Raptors Migrate Over the Sandias

According to the field trip information, “The trail is steep and climbs 2,000 feet in the two-mile walk. Small pebbles on the trail make the descent slippery.” The Thursday Birders would be hiking up to the spring Hawkwatch International lookout at the south end of the Sandia Mountains.

With that warning, only four hardy souls met at the Four Hills Shopping Center. (The leader reported three additional members who reached the lookout later.) Actually, I can’t call myself a ‘hardy soul,’ since I knew that the limitations of my knees would prevent my being able to hike to the top. However, the day was so beautiful, I couldn’t stay at home. I would hike as far as I could. I might not see any raptors, but I expected to be able to see birds in the canyon.
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While the morning was not as chilly as on previous foothills walks, there was very little bird activity when we set off from the Tres Pistoles trailhead. Many pairs of Scrub Jays were sailing and diving between the Pinon Pines and junipers. Every once in a while a Northern Flicker flew by, flashing the red feathers under its wings. We watched a pair of Spotted Towhees engaging in nest building activities.

At various spots, laminated cards hung from fishing line on plants along the trail. On one side of the card was a photograph of a native plant and the other side contained an educational description.

After a mile the trail became too steep for me to continue and I sat on a boulder beside the trail to wait for another member of the group who was returning early.

I could hear voices approaching and shortly a group of students, their teacher and parent chaperones gathered on the trail next to where I was sitting.

“Who has lichen?” the Hawkwatch Field Educator asked the group of students from the Bosque School. A girl stepped forward and read the explanation on the card to the rest of her classmates. The Field Educator expanded on the information as she pointed to the lichen-covered rock.

On the way down Jan and I saw a group of Juniper Titmice having territorial issues with a pair of Western Scrub Jays, both evidently interested in nesting in that particular conifer. A
Bewick’s Wren delighted us with its melodic trill and we could hear a Northern Mockingbird imitating a variety of bird calls. We kept scanning the mountains hoping to see a raptor, but only saw four corvids.

Pat Franklin-Henden, field trip leader, reported later that when they reached the Hawkwatch lookout, a Red-tailed Hawk soared past and a Golden Eagle was circling. The only other raptors that flew by were Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. The banding team had caught two Cooper’s Hawks and kept them caged until the student group arrived. They are weighed, measured and their general health checked. If not already banded, they will receive a band and certain species receive a tracking device to provide information about breeding and wintering distributions.

Raptors fly over the Manzano Mountains as they head south in the fall and over the Sandia Mountains during their spring migration. Hawkwatch International began standardized, annual migration counts in the Sandia Mountains in 1985 and started banding the raptors in 1990. The count and banding site is staffed between February 24 and May 5 each year. During this period of time between 4,000 – 6,000 raptors, representing up to 18 species, pass over the site.

As we headed down the road through the Monticello housing development, A Curve-billed Thrasher sat serenely on a utility wire.

It was a fine day to be in the foothills!

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