Los Alamos is a wonderful place to see a large variety of bird species. Our four-season weather and our large span of elevations in the county — from the Rio Grande River to the Jemez Mountain peaks — make for a very diverse collection of habitats that appeal to many different birds. You can explore these many different birds using the eBird, which is administered by Cornell Labs. PEEC’s Nature Guide is also a great resource to get started learning about our local birds (and other wildlife!).
Here is a list of the 20 most commonly reported birds in the county over the last 20 years that PEEC has been active in the Los Alamos area. You can see many of these birds at the Los Alamos Nature Center. If you stop by on Wednesday mornings from 10 AM – 12 PM, you can find me in the observation room chatting about birds with our visitors.
Let’s do this as a countdown, starting with #20, and working
our way to #1!
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.
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.
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.
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.
As we enjoy springtime in Los Alamos, listen for the distinctive song of the Canyon Wren (Catherpes mexicanus) while walking the canyons around town. The song starts off with a rapid sequence of notes, slowing down and descending in pitch. You can also hear a recording of this birdsong when you visit the nature center since it is part of one of our permanent exhibits. Here is a sample from a bird in west Texas that sounds quite similar to what we hear in Los Alamos County:
If you are lucky enough to see one of these secretive medium-sized wrens, they will probably be nimbly crawling along the walls of the canyons, or hopping from rock to rock. They compete for habitat with Rock Wrens and White-throated Swifts and have been seen responding aggressively when interacting with these other birds.
They have a fairly long, slightly down-curved bill, a white throat, brown underneath, and a strikingly bright reddish-brown tail with fine black bars that are characteristic of many wren species. They are here in Los Alamos year-round, using their long bill to search for insects in the holes and crevices of the canyon walls. They are a poorly studied bird, but because they seem to tolerate human presence fairly well, and because their preferred habitat is typically inaccessible to much interference from humans (other than rock climbers), they are not considered to be in decline.