As we drove south along NM-337 near Escobosa, we got our first glimpse of the burn area from the Dog Head Fire that started north of Fourth of July Canyon and thought back to June 14 when we had first seen smoke churning from the Manzano Mountains.
As we headed down the long road into the Simms property, we were relieved to see that things looked much as they had last year
when the Thursday Birders made their annual visit to learn about their bluebird nest box program.
“Fire roared down the north end
of our property, burning 35 acres,” Bill Simms reported. “And there were 15 retardant drops after we had evacuated.” He held up photos the Forest Service had sent him of the slurry streaming down onto the area.
He told us that eight of the bluebird boxes were affected by the fire, but only one was incinerated.
“The story of the fire and the bluebirds is still evolving,” he told us.
Each year the birds return to the nest boxes in early April. The spring was cool and occasional rain brought an abundance of insects, preferred by Western Bluebirds during the nesting period. Forty of their 47 boxes were used. Before the hot, dry weather in June when the fire occurred, 157 bluebirds had fledged. Fifteen additional bluebirds fledged subsequently.
While the number of bluebirds fledged was among their high years, the number of Ash-throated Flycatcher fledglings has declined each of the past three years, from 48 in 2014 to 19 this year. He is not sure why.
Last year we learned that 25 newly-hatched chicks had died from the heat and Bill felt he needed to do something to better protect them. Many of the boxes have been in use since 1999. The wood had aged, turning almost black and absorbing the heat. The boxes acted like little ovens. After doing research, he decided to try reflective paint, applying it to the tops
and west sides of each box. There were no known heat deaths this year.
“Our bluebirds have a high degree of nest box fidelity,” he explained. He knows this since he has been tracking which nest box parents always lay albino eggs from a recessive gene. In addition, some nest box parents are extremely aggressive – and it is always at the same boxes.
“You didn’t mention anything about predators,” I asked him.
“There was no nest predation this year,” he responded. “I guess all of our protective measures (see photo above) are keeping the ravens, snakes and weasels from reaching the eggs or chicks.”
Bonnie Long, Bill’s neighbor and our next host, told us that she has seventeen boxes. Three were not used, three were used by Ash-throated Flycatchers, and 11 by Western Bluebirds. In addition, a Bewick’s Wren nested in a chickadee box near the house (scorched but not burned) and successfully fledged 2 chicks. Forty-five bluebirds fledged successfully before the fire.
“There was one box that still had just-hatched Ash-throated Flycatchers in their meadow at the time we had to evacuate,” Bonnie told us.
She went on to tell us a remarkable story. One of the firefighters couldn’t bear to see the baby birds burned up when it was clear the box was in the path of the fire. He opened the box, took out the nest with the chicks and put it in a tree across the road where it would be safe. The parents dive-bombed him the entire time, but the birds were saved. When she and Don returned to the house, the parents were still bringing food to the chicks.
While the firefighters put their patio furniture in their metal shed, they moved an already-scorched lawn chair away from the house
and put an umbrella over the pond to shade the fish. While a cinder burned a hole in the umbrella,
The fire had completely encircled their home.
While things looked normal along most of the road in, we rounded a corner and gasped at the devastation.
While the still-standing trees near the house were singed and have turned brown,
the bird feeders are attracting a lot of activity from local birds that are probably grateful for the seeds that no longer exist in their natural habitat.
There were swarms of hummingbirds. While some were Broad-tailed Hummingbirds that may have nested nearby, the vast majority seemed to be migrating Rufous Hummingbirds, both males and females. In addition, there were a few Calliopes. The migrants would not have been affected by the fire and were glad that there were enough feeders to satisfy their need for sustenance before heading on their way.
As I walked around the property, I noticed signs of renewal, even though it was only five weeks since the fire began. Sprouts of oak were pushing their way through the parched ground.
The ash will enrich the soil, assisting further new growth once the summer rains materialize. The circle of life continues.