Scouring the skies with binoculars, HawkWatch International volunteers have been gathering data on migrating hawks and eagles in the Manzano Mountains since late August, and will continue until November 5.

An annual event since 1985, this year’s crew includes Ally Davidge, Tori Thorpe, Jennifer Bridgeman, Heather Coates and crew leader, Tucker Davidson.

HawkWatch volunteer Jennifer Bridgeman with a sharp shinned hawk. Photo by Thomas Campbell.

Davidson told The Independent that over the course of 10 weeks, they will identify and count every hawk, eagle, and turkey vulture they see while scanning the sky from a promontory near Capilla Peak in the Manzano Mountains.

The location is at 9,200 feet altitude with steep aspects on the west, north and east, allowing for panoramic viewing of the north-south flyway.

Bridgeman said they also catch, band and release some hawks to help determine migration routes.

Thorpe encourages anyone who is interested to join them and participate in counting raptors.

Davidge said volunteers can help for a day or stay in a nearby campground for longer visits, where the crew stays. She emphasized bringing food and water, wearing layers of clothing, and bringing binoculars.

Bridgeman said they will teach people who volunteer to identify the different birds.

Davidge said the crew also records weather conditions hourly.

HawkWatch, a private non-profit, was originally incorporated in Albuquerque, according to Dave Oleyar, senior scientist at the group’s Salt Lake City headquarters.

Sharp shinned hawk. Photo by Thomas Campbell.

Oleyar said the long-term records allow them to see when a species population increases or decreases. “In the 34 years we’ve counting in the Manzanos, we’ve counted over 178,000 migrating birds of prey,” Oleyar said. “That’s about 5,000 per year.”

“One of the things we’ve noticed, is the American Kestrel, which is our smallest falcon in North America, are declining across most of North America,” Oleyar said, and that information has pushed researchers to find out why.

Oleyar said peregrine falcon and bald eagle numbers have been increasing. “Both of those species were listed as threatened not too many decades ago,” Oleyar said, noting the “success stories.”

“Longterm data shows us what we need to pay attention to and what we are doing right,” Oleyar explained.

HawkWatch held counts in spring in the Sandias until 2008, when they had to cut back the number of locations due to financial constraints, according to Oleyar.

“It’s first on my list, if someone comes to me with resources to do so, I would restart the spring count there because we have a longterm data set,” he said. “We banded in both places [Manzanos and Sandias] and the crews in the fall in the Manzanos would catch birds that were banded on spring migration in the Sandias.”

Oleyar said HawkWatch data is shared with government agencies where HawkWatch collects data. “In the Manzanos it’s the Forest Service,” he said.

HawkWatch volunteer Tucker Davidson. Photo by Thomas Campbell.

Oleyar said they publish scientific papers and put less technical stories on their website.

They also store their data with the Hawk Migration Association of North America on their Hot Counts website where it is provided to researchers, according to Oleyar.

HawkWatch also provides their data to educators for formulating mathematics and science lesson plans with actual migration data, Oleyar said.

And they provide training for wildlife biologists, Oleyar said, exemplified by the crew on Capilla Peak.

More information about the Capilla Peak raptor count is available on the HawkWatch website at hawkwatch.org/manzanos.

To get to the Capilla Peak count location, go south from Tijeras on N.M. 337 to N.M. 55 and turn west. Continue to the village of Manzano. Across from the church, turn right on Forest Road 245. Stay right at a fork. Continue until you crest the mountain (about 8 miles), then about another half mile until you see a pipe fence on the west side, and two trailheads. The fire watch station is visible directly ahead. Take the first trailhead, the Gavilan Trail, on foot about a half mile to a promontory where you will find the crew every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Independent recommends using a 4-wheel drive vehicle and sturdy hiking boots.

Thomas Campbell
Thomas Campbell