Carried by the wind, raptors periodically whizzed by the rocky cliff where we were sitting and standing – mostly accipiters – Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Each time one went past, I was caught in wonderment at being able to visit the count site.
The HawkWatch site in the Manzano Mountains had been closed to the public since the Trigo fire over two years ago. They invited members and friends to join them at the banding site this past weekend in celebration of 20 years of banding in the Manzanos. We had to be at the locked gate at New Canyon Campground at 9 AM when one of the HawkWatch staff left his post on the mountaintop and drove down to meet us and open the gate.
The road up to New Canyon had been newly graded. When I had traveled that far in mid-August with my friend – and co-author – Barbara Hussey, it had been deeply rutted and we had to forge several streams that flowed across the road.
The road past New Canyon snaked up the mountain about 1,800 feet through an area that had been heavily burned in 2008. While Linda, the driver of the truck I was riding in, focused on the single-lane road, Ada and I stole glances at the expansive view of the Estancia Valley and commented on foliage on the upslope side that was emerging to cover the burned hillsides. When we arrived at the top, it felt like we were on top of the world – and we weren’t even at the observation site that sits on a rocky ledge.
We headed out on the one-mile trail that led to the ridge. The boulders we encountered on the trail were more difficult to maneuver than I had anticipated, and I was glad for Linda’s helping hand when I needed it. One of them was sloped and it was difficult to know where to put my foot to support me as I held her hand to hoist myself up. I found a groove that I thought would work; however, as I tried to balance and take a step, my foot started to slip and I heard my knee pop – a sprained ligament for sure. I finally made it up and was able to complete the trip.
The visitors stood on the rocky precipice that looked west above Valencia County. An owl decoy waved gently in the cold breeze from the top of a pole that was planted on a ledge just down from the viewing area.
“Band-tailed Pigeon on that snag over there,” someone signaled. Sure enough one was resting on the top of a fir tree. Before long, it was on its way to Mexico for the winter.
A short while later, a flock of eight Clark’s Nutcrackers streamed overhead, their white bodies in stark contrast against the deep blue sky. Occasionally a White-throated Swift swooped in the thermals below the rocky crest.
I perused the sightings board that indicated the numbers of different raptor species the prior day in one column, and the total to day in the other column. While the majority were Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, rarities like a single Zone-tailed and Broad-winged Hawk, as well as a Northern Goshawk had been seen the prior day.
“There’s a bird,” announced the spotter who was standing on a rock platform just above where I was sitting. He had spotted the silhouette of a raptor as it came over the horizon. Pretty soon a Sharp-shinned Hawk glided in front of us.
I had heard about ‘rivers of raptors’ and had expected that sightings would be more frequent. For some reason, there were significantly fewer raptors passing over the mountain compared with the prior day.
In the early afternoon, the wind picked up and we began donning our gloves, ear bands and additional layers. I removed my gloves to eat my lunch and when I was done eating, my fingers were numb, and so I moved back between some boulders to protect myself from the wind. “Take five more steps,” a woman told me. With each step, it became warmer. That area became known as the ‘tropics’ where folks would stand for a while to warm up.
Small clusters of song birds tumbled by from time to time, vocalizing their flight calls. Rather than riding the thermals, they seemed to be jostled by the wind drafts, making them impossible to ID.
As the wind increased, our sightings became more frequent.
“Bird in north,” someone called. That meant that a raptor had been caught in the mist net near the northern banding station. Mandy, the educator, scrambled down to the hut to be ready to bring it up for us to view. After five or ten minutes, she returned with a juvenile male Cooper’s Hawk. It was head down in a canister, with its tail sticking straight up. She carefully gathered its legs together and then pulled its head out of the can. The feisty juvenile let her know that it wasn’t a happy camper, but finally settled down so we could have a look.
“Can you eat that bird?” Wren, the four-year old daughter of one of the former banders asked.
“I’ve never been asked that question before,” Mandy laughed. Her Dad explained that they raised chickens and had undoubtedly noticed the similarly-shaped feet.Mandy showed us its new silver band, and then pointed out the bird’s plumage and how it was different from an adult. She also explained that as it matured the eyes would change from the bright yellow that it was now, to orange.
Someone asked whether they were going to let one of the guests release him. “We don’t hand off birds for release,” Mike the sight coordinator explained. “They are not here for us. We collect data to better understand trends in different species and bring some up for educational purposes, which we hope will lead to improved conservation efforts.”
It didn’t waste any time catching a wind draft when Mandy gave it a toss over the edge of the ridge.A Sharp-shinned Hawk flew in close to the owl decoy and then flew off. “It hopes to mob and chase it,” Mike explained. Of course, this owl didn’t respond, so the hawk went on its way.
Perhaps it was the same sharpie that was lured by the sparrow used to entice raptors into the mist net; a short time later, a Sharp-shinned Hawk got netted in the south banding station. When Mandy brought it up, it was noticeably smaller than the coop had been. It was an adult and seemed resigned to be the object of an educational presentation.
“Peregrine Falcon,” the spotter called. Sure enough, it circled high above us. It had a typical pointed wing silhouette, and the white on its chin and neck stood out in strong contrast to its dark body.
As we carefully made our way down the trail mid-afternoon, we spotted a number of Dark-eyed (Gray-headed) Juncos, and Linda who was in the lead, caught a glimpse of a kinglet as it darted into a shrub.
The harsh rocky landscape with a few hardy scrub oaks gradually gave way to a mixed conifer habitat. As we approached the bottom of the trail, the trees were filled with calling Pine Siskins.
After my mishap on the way up, I was glad to have made it safely down, despite my stiffening and swollen knee. It was an experience I wouldn’t have missed and I was glad I had made the effort.