On a windy western mountaintop, a novice birdwatcher looks into the eyes of hawks normally seen migrating high overhead
By Meg Scherch Peterson | Published: 7/1/2013
Eye to eye with a hawk is a singular moment.
Under the careful guidance of Teresa Ely, a principal bander for Hawk Watch International (HWI), I’m holding a beautiful female juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, and I’m feeling both exhilarated and fearful. What if I damage a wing feather? What if the young Coop sinks a talon into my arm?
I settle into a gentle, firm hold. The feathers are surprisingly soft, the weight slight, the heartbeat a tender, rapid pulse against my thumb. An unblinking yellow-orange iris lasers me with a wild stare.
I step closer to the canyon’s edge, lift my arms, and unclasp my grip, and the young hawk is aloft, angling southwest around a limestone ledge.
“Safe journey!” I whisper.
It’s September 2012, and I’m a weekend guest at a HWI-sponsored hawk watch in the Manzano Mountains of central New Mexico. Along with 10 other birdwatchers, I signed on to participate in HWI’s pilot Frontline Science program, and now I’m standing side by side with field scientists as they monitor the long-term population trends of raptors that use the southern portion of the Rocky Mountain migratory flyway. (Seventeen birders turned out over a six-week period for a similar program in the Goshute Mountains of Nevada.)
We met our volunteer guide, counter and bander Dan Tempest, on a late Friday afternoon in the small town of Manzano, an hour’s drive southeast of Albuquerque. Then we caravanned about nine miles up and along ridgetops past bunches of tawny gold Gambel oak and the towering remains of Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine charred in a forest fire several years ago.
As we motored up the narrow dirt road, I thought: I’m a 58-year-old grandmother, a lone and not very intrepid traveler, and a novice birder. What do I know about identifying raptors? My only armor: a good pair of binocs, a willingness to learn, and hawk-identification books by Pete Dunne and Jerry Liguori.
The observation post sits at an elevation of 9,195 feet on a northeast-facing limestone outcrop not far from Capilla Peak. At the campground, I picked the flattest area I could find and pitched my tent, avoiding by several hundred feet a fresh pile of bear scat. I soon discovered I’d forgotten my bear spray and packed a 30-year-old sleeping bag instead of my new down bag. Luckily, I found another blanket in the car, silk longjohns, and a down jacket. When you’re almost two miles above sea level, temperatures can reach freezing even in September.
After settling in, I wander down to the field camp in the communal shelter, where the conversation between lead observer Bob Baez, Teresa, and other team members quickly turns to the task at hand: counting and banding migrating raptors. The work involves a grueling eight- to nine-hour shift, every day, in all kinds of weather, between August 27 and November 5, with only one day off a week for a little R&R and laundry. But these twenty-somethings — younger than my own kids — look hardy to my eye, and I decide early on they know what they’re doing.
I can’t wait to get started.
The next morning, after a brawny meal of breakfast burritos and brewed coffee, bander Ben Dudek, Teresa, and I set out on the mile-long Gavilan Trail, marked with signs bearing a hawk silhouette, which brings us to one of the project’s two banding stations. There I confront an organized tangle of stationary mist nets, dho-gaza nets, which drop when triggered, spring-loaded, remotely triggered bow nets, and a camouflaged observation hut. When we step inside, the dirt floor sends up a poof of dust.
We settle onto old swivel office chairs patched with duct tape, and Teresa explains that birds are banded as well as counted so researchers can separate age, gender, and other physical characteristics that can’t always be made out from a distance. Especially among falcons and accipiters — that is, Sharpies, Cooper’s Hawks, and Northern Goshawks — deviations in annual sex and age ratios, from year to year and over time, may signal telling changes in reproductive effort or migratory behavior.
Through a three-by-eight-foot slit in the wall, I gaze upon a band of pure blue New Mexico sky above the spires of fir trees. Ben and Teresa begin working what I called the dashboard, but instead of blinking lights and dials, eight loops of line dangle at about knee level. Teresa pulls one, prodding a captive pigeon outside the blind to jump up, mimicking the action of an injured bird.
She explains that only non-native pigeons, doves, sparrows, and starlings are used to lure migrating raptors into the capture stations. She and Ben had been up before 7 a.m. tending to the well-being of their lures. “We take good care of these birds,” she says.
She does three “pops” a minute. “Sometimes I have to switch out quickly,” she says. “If I see that a kestrel is coming in, I drop the pigeon and pick up the line to pop the starling.”
Suddenly, I notice a dark streak against the blue, an accipiter headed for the pigeon. Making split-second decisions, Teresa jerks one line, Ben another, in rapid-fire succession, like skilled marionettes. Then Teresa snaps one of the bow nets. Bam! In an instant, she’s out the door, calling back to me, “Come on if you want to!”
I do, nearly tripping another bow net. By the time I reach her side, she’s already extricating a Sharp-shinned Hawk, the most abundant species at the Manzanos site. The year before, 2011, team members captured 171 Sharpies, 53 percent of the 320 birds banded.
Over the course of the morning, we trap 11 more birds, including Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinneds, and Red-tails.
After carefully removing each bird, Ben and Teresa bring it into the blind, note its age, sex, and estimated fat, record its weight, and measure both the length of its bill and the distance from its wrist to the end of the longest primary feather. Then they fit the bird with a uniquely numbered aluminum leg band and set it free.
The work proceeds according to established procedure, but sometimes Teresa has to interrupt her processing to help pop a lure or to dash outside to retrieve another captured raptor. When this happens, she gingerly slides the bird she’s handling head-first into a holding canister for temporary safekeeping. The canisters are low-tech — the smallest consist of old bean or corn tins duct-taped together, while two- and five-pound coffee cans stand ready to accommodate larger birds. At any moment, several birds can be in canisters lining the shelves, although protocol demands that each bird be released within 30 minutes of capture.
Along the back wall of the blind hang strings of metal bands in various sizes: Size 2 fits a male Sharpie, Size 9 a Golden Eagle. Team members banded one Golden in 2011, and they would capture four in 2012, the most since 2008, when they captured eight. Teresa points to the larger, lock-on bands and laughs: “When you’ve got a Red-tail, you’ve got a lot more bird to work with — they turn into a big feather pillow!”
Incredibly, later that morning, I get to hold and release several birds — an experience of a lifetime — and Teresa even lets me run my index finger along the sharp edge of a Sharpie’s foreleg. Handling birds up close brings their details into focus. One of my goals is to become better at identifying raptors overhead — which is how you usually see them, up high and in the distance — and I’m hoping this detail work will hone my skills.
Teresa suggests that the two types of observation — distant and up-close — actually reinforce each other. “Banding birds allows you to look closely at them, and this helps improve observation skills; and observing them overhead helps improve up-close identification,” she says, spreading the tail of a Sharpie into a fan shape and counting and examining the feathers. She describes molt to me in a way I can finally understand — after reading explanations in bird books for years. Later, I lightly press my forefinger and thumb against the bird’s throat; I’m stunned when I feel a slight bulge in its crop. “It’s had a good meal,” I say.
In the afternoon, after a good mid-day meal of my own, I start the climb to the observation point, a couple hundred feet up the ledge. As I near the ridge, I begin to feel an intense updraft at my back. Once on top, I turn full into it, and the wind and the expansiveness of the view take my breath away. I can see a hundred miles in every direction: toward the Great Plains on my right, the Basin and Range on my left, and peaks and mountain ranges in between. I’ve got the whole world in my hand, as the song goes. Wow.
4,248 raptors overhead, 602 in the hand
Observers in the Manzano Mountains of New Mexico counted 4,248 migrant raptors of 17 species in the fall of 2012.
Sharp-shinned Hawk, the most abundant species, made up 39 percent of the total. Cooper’s Hawk made up 14 percent of birds counted, Turkey Vulture 11 percent, Red-tailed Hawk 10 percent, Swainson’s Hawk 9 percent, American Kestrel 5 percent, and Merlin 2 percent.
Count totals for Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks and Merlin revealed significant increases between 1985 and 2012, but two other species — Ferruginous Hawk and American Kestrel — showed significant declines. The results for the falcon were especially worrisome, as evidence of recent declines has been widespread throughout North America.
Trapping and banding
A total of 602 raptors representing 10 species were captured and newly banded in 2012. Sharp-shinned Hawks accounted for 60 percent of the total captured.
Typically, among Sharp-shinned Hawks and American Kestrels, more young are captured than adults, while among Cooper’s
Hawks, immatures and adults are captured in about equal proportions. In 2012, the immature-to-adult ratio stayed consistent to the norm among Sharp-shinned Hawks, but more young Cooper’s Hawks were captured than adults. Just as surprising, adult American Kestrels were captured more frequently than young.
Counter and bander Ian Dolly, scanning that world, explains that raptors in the West tend to travel in a southeasterly direction during fall migration. The Manzano site is perfectly situated south of the northern mountain ranges of the Jemez and the Sangre de Cristos, which funnel raptors right to the observation post.
“Updrafts and thermals along the Manzanos give the raptors a veritable free lift on their long trip south to Mexico and Central America,” he says. “Not much is happening right now, though we might get a flurry if the clouds part and the sun warms up the air.”
I’m thinking he means a flurry of snow, but then it occurs to me, no, he means a flurry of birds.
Facing north toward the distant Sandia Mountains and the nearer twin pyramids of Mosca Peak (9,509 feet) and Guadalupe Peak (9,450 feet), the most easily recognized landmarks in the Manzanos, Ian scans east to west, then west to east. “We do about 50 to 60 percent scanning and 40 percent naked eye.”
A gust of wind suddenly balloons his parka, but his binoculars remain steady. He points out the quirky names for the distant landmarks the observers use to indicate to each other where in the vast domed sky a single raptor might be flying. “That patch of civilization just in front of the Ortiz Mountains, we call Who-ville.”
“Who-ville?” I ask. This lingo is fun!
“And over west, see those grid-lines? That’s the Grid. And over east, see that burn area? That’s the Burn. And just beyond is another, older burn area. We call that Alaska because it’s shaped like the state.”
In addition to identifying and counting passage raptors, observers will also record, every hour, air temperature, percentage of cloud cover, precipitation, visibility, wind speed and direction, and other measures, including a subjective rating of the disturbance caused by visitors such as me.
Seated in a folded camp chair perched precariously atop a jumble of rocks, Dan Tempest, our volunteer guide, suddenly announces, “I got a Red-tail, up in the Milk, just right of the left twin peak.”
It takes me a minute to register that “the Milk” refers to the hazy sky along the horizon, as opposed to “the Blue” above it.
“You don’t want to double-count,” Ian continues. “We count north-to-south-moving birds only. No north-bound birds. And no locals.”
“Locals?” I ask, momentarily dumbfounded, imagining vagrants walking village streets.
“Yeah, we’ve got some local Red-tails and Peregrine Falcons. You can tell from their behaviors: they’re hunting, kiting, engaging in territorial displays. All this tells us they’re not migrating.”
Dan spots another: “Incoming. One glass above horizon.”
“Raven’s up,” Ian interjects. “On the north flank, seein’ what’s goin’ on.”
We spot Peregrines, Red-tails, Coops, Sharpies, even two Broad-winged Hawks. The Broad-wings are a special treat, since all last season only five were spotted. (The hawk inhabits the eastern half of North America, but its range extends well west, into Alberta and British Columbia.) But I’m frustrated because I’m unable to distinguish the accipiters. After spending hours looking up close at Sharpies and Coops, I thought I was ready to tackle the task of in-flight identification. Wrong.
“Incoming,” says Dan. “Accip.” I try again, taking heart from Pete Dunne’s observation in the classic book Hawks in Flight: “If magic is defined as the art of illusion, then the magic inherent in the wind, in the angle of the sun, and in the contours of the earth below can change the shape of birds, so that they look very different from the way they appear in the hand — so that they even look, at times, like entirely different species.”
I try to shake my warbler mentality, to shift my habit of discerning eye-rings and wing-bars and note instead overall shape and size and how the wings are flapping. “A Coop,” I whisper to myself.
Wrong again. Turns out it’s a Sharpie. I don’t give up, though. I’ve got another four hours to practice and all day tomorrow.
The wind blows my cap off. With determination, I press it back on my head. I steady my binocs.
“Incoming!” says Dan.
Meg Scherch Peterson is a retired educator, birder, and nature writer. This article appeared in the August 2013 issue of BirdWatching.
HawkWatch International welcomes birdwatchers at its migration-research site in the Goshute Mountains of northeastern Nevada as well as the Manzano Mountains of New Mexico. In 2013, sessions will be held September 6-8, 13-15, 20-22, and 27-29, and October 4-6, and 11-13.
Each weekend-long Frontline Science session kicks off on a Friday and ends the following Sunday, but participants are welcome to stay overnight and hike down Monday morning. A tax-deductible donation of $425 per person is requested. Food, water, and materials are provided.
Space is limited. Contact HWI Education and Outreach Director Nikki Wayment at email@example.com or (801) 484-6808 ext. 107.