Bird of the Month: The Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vultures are common summer residents of Los Alamos County. Photo by Bob Walker.

By Bob Walker

As the end of summer approaches, our Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) will soon start to head south for the winter, returning back to Los Alamos County in early March. These wide-ranging birds are year-round residents from South America through Central America to the Southeastern U.S. They are found in the summer in the rest of the U.S. up to southern Canada.

Turkey Vultures are the September selection for Bandelier National Monument’s Year of the Bird program. The National Park Service designed this program to highlight the importance of protecting migrating birds, and 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You can visit Bandelier’s website to learn more about this program for the remainder of this year.

Turkey Vultures characteristically soar with their wings held in a v-shaped pattern, wobbling as they soar, either looking for thermals or dropping to lower altitudes to search for carrion. Their flight behavior is imitated by the less common Zone-tailed Hawk, which has white bands on its tail feathers. The hawk uses its Turkey Vulture disguise to fool prey. Turkey Vultures do not chase live prey but locate decaying food by smelling the gas mercaptan, making them one of the few birds with a highly developed sense of smell.

Turkey Vultures breed here in the summer, leaving in October for the winter to head to Central America, going as far south as Ecuador. While here for the summer, they roost in several well-known locations in the county. You can always find them roosting above the ice rink in Los Alamos Canyon, in Bandelier National Monument, and they sometimes in trees in White Rock.

Turkey Vultures roosting in a cottonwood tree in White Rock. Photo by Bob Walker.

Find more detailed articles about Turkey Vultures on these web pages: identify.whatbird.com, allaboutbirds.org, and in the PEEC Nature Guide. You can also see beautiful photos of Turkey Vultures at the Alan Murphy web site. For more images, perform an image search on Google or Flickr, and you’ll find many excellent photographs.

Bird of the Week – The Ash-throated Flycatcher

By Bob Walker

When spring and summer arrive in Los Alamos County, we see a yearly influx of several species of tyrant flycatchers (of the family Tyrannidae). One of the most common are the Ash-throated Flycatchers (Myiarchus cinerascens), which are the August selection for Bandelier National Monument’s Year of the Bird program. The National Park Service designed this program for 2018 to highlight the importance of protecting migrating birds in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You can visit Bandelier’s website to learn more about this program for the remainder of the year.

The Ash-throated Flycatcher is a medium-sized bird, smaller than an American Robin, but larger than a sparrow or House Finch. It has a darker brown crest, gray throat and upper chest, yellowish lower belly, and a brown to gray back with rufous-lined primary feathers.

It winters along the Gulf and Pacific coasts of Mexico, and then migrates north for the summer, where it is seen in all the southwestern states. They are in Los Alamos County from early May to mid-August, and then they return to Mexico for the winter. They have been reported at the nature center only a few times, but are readily found in early summer if you take an easy hike from the nature center on the trails that lead down to Pueblo Canyon. They display characteristic behavior of flycatchers, sitting on exposed perches usually early in the morning, flying off to snatch an insect out of the air or off the ground, and then often returning to the same perch they originally left.

Look for more informative articles about Ash-throated Flycatchers at identify.whatbird.com, allaboutbirds.org, or the PEEC Nature Guide. Enjoy more beautiful photos of Ash-throated Flycatchers at Brian Small’s website, or by searching images on Google or Flickr.

Bird of the Week — The Bald Eagle

By Bob Walker

Yes, we do see Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in Los Alamos County! They are mostly seen in the winter, especially if you hike down to the Rio Grande, or set up a December or January bird-watching stakeout at the White Rock Overlook platform. Bald Eagles are the July selection for Bandelier National Monument’s Year of the Bird program, designed to highlight the importance of protecting migrating birds, and the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Visit Bandelier’s website to learn more about this program for the remainder of the year.

The Bald Eagle is a great example of a bird whose protection through conservation efforts (especially the cessation of the use of DDT as a pesticide) has improved the outlook for this once-endangered symbol of our country. There are now estimated to be more than 300,000 breeding Bald Eagles in North America, up from the 452 nesting pairs that were in the 48 lower states in the 1950s.

The Bald Eagle gets its name from the old English word “balde”, meaning “white.” This large raptor gets its white head only after it reaches the age of five; the younger birds are a darker mottled brown overall, such as this scruffy bird photographed just outside Bandelier’s entrance station.

Look for more informative articles about Bald Eagles on the web pages at identify.whatbird.com or allaboutbirds.org or the PEEC Nature Guide. Enjoy more beautiful photos of Bald Eagles at the Robert Royse web site, or by searching images on Google or Flickr.

Bird of the Week — The Western Tanager

By Bob Walker

Possibly the most colorful bird regularly seen in Los Alamos during spring migration is the Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana). They are the featured bird this June for the National Parks Service’s “Year of the Bird.”

These brightly colored birds spend their winters in southern Mexico and migrate north to spend their summers almost anywhere west of the front range of the Rockies. Although they will stay in the Los Alamos area all summer long, as the weather gets hotter, they retreat to the cooler canyons or higher elevations to breed. Most years they show up in small numbers in late April and early May, even conspicuously visiting backyards in both White Rock and Los Alamos for a week or more. Migration in 2015 was an exceptional banner year, with Western Tanagers showing up in extremely large numbers and staying around for about a month, until early June. The spring of 2018 was not particularly productive, but you may still see some stragglers into June, and if you take hikes into our canyons, you should look for them.

Western Tanagers have a recognizable call (“pit-er-ick”) and a more melodious song that (to me) sounds a bit like an American Robin, as in the recording below from Colorado:

Only the adult male Western Tanagers show the bright yellow body and red facial plumage, with dark black wings. The adult females are drabber in color, primarily light yellow overall except for brown or olive-green wings, as below.

If you want to attract migrating Western Tanagers, provide them with water and fruit (oranges cut in half, or grapes). They mostly eat insects, either picking them off leaves or pretending to be flycatchers and snatching them from the air.

Find more articles about the Western Tanager on PEEC’s nature guide and on these web pages: identify.whatbird.com and allaboutbirds.org

Enjoy more beautiful photos of Western Tanagers at the Brian Small’s web site, or by searching Google or Flickr.

Bird of the Week – The Turkey Vulture

by Bob Walker

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are summertime visitors we regularly see soaring in the skies above Los Alamos County. These wide-ranging birds are year-round residents from South America through Central America and up to the Southeastern US. During the summer, they venture across the rest of the US and up to southern Canada. They characteristically soar with their wings held in a v-shaped pattern, wobbling as they soar, either looking for thermals or dropping to lower altitudes to search for carrion. They locate food by detecting and following the smell of the gas mercaptan, and are one of the few birds with a highly developed sense of smell.

Our first Turkey Vultures arrive in spring around the first of March, one of the first birds that signal the beginning of spring migration. They breed here in the summer, leaving in mid-October for the winter, heading toward Central America, perhaps as far south as Ecuador. While here for the summer, they roost in several well-known locations in the county. Three of these include a roost near the ice rink in Los Alamos Canyon, one or more in Bandelier National Monument, and sometimes in cottonwood trees along Grand Canyon Drive in White Rock.

Turkey Vultures roosting in a cottonwood tree in White Rock.

Find more detailed articles about Turkey Vultures on these web pages: identify.whatbird.com and allaboutbirds.org.   You can see beautiful photos of Turkey Vultures at the Alan Murphy web site. For more images, perform an image search on Google or Flickr, and you’ll find many excellent photographs.

Bird of the Week – The Zone-tailed Hawk

Photo caption: This Zone-tailed Hawk is a Turkey Vulture look-alike, from a distance.

by Bob Walker

From mid-March through mid-October we grow accustomed to seeing Turkey Vultures soaring in the skies above Los Alamos County. Zone-tailed Hawks (Buteo albonotatus) are a reason to look a little closer at those Turkey Vultures. The Zone-tailed Hawk can sometimes be seen flying among a flock of Turkey Vultures, mimicking their V-shaped wing pattern when soaring. By doing this they can more easily sneak up on their favorite prey — squirrels and chipmunks, which can become desensitized by the more common sight of Turkey Vultures soaring overhead.

The population of Zone-tailed Hawks that we see in the summers in Los Alamos is migratory. Although the species is largely resident over most of its range from central South American to northern Mexico. Los Alamos County is about as far north as Zone-tailed Hawks migrate. They are known to breed here, preferring the high desert and mixed conifer forests of Los Alamos. This spring and early summer, there have been many sightings of this relatively uncommon hawk around the Los Alamos Nature Center, and in Pueblo and Rendija Canyons.

Zone-tailed Hawks are one of the darkest hawks in North America (the other being the Common Black Hawk, which is not at all common here). Black to a very dark brown, these hawks can be distinguished from Turkey Vultures by their dark heads (not the bare red head of a Turkey Vulture), and the prominent white banding on their tails.

Find more detailed articles about Zone-tailed Hawks on these web pages: identify.whatbird.com and allaboutbirds.org. You can see beautiful photos of Zone-tailed Hawks at the Brian Small web site. For more images, perform an image search on Google or Flickr, and you’ll find many excellent photographs.