Day 2: Bird Migration

This Say’s Phoebe wants you to Take It Outside this week. These birds are common summer residents and are beginning to return to the County now! (Photo by Bob Walker)

On day two of Take It Outside, we are learning about bird migration! It’s the beginning of the spring migration, when birds are heading north for the summer. This means we’ll soon be welcoming back our summer friends, like the hummingbirds, and saying goodbye to winter birds like the Dark-eyed Juncos, who will be heading higher up in the mountains.

Upcoming Event:

Join PEEC volunteer Bob Walker for live commentary from PEEC’s wildlife observation garden (technology permitting!) tomorrow, Wednesday, March 18, at 10 AM. The nature center is closed to people, but birds are still visiting! Bob will point out birds that visit the garden, and we’ll discuss how PEEC created a bird-friendly habitat, and what you can do at your own home to encourage birds to visit. Viewers can ask Bob their birding and bird feeding questions in the live chat!

View the wildlife camera livestream here.

Blog Post:

Did you know that the Turkey Vulture is a migratory bird? This bird is found throughout North America and is one of the easiest birds to find on the Pajarito Plateau. Every year around St. Patrick’s Day, the first Turkey Vulture of spring is spotted in Los Alamos County. Learn some fascinating facts about this scavenger in today’s blog post by PEEC volunteer Bob Loy.

Craft:

Male Black-chinned Hummingbird perched at a feeder. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Make your own hummingbird feeder, and be one of the first people in town to see hummingbirds returning from their winter homes. Make your feeder unique with your own decorations using red Sharpie or red paint. Hummingbirds should be making their appearance in late March or April. Mark on your calendar when you first see them! Find instructions for today’s craft here.

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Soaring Turkey Vulture. (Photo by Bob Walker)

Birds have different habits! Some, like the Turkey Vulture, are often seen soaring in the air. Other birds are more often found in trees, or on the ground. Keep an eye out for a soaring Turkey Vulture!

While you’re looking, see if you can find birds in the following places:

☐ Soaring in the air

☐ On a tree

☐ In a bush

☐ On the ground

☐ Perched on something tall

Do you notice certain types of birds in certain places? Let us know what patterns you noticed!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Our earliest migrators have been reported in the County. Look for the Turkey Vulture in the canyon by the Los Alamos Ice Rink and the White-throated Swift at Kimberly Point in White Rock, or at the 6th Street Pond near Smith’s in Los Alamos. Say’s Phoebes and Black Phoebes have also been recently reported in Los Alamos! Share where you like to look for birds in the form below and let us know if you find any of these recent arrivals today.

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Submit at least three outdoor challenge reports this week for a chance to win a set of PEEC’s custom bird stickers! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to explore more about birds!

An Ode to the Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

By Bob Loy

St. Patrick’s Day in Los Alamos County is cause for more than one reason to celebrate. Aside from the obvious day of celebrating Irish heritage, our beloved Turkey Vultures return to their roost in Omega Canyon (just behind the ice rink). For the last few months, they’ve been wintering in Mexico and Central America. Some fly as far as South America before returning each spring to breed in North America.

Turkey Vultures were spotted in Los Alamos County for the first time in 2020 on Sunday, March 15 near the Los Alamos Ice Rink, so they are starting to arrive now!

Many are surprised to learn that Turkey Vultures are my favorite bird. Here are a few fun facts that brought me to this conclusion:

A group of Turkey Vultures roosting in the trees behind the ice rink. (Photo by Mouser Williams)
  • By consuming the carcasses of diseased animals, vultures prevent the spread of life-threatening diseases such as rabies and anthrax among animals and humans.
  • Vultures are equipped with a digestive system that contains special acids that will dissolve anthrax, botulism, and cholera bacteria.
  • Vultures have the unusual habit of urohydrosis — defecating on their legs to cool them by evaporation.
  • The bald, or lightly-feathered, head is specially designed to stay clean even when confronted with blood and bodily fluids present in the carcasses. Any remaining germs are baked off by the sun.
  • Most vultures mate for life. 

Soooooo, the next time you see a Turkey Vulture eating something dead on the road don’t say “yuck.” A simple “Thanks!” is more in order. And, if you have time and can do so safely, push that dead thing off the road so the Turkey Vulture won’t get hit by a car.

How to Find and Identify Turkey Vultures:

Soaring Turkey Vulture. (Photo by Bob Walker)
  • Turkey Vultures appear to be black from a distance. When you see them up close, you’ll notice that they are dark brown with a featherless red head and a pale bill.
  • On sunny days, look for them flying as early as 9 AM. In colder weather and at night they roost on poles, towers, dead trees, and fence posts. The trees near the ice rink are a good place to start your search in the morning or around sunset. 
  • Look for them gliding relatively low to the ground, sniffing for carrion, or else riding thermals up to higher vantage points.
  • Soaring Turkey Vultures can be identified by the long “fingers” at their wingtips and their long tails. Their bodies and the tops of their wings are dark, but the bottom of their flight feathers are much paler.
  • Turkey Vultures raise their wings slightly when they soar, making a “V” shape. They rarely flap and wobble a bit while cruising through the air.
  • They may soar in small groups and roost in larger numbers. You may also see them on the ground in small groups, huddled around roadkill or dumpsters.

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.

Storytelling – A Gift of Winter by Terry Foxx

Terry Foxx storytelling with the help of Eli the eagle.
Storyteller Terry Foxx getting help from Eli the eagle.

Winter! Words and images that come to mind are snow falling, chilly temperatures, crisp air, hugging yourself to keep warm.

Winter is a time of bundling up with mittens, boots, and hats to play in the snow or enjoy the out-of-doors.

Winter is a time of year to snuggle down before a fireplace, drink hot chocolate, read a book, and listen to music.

But winter is also a time of year when young and old used to gather together to tell stories. It was a time when people questioned why the world worked the way it did. The ancient ones told stories to explain the mysteries of life, how fire came to be, how animals survive the cold, and how the world was created. Our electronic world has changed this time of community, of coming together to listen and have fun.

This next Saturday, 11:00 AM, at the Nature Center, storytellers Terry Foxx and Kimberly Gotches will bring back the ancient practice of storytelling during the winter. Using wisdom of the ancients and modern-day science, they will explain how fire came into the world and how animals survive the cold in a fun and interactive program for both children and adults.

So how does science explain how animals survive the winter?

How animals survive has been a curiosity since the beginning and still is one of those marvels of nature that challenges scientists. Scientists are finding more and more about the interesting and complex ways animals survive through periods of cold.

Today we understand there are three basic ways animals survive the winter: migration, adaptation, and hibernation. Although we can categorize three basic forms, the survival of any one animal is sometimes a complicated mixture. Let’s explain a little of the science behind these three survival mechanisms and look at examples.

flight by Terry Foxx

Cranes over Bosque del Apache. Photo by Terry Foxx.

Migration

Migration is the movement of animals from one place to another. It can be a short distance to find a warmer niche or long distances to a warmer climate. Migration is stimulated by the changes in day length and temperature.

Some birds fly amazing distances. For example the artic tern nests near the north pole in the summer but in the autumn it flies all the way south to Antarctica, returning north in the spring. That is over 10,000 miles! Amazingly, they find their way to the same place each year. They seem to navigate using the sun moon and stars for direction and have an internal compass for using the Earth’s magnetic field.

A fun place to go in New Mexico is the Bosque del Apache near Socorro. Every year migrating Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, and other birds can be seen in the fields and ponds of the Wildlife Refuge. When you get up early in the morning, you can see thousands of birds waking up and flying off to their feeding grounds. It is a breathtaking experience. On their way to and from the Bosque, the Sandhill Cranes fly along the Rio Grande and White Rock Canyon. You can hear them calling as they fly over White Rock.

A fascinating way to record your observations about when birds appear in the spring and leave in the fall is to join the Nature Center’s on-line birders group (www.peecnature.org, press on the header “Learn.” From the pull down menu go Interest Groups and sign-up.). Someone has already heard cranes heading north—and it is February (we still think it is winter)! Other birds are of particular interest in their coming and going. Nature Center birders anxiously await the first hummingbird signaling summer.

When we think of migration we often think of birds, but other animals also migrate, sometimes not long distances. For example an earthworm can move farther down into the soil below the frost line to survive freezing. They have been found six feet beneath the soil surface (for an earthworm that probably is a really long way!). When the soil warms, they move back up toward the surface.

Insects also migrate. Most well-known is the migration of the Monarch Butterfly. Butterflies can migrate 2500 miles! Those butterflies that live in the East migrate to Mexico and hibernate in oxyamel fir trees. If the butterfly lives west of the Rockies, it heads for Southern California. Monarch butterflies are very important pollinators and are disappearing because of urbanization and agricultural practices. A fun citizen science project is to track the path of the Monarchs.

The Nature Center has an interest group called “Butterfly Watchers.” Sign up on the website www.peecnature.org and follow the directions above. You will learn about different butterflies and you can report when you see a Monarch.

Abert's squirrel with winter ear tassels. Photo by Beth Cortwright
Abert’s squirrel with winter ear tassels. Photo by Beth Cortright.

Adaptation

Adaptation is another way animals survive the winter. To keep warm some animals grow a thicker coat of fur. Examples include coyote, big horn sheep and deer. In some animals, the hairs are hollow, making them more insulating.

As a protective mechanism from predators, the new fur may be white to hide them in the snow. Examples are the Snowshoe Rabbit and Arctic Fox. Other animals gather extra food in the fall and store it. Animals like the fox may eat berries in the summer and small mammals in the winter, changing their food source. Rabbits and deer spend winter looking for moss, twigs, bark. and leaves to eat.

A variety of animals find winter shelter in holes in trees or logs, under rocks or leaves, or underground. These shelters are warmer and animals like mice, raccoons, and squirrels huddle together to stay warm.

Black bear in hibernation.
Sleeping black bear.

Hibernation

Hibernation is a complex and fascinating process. Heart rates drop sometimes as low as 4 four beats per minute and respiration drops to one breath every three to four minutes! Scientists distinguish between true hibernators and those who use torpidity as a mechanism. Regardless, many animals sleep for extended periods of time and spend a lot of time in the late summer and autumn finding food to increase their fat stores within their bodies. True hibernators don’t wake up until spring regardless of the stimuli. Examples of hibernators are chipmunks, ground squirrels, bats, and some mice. They have enough fat reserves to carry them through the winter.

Animals like raccoons and tree squirrels use torpidity to help them survive. Torpidity is a reduction of the metabolism which allows for lower body temperature and oxygen consumption. This is a special, very deep sleep. The animal’s body temperature drops, and its heartbeat and breathing slow down. It uses very little energy. These animals can sleep for weeks at a time and then wake up to eat and defecate. During their wake time they seek out their hidden caches of food collected during the summer and fall.

So what about bears? Are they true hibernators or not? Scientist disagree with terminology. But one thing is for sure, don’t disturb a bear in his sleepy state because he can wake up in an instant, attack, and then go right back to sleep!

We have mostly talked about warm-blooded animals, but cold-blooded animals such as frogs, snakes, and lizards must also survive through winter. They lack internal control over their metabolism. They depend on the warmth of the sun to keep them active. In the winter they would freeze if they did not seek shelter and undergo chemical changes to prevent freezing. They can burrow into the mud or congregate in small caves. Rattlesnakes, for example, congregate in rock crevices to hibernate for the winter. Those spots are known as “snake dens” and they are used every year.

If you want to learn more about how animals survive the winter, here are some books you can find in Mesa Public Library. Some are entertaining stories and others are informative non-fiction.

Hibernation by Anita Ganeri

The Mitten by Jan Brett

Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson

Time to Sleep by Denise Fleming

Animals Hibernating by Pamela Hickman

Do Not Disturb: The Mysteries of Animal Hibernation and Sleep by Margery Facklam