Putting away my year-end bird records, most of which are backyard sightings, I was struck by the number of raptor species we had seen in or from our backyard – and what wasn’t even an extraordinary year in that regard. We had counted 13 different species of hawks, eagles or falcons in 2021, out of a total of 19 we have seen in the 20 years we have lived here. For even more context, a whopping 23 raptor species appear on an Audubon Checklist of Mesilla Valley Birds, many of these sightings near Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park.
Any one of those three counts is downright mind-blowing. To see so many different species of hawks or hawks from a local yard in a year or twenty, or indeed along our important flyway, is quite remarkable. And species counts do not take into account the substantial numbers of some of the more common falcons that breed or winter in our region or pass through during migration. With the Rio Grande and nearby mountain habitats acting as a funnel, a ribbon of relative greenery across the desert, we have an excellent perch from which to view many types of birds, and raptor viewing can be exciting.
Soaring hawks are often the most visible, with red-tailed hawks common all year round and will soon start to mate again and renew pair bonds as temperatures warm. Swainson’s hawks are also common breeders, returning from their wintering grounds in South America in April and departing again in the fall, sometimes in large numbers. One day in early October last fall, we were amazed to see a group of 22 adult birds, slowly circling above us as they drifted south.
We have identified three additional buteos, or soaring hawks, in 2021: the common black hawk, the zone-tailed hawk, and the broad-winged hawk. All are considered rare in the area, with the former two being much more likely to be seen in the west and the latter a stray from the east, and we had also seen them from our yard in several previous years. Other buteos documented in the Mesilla Valley over the years, including a few seen from our yard, are Grey, Harris’s, Red-shouldered, Rough-legged, and Ferruginous Hawks, all but the last considered rare .
Rounding out this large family group of raptors, others that have been spotted locally are the osprey, actually in its own family and seen on spring and fall migration; the Hen Harrier, an uncommon migrant and winter visitor in open habitats; the bald eagle, once an occasional winter visitor, but no longer since the Rio Grande dried up; golden eagle, uncommon but present all year round in the mountains and some canyons; white-tailed and Mississippi kites, both seen rarely; and the accipiters or bird hawks, designating their favorite prey.
The largest accipiter, the northern goshawk, is occasionally seen in the Organ Mountains, but not often far from mountain habitats. Its two cousins, however, are common migratory and wintering birds throughout the region, and can be fairly easy to spot at backyard feeding stations. This winter, our yard is home to at least three sharp-shinned hawks and two Cooper’s hawks, which are distinguished by their immature or adult plumage, eye color and size. These are five hungry raptors that live off the thriving bird life of our yard and surrounding open spaces! The presence of one, even when not readily visible, is sometimes easy to tell by a sudden silence in bird activity, and sometimes we witness a successful hunt.
Another group of raptors includes the American kestrel, quite common in open country all year round; merlin, a rare migrant and bird ball; the peregrine falcon, an irregular migrant and visitor, and the fastest bird on the planet; and the prairie falcon, in our area usually seen near desert mountains. These and their many fascinating cousins that grace our corner of the world truly deserve to be described as “awesome”.
Marcy Scott is a local birder, botanist, and author of “Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest.” With her husband, Jimmy Zabriskie, she operates the Robledo Vista nursery in the North Valley, www.robledovista.com, specializing in native and suitable plants for birds and wildlife habitat. She can be reached at [email protected].
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