped Warbler, employ a sallying technique, flying quickly out from a perch to snatch an aerial insect, also called flycatching.

While warblers occupy themselves with survival, we humans wrestle with cataloguing and naming all things on our shared plant. It can be the cause of strife and dissension, with a heavy dose of ego. In the world of ornithologists, the honor of naming a bird is bestowed on the person that discovers the new species, but naming a bird after oneself is frowned upon by the scientific community. Changing a name, once bestowed, can be construed as scientific jealousy and cause for scorn.

Some species have names that reflect something about their biology, such as the Field Sparrow, often found in weedy fields, or Swamp Sparrow. Others are named after their song or call, such as the chickadee with its ‘chick-a-dee-dee-dee’ call. Some choose to name the newly discovered species after another individual, generally another revered scientist. However, controversy sometimes rears its ugly head when egos are overly invested in a name.

Such was the case with our beautiful MacGillivray’s Warbler. It was discovered by eminent ornithologist, John Kirk Townsend, who named it after his close friend, Dr. W. T. Tolmie, Esq., a surgeon, noted ornithologist, and entrepreneur with the Hudson Bay Company. The new species was called Tolmie’s Warbler. Later, however, in Birds of North America, John James Audubon renamed the species MacGillivray’s Warbler in honor of his close friendship with Dr. W. MacGillivray, a Scottish ornithologist and professor of natural history who had helped Audubon edit his book. Audubon’s disregard for Townsend’s prior name and MacGillivray’s lack of North American field experience have caused resentment among some western birders, who still prefer reinstating the original name. Fortunately, the warbler shares none of our concern about his name. He’s too busy just doing what comes naturally.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Little Robin Redbreast

American Robin family. Photo by Don Bartram.

Little Robin Redbreast sat upon a tree
Up climbed pussycat and down went he,
Down came pussycat, away Robin ran.
Says little Robin Redbreast, “Catch me if you can.”

Little Robin Redbreast flew upon a wall,
Pussycat jumped after him, and almost had a fall.
Little Robin chirped and sang and what did Pussy say?
Pussycat said, “Mew,” and Robin flew away.

– Mother Goose

The subject of myth and folklore, the robin has been popular in literature worldwide for hundreds of years. The robin is often viewed as a symbol of peace, charity and compassion and the origin of its red breast has inspired countless tales. There is one story of how the robin plucked a thorn from the crown that pierced Jesus’ forehead as he was on his way to be crucified, accidentally piercing his own breast, and staining his feathers red. Another tale tells that the robin’s breast was singed while the bird was fanning the fire to warm baby Jesus.

Robins are often viewed as indicators of spring. Their presence is a sure sign that soon birdsong will fill the air, trees and shrubs will burst forth with verdant vegetation, and all life will be renewed. They are viewed as a peaceful bird, minding their own business, pulling up worms, and caring for their families. Their image graces countless note cards, Christmas cards, and advertisements, a symbol that all is well. But, are fact and fiction one in the same with regard to the robin?

Our American Robin (Turdus migratorius), the bird that we see gracing cards, is actually a member of the thrush family (Turdidae), and closely related to bluebirds, mockingbirds, and Townsend’s Solitaire. It is found throughout North America, although the northernmost populations migrate south for the winter. It is not the bird of European literature. To the rest of the world, robins are small members of the flycatcher family. The European Robin (Erithacus rubecula), subject of much literature, is a small insect-eating songbird now considered to be an Old World flycatcher (Muscicapidae). That robin has a bright orange breast instead of red, and is found across Europe, east to Western Siberia and south to North Africa. The term Robin also is given to other species of birds with red breasts, including the Australian red robins of the genus Petroica, which are more closely related to crows.

Now that you are thoroughly numbed by the above paragraph and nodding off toward an extended nap, let’s think about the peaceful part. In general, we rarely see more than one or two robins and their families hopping about in our yards during the spring and summer. That’s because the male of the pair has ferociously defended your yard from all challengers. Only he and his mate can peacefully occupy that territory. This is not to say that there will be no challenges from others, for each robin must maintain enough precious habitat with an adequate food supply and interlopers lurk, waiting for their chance, that moment of inattention when Daddy Robin is looking the other way and the mealworm pan is left unattended.

Earlier this month, I watched a fierce battle over the less than desirable territory of my back yard (at least in my opinion). The two males stabbed with their beaks and grabbed with their feet until one fell from high in the elm tree to land on the ground on his back. That must have hurt! A few days later, I found a dead male in the front yard. Could they have battled to the death? It is a simple matter of survival for the male, his mate, and their offspring. And raise families, they do. A pair of robins can produce up to three clutches of young a year.

Then, there is the myth that robins are harbingers of spring. While this is true for those who live in northern states and Canada, New Mexico actually has far more robins during the winter than the breeding season. Those northern robins head south in search of food. It seems logical that xeric New Mexico cannot hold enough worms and other insects to feed all those wintering robins. So, some other food source must be the attractant. Those of you who have towering Russian olives in your yard, or a tangle of pyracantha with 6" thorns just waiting to shred your skin are the reason the robins thrive in our arid landscape. Berries are a vital part of their diet and both pyracantha and Russian olive hold their berries until they are eaten.

Robins thrive in an urban environment like your back yard. Populations appear stable or are increasing throughout their range. But, because the robin often feeds on insects in lawns, it is vulnerable to pesticide poisoning and can be an important indicator of chemical pollution. So, next time you are worried about that perfect lawn, do your wallet and a bird a favor and skip the pesticide company.

I was once lucky enough to have pair of robins build their nest on my front porch and I was able to spy on them from the safety of the bedroom window, in essence having a front row seat to watch the antics, fun for me but deadly serious to them. Even though they are a common bird, they can be uncommonly entertaining. I found a 10 minute film clip that shows robin family rasing a family from start to finish. Check it out.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

There's No Place Like Home!

Juvenile Harpy Eagle. Photo by Mark Watson
Scarlet-horned Manakin. Photo by Mark Watson

There’s nothing quite like a visit to a third world country to make one appreciate the lifestyle Americans take for granted. I currently have a special fondness for certain luxuries: hot water; potable water; meat that is recognizable; well-maintained roads, vehicles with adequate exhaust systems, and uninterrupted sleep. There are positives from the trip that I always will cherish: new and improved friendships, awe for the amazing diversity of flora and fauna of Venezuela; and an greater appreciation for a different culture.

We saw birds too! Many of them! While I didn’t see anything approaching the record 380+ species recorded by the top birder in the group, I tallied a remarkable 328 species, of which 281 were life birds for me. Yes, we did see the magnificent Harpy Eagle, one flighted youngster of 18 months, and both parents. Our Venezuelan guides led us right up to a viewing spot and there was the immature eagle, perched right in plain view. As we watched, the adult male flew over, likely checking to see if all was well with Junior. We later viewed the adult female who perched nicely for viewing through the scope as we were leaving the area.

We were asked to list our “top three” birds by our trip leader, Jim Black of Chupaflor Tours, so the group could determine the “top” bird of the trip. Indeed, the Harpy Eagles were a big score, but it seemed just a little too easy to find them, almost as if we didn’t earn the experience. We also saw rarities, birds that skulked in the dense undergrowth, and a wide variety of brilliantly colored species like the Paradise Tanager that looks as if it were colored by a child with a new box of crayons. We saw amazing hummingbirds, like the Crimson Topaz with its incredibly long tail, and a Sooty-capped Hermit on her nest. At a wetland, we found two Pinnated Bitterns in flight and a bird that is called, a Double-striped Thick-knee. Now, who would think up a name like that for a bird!? Fortunately, birds don’t care what we humans call them.

We found a Rufous Crab-Hawk in the mangrove swamp. To me, it seemed logical that the primary food of a bird called a Crab-Hawk would be crabs. As we motored through the mangroves on increasingly larger waterways, I kept expecting to arrive at the ocean, where there would be a beach with a flourishing crab colony. However, after at least two hours of boating, we didn’t appear to be anywhere near the beach. Eventually, our Venezuelan guide pointed to two large hawks perched high above the mangroves with no beach in sight. I wondered just where it was that these hawks could find enough crabs to sustain themselves in the unlikely crab habitat. That is, until we pulled over close to the mangroves to look at a flycatcher, only to discover the trees were literally crawling with crabs, big and small. They skuttled up and over the roots and raced up the tree trunks. They are a species of tree crab, at home in this aquatic environment, and so numerous they plunked into our boats with regularity.

As I think about all the marvelous birds of Venezuela, and choosing only three of them, there is one that brings a smile to my face each time, the Scarlet-horned Manakin. We came upon a male deep in the rainforest, a little fellow with a crimson head and a jet black body. We watched as he performed his unique courtship moonwalk dance in the style of Michael Jackson. I’ll never forget the abandon with which he danced – as if no one were watching. Check out another manakin species dancing.
If you are interested in more trip details, I’ve posted photos and stories about the trip on my other blog.

But, as exciting as my South American adventure was, there was immense comfort as I turned my car onto NM 4 and drove into the Jemez Valley. I stopped at the Highway 4 coffee shop for my favorite latte, and chatted with some of the folks there. Ponderosa Drive had just been bladed, for better or worse, and the birds at my place were hungry. My neighbors down the hill invited me over for dinner later this week, and I am thrilled to be back. There’s no place like home.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

All About Eagles

Bald Eagle photograph by Doug Brown

A dedicated raptorphile, I once said that if I could see a wild Harpy Eagle in the South American jungle, I would die a happy woman. Harpia harpyja is the only member of the genus Harpia. It is the largest and most powerful raptor found in the Americas, inhabiting tropical lowland rainforest in the upper canopy layer, where it preys on sloths, monkeys, and other tree-top dwelling animals.

Throughout the world, there are 46 species of eagles, including fish eagles, to which our national bird, the Bald Eagle, belongs, and booted eagles of the family Aquila which includes the other well-known North American eagle, the Golden Eagle. There also is a large group of hawk eagles, none of which might be found in the United States. While many birding afficionados consider only the bald and golden native to our land, another eagle, even larger than the bald occasionally graces Alaska and the northern seacoast with its presence, the Stellar’s Sea-eagle. This species which can weigh up to 20 pounds dwarfs our eagles which rarely weigh more than 10 pounds. It normally nests on the east coast of Russia, but often takes to open water during the non-nesting season, sometimes straying as far as North America.

Our beloved national symbol, the Bald Eagle is probably the most instantly recognizable raptor in the world. However, despite its symbolism, the species has suffered from persecution, and until recently was a federally listed species. At one time Bald Eagles occupied almost all of North America and estimates placed the population prior to 1800 at more than 250,000 individuals. However, as humans began to expand our range on this continent, eagle populations began to decline. In the American West, Bald and Golden Eagles were considered vermin and were shot in the mistaken belief that they were a threat to livestock.

In 1940, the Bald Eagle Protection Act made it a federal offense to kill Bald Eagles everywhere except Alaska. In America’s frontier state, however, they still offered a bounty for eagle carcasses as late at 1953. Then, in 1967, they were listed as endangered under the original version of the Endangered Species Act.

Although direct persecution diminished, the species still suffered from low reproductive success. As a top predator, they were a victim of bioaccumulation. Because most of the bald’s prey is aquatic, either fish or waterfowl, toxins from pesticide residues built up in their systems, causing thinning eggshells and reproductive failure. Populations of Bald Eagle, along with Osprey and Peregrine Falcon crashed as a result of DDT and related toxins. Essentially, these large predators were the ‘canary in the coal mine’ that warned us of these pesticide hazards.

Bald Eagle numbers have rebounded thanks to a more enlightened citizenry, the banning of DDT, and laws that protect not only the birds, but also their nests. Now, in many areas, an active Bald Eagle nest is cause for celebration, and eagle watches and eagle cams are the rage. When it comes to nesting, Bald Eagles may just be downright hospitable. Other smaller species sometimes build their nests in the massive structure that the eagles improve upon each year. These smaller birds receive protection from the presence of the larger predator, and the eagle doesn’t necessarily view a small-medium sized songbird as a food item. At one eagle’s nest along Puget Sound, three live nestling red-tails were found. Because the hawks were younger than the eaglets they could not have hatched from eggs laid before the adult eagles arrived. It is likely that the adults brought the chicks to nest to feed their young. But, they were not killed. Under the right conditions, if a nestling makes a food begging call, the parents treat it as just another mouth to feed. Two of the three red-tail chicks fledged from their surrogate eagle’s nest.

Although Bald Eagles have rebounded, much concern remains about the Golden Eagle population in North America. Some biologists believe that golden numbers are as low or lower now than the Bald Eagle was when it was listed. Goldens face some of the same threats to survival, persecution from shooting and also electrocution on power lines. With their large wingspan of 6-1/2 feet, they can easily span the distance between energized components on utility structures.

There is a thriving black market for raptor feathers in North America, especially eagle feathers. While Native Americans can legally possess feathers under permits issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for use in religious ceremonies, collectors often pay exorbitant prices for feathers, feet, and skulls. Ironically, some of the largest documented eagle-poaching rings have involved Native Americans.

International trade in raptors is a continuing threat worldwide, and more than 120 countries have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the most comprehensive wildlife conservation agreement ever created. Appendix I includes some 700 species of plants and animals that are critically endangered, including the Bald Eagle, and no legal trade is permitted in these species. Appendix II includes 3,000 animals, including the Golden Eagle, and 21,000 plants that would be threatened by uncontrolled trade, and only limited trade is allowed under certain circumstances. Appendix III includes species already protected by existing laws of signatory countries, but not included in the other two appendices. I

Which brings us back to the Harpy Eagle which was listed on Appendix I in 1975. For me, this species epitomizes the ultimate birding challenge: rugged conditions, bugs and snakes, potentially unstable politics, and the other hazards of travel in a country with only my marginal grasp of the language. I never for a moment thought that one day I might actually have an opportunity to see one of these magnificent creatures. That is, until the day my friend, Sam, called and said, “Jim Black is leading a tour to Venezuela to look for Harpy Eagles! Wanna go?” So, what could I say, except, “You betcha!” Sam and I are off later this week, along with 6 other birders, on a special quest to see our dream bird. Oh, and the several hundred other species that reside there! So, there won’t be a bird article in the March 1 issue of the Thunder. Hopefully, I’ll have the rest of the story for you in mid-March! Bien Venidos.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Gallant in Gray: Townsend's Solitaire

Townsend's Solitaire photograph by Jerry Oldenettel

Stoically perched atop the tallest snag near the top of the canyon, he surveyed the valley below. Camouflaged by dusky gray plumage, he was nearly indistinguishable from the lighter gray skeleton that had once been a one-seed juniper. From this lofty vantage point, rivals could be as easily detected as winged predators that might threaten his very existence. Outwardly calm to the casual observer, he issued a single note call, “Tew,” sometimes repeated in a series, announcing his territory and warning others to stay away.

Although it was winter, he jealously guarded his turf and its bounteous crop of juniper berries. In fact, his very life depended on the berries so ferociously guarded, for they made up about 95% of his winter diet. It would take between 42,000 and 84,000 juniper berries, depending on berry size, to survive the winter season. He had won the right to this particular berry patch in the fall with up to six fights per hour with others of his kind who would usurp the territory. Now, with winter territories firmly established, he could relax his guard, albeit slightly.

Both sexes of Townsend’s Solitaires establish individual territories around patches of junipers in the autumn, and fiercely defend them until late winter. Territories range from very small, containing as few as two junipers, to quite large, up to 12 acres, containing several hundred junipers. Almost all territories hold more berries than necessary to sustain their owner throughout the long winter. Boundaries are sharply defined, and protected even from members of the opposite sex. Individuals are strongly site faithful to their winter territories, returning to defend the same set of trees each year.

By March, as daylight hours increase, this slender gray thrush experiences the hormonal surges that drive males and females to pair up and establish nesting territories. Like other thrushes, the male sings a complex, hauntingly beautiful song during a display flight, similar in some ways to other members of this family, which includes American Robin, Hermit Thrush, and Mountain and Western Bluebirds. After attracting a female to the territory, he cements that season’s relationship by either regurgitating food to the female, or offering berries. During the spring and summer, spiders and insects, particularly moths and butterflies make up a large portion of their diet.

However, domestic bliss may not reign supreme in solitaire land, as both males and females have been known to indulge in extra pair copulations. By mating with more than one individual, each clutch has a higher degree of genetic variability, essentially a safety net to produce the most fit offspring. Females also have been documented laying eggs in the nests of other solitaires, thus increasing their chances of producing successful offspring with little extra energy demands.

Like other members of thrush family, immature solitaires are heavily spotted. Each feather is edged in black giving the young bird the appearance of a heavily ornamented scallop design on its body. The first time that I saw a juvenile solitaire, many years ago in Bandelier National Monument, I was at a complete loss as to how to identify it. On closer inspection though, the bold white eye ring that both youngsters and adults show, helped me to figure out the identity of the bird.

Because of its specialized winter diet, Townsend’s Solitaire is heavily dependent on juniper woodlands, a particularly under-appreciated habitat type. Throughout the West, many grassland restoration projects focus on large-scale removal of juniper in an attempt to create more forage for cattle and other browsing animals. Loss of mature trees and their berry crops affect not only the solitaire, but also other pinyon/juniper dependent birds such as Gray Vireo, Juniper Titmouse, Pinyon Jay, and both species of bluebirds. Although populations of solitaire appear to be stable currently, there is growing concern about the entire suite of birds dependent on pinyon/juniper woodland.

To learn more about Townsend’s Solitaire, including the song and “Tew” call, visit Look at the menu bar across the top of the page, and click on Bird Guide. This will bring up a search page where you can enter any North American species. Generally, for each species account, there is an audio clip.

I would like to thank Jerry Oldenettel for providing the photograph for this article, and I look forward to sharing more of his wonderful photographs in the future. You can view more of his nature photos on his website.

Birds of Winter - Rosy Finch

Black Rosy-finch photograph by Doug Brown
One wouldn’t ordinarily think that birding the high mountains in the dead of winter would be a good idea. First of all there is all that snow: it makes the basics of getting around challenging as well as noisy, and stealth downright impossible. It would seem that all birds might flee with the advance of a large two-legged mammal crunching along through the snow. Such is not the case however, at least in certain parts of New Mexico.

Several years ago, a friend and I stumbled upon three new life birds while cross-country skiing along the open waters of East Fork of the Jemez River. Being neither quiet nor stealthy, we encountered a smallish flock of rosy-finches was feeding on the rock walls that line the canyon. They seemed oblivious to our presence as they flitted over the rock face searching for food. Among the flock were individuals that appeared to be markedly different. Indeed, in recent years, they have been classified as three separate species: Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Black Rosy-Finch, and Brown-capped Rosy Finch.

In summer, the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch is distributed from coastal and western Alaska and British Columbia to the mountains of Idaho, western Montana, and northern California. The Black Rosy-Finch breeds high on scattered mountaintops in the Great Basin, and the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch is limited to the southern Rockies. In winter, the three species may be found together at high elevations in Colorado and New Mexico, most reliably at ski resorts such as Loveland, Colorado, and Taos, New Mexico.

Of the three species, the Black Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte atrata) is the least studied of all birds found on our continent, due to its choice of nesting locations. Only three people known to recorded scientific literature had ever found a nest of the Black Rosy-Finch before 2002. With Global Information Systems (GIS) technology and strong mountaineering skills, a University of Wyoming student became the fourth – when she discovered a nest at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet in Utah's Uinta Mountains. The difficulty of exploring the Black Rosy-Finch breeding habitat has severely limited scientific study of the birds and made finding one of the nests a rare event.

In late spring, the alpine birds migrate to their nesting grounds above the timberline. There, among the tundra tussocks amid craggy cliffs, the rosy-finches build their nests inside cliff crevices and among the large boulders found on talus slopes. At an elevation of 10,000-13,000 feet, generally in the most remote regions of the Rocky Mountains and on the edges of the Great Basin, these hardy finches set up housekeeping and rear their young in nature’s most challenging environment.

On the nesting grounds, males defend a floating territory around their mates, rather than an area with a defined boundary. As a result, males constantly chase other males that approach their mates too closely. The best way to locate females is simply by watching the center of all the fighting.

In winter, the feisty, territorial birds assume a more gregarious lifestyle, and can be found in large mixed flocks of all three species of rosy-finches. The birds roost in large communal sites in caves, mine shafts, on rafters of barns, and in clusters of old Cliff Swallow nests.

It had long been known that one might find rosy-finches at the well-stocked feeders of the condos near the Taos Ski Area, but elsewhere they were considered to be rare, appearing only sporadically in the dead of winter. There was no reliable site where the birds might be found. This changed when birders Ken and Mary Lou Schneider responded to a Rare Bird Alert in the dead of winter and drove to the top of Sandia Peak (10,678 feet). The skies were clear and the winds calm on that day, and 40-50 rosy-finches of all three species were present foraging along the edges of the parking lot.

Thus began a fledgling plan that has, today, grown into one of the premier winter birding locations in North America. With the blessing of the US Forest Service and the staff of the Crest House, the feeders are always stocked much to the delight of birders that travel here from throughout the world to bag three different lifers in a single day. What is even more remarkable is that many of the feeders are within easy viewing of the tables in the coffee shop, eliminating the need to brave the elements. The dedicated folks that manage this site also run a banding station to track the birds’ movements, and they also maintain an extensive website The rosy-finches arrive in November and can stay as late as March, although the latest sighting occurred in April.

While I would love to direct you to a more local site in the Jemez Mountains to view these remarkable birds, your best bet to check off all three rosy-finches would be to drive up to the top of Sandia Peak on the next sunny, calm day, buy a cup of hot chocolate or two, park yourself next to the window near one of the feeders and wait. I might just see you there!