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Wildlife Corridors: Refueling Stations along Fly Zones and Pathways
Generally, when we think of wildlife corridors, we think of natural bridges joining larger habitats. The “bridges” allow mammals to move safely across, under or through human developments that have fragmented wildlife habitats. There are other ways to think about corridors. Migratory birds need safe refuges and refueling stops on their sometimes thousand-mile journeys. Think of the rufous hummingbird, which ventures farther north than any other hummingbird and is the smallest long-distance migrant. I have seen them by the dozens in Cordova, Alaska in early May. They dive-bomb every other hummingbird at my feeders in August here in New Mexico. The rufous hummingbird travels from Mexico up the Pacific Coast in the spring and migrates down the Rocky Mountains in mid- to late summer. They need plenty of refueling stops. When they come through NM after their short breeding season in the north, they will have added up to 72 percent of their body weight in fat to make the journey. They need to refuel in NM before making the final push to Mexico. Hummingbird feeders can be an important food source during periods of low flower productivity. Our current drought not only affects flower productivity but also insect populations, an important food item for hummingbirds. Hummingbird feeders provide a kind of way station along the corridor.
American white pelicans move through NM every spring. They migrate along river valleys, over deserts and mountains. They stop at aquatic sites to forage and loaf along the way. Some have been known to stay all summer at El Vado Lake. Areas where I have seen them on the lake in the past are now completely dried up. A few years ago we were inundated at The Wildlife Center with American white pelicans and a variety of other migratory waterfowl that had become contaminated when they landed on brine ponds near Carlsbad, where they stopped to rest and refuel. We saved many of them and sent them on their way. Those ponds continued to be an attractive nuisance for migrating pelicans. It is not only important to maintain healthy habitats essential to successful migration but also to minimize hazards. In recent years the mine that owns the brine ponds has made considerable progress in discouraging waterfowl from landing. They found that cannon blasts were soon ineffective as birds got used to the blasts without consequences. Humans now haze birds off the ponds.
I need to give kudos to electric utilities that have made great strides in minimizing electrocution as a hazard to large raptors. The osprey comes first to mind. In Raptors of New Mexico, Dale Stahlecker writes that between 1920 and 1990 there were few reports of osprey nesting in NM. They have regularly migrated through the state, but only since the 1990s have we seen substantial nesting activity. We can now boast of a healthy breeding population in Río Arriba County, regularly hosting 18 nesting pair. In NM, as in many parts of its wide range, artificial nesting platforms have contributed significantly to breeding success. Electric poles have long been an attractive nest site. We have a rescued osprey at The Wildlife Center that was burned as a nestling when its nest caught fire. However, in the last 10 years electric utilities have done a terrific job of retrofitting poles to eliminate large-raptor electrocution. These safe poles near our waterways now provide a kind of corridor. Continued success of osprey in NM will depend on adequate fish populations and man-made nesting platforms sufficiently distant from human activities.
In the last three weeks I have spotted American avocet, Forester’s tern, Franklin’s gull, and this morning, snowy egrets on or near Abiquiú Lake. Most of these birds are only passing through to more northerly destinations to breed. NM is an important migratory corridor for a wide range of bird species that include warblers, hawks, shore birds, gallinaceous species (curlew), longspurs and sparrows. They have already made impressive journeys and need our protected habitats to manage the rest of their trip. The Wildlife Center has partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers to erect a platform for osprey at Abiquiú Lake. Citizen scientists are monitoring this and other nests at this important habitat along the Chama corridor. We have also partnered with the Corps this spring to place American kestrel nest boxes at the lake, and have another 20 boxes scattered throughout Santa Fe and Río Arriba counties. We also have plans to protect areas of the lake from disturbance during nesting season. The Corps is developing a plan that includes having The Wildlife Center construct a wetland on the Chama below the dam. Engaging the community in science-based activities is our best chance of protecting and improving habitats essential for breeding and migrating species.
We will be challenged as deepening drought conditions shrink riparian habitat, and energy exploration and development render landscapes unsuitable for wildlife, and as human activities siphon off more water and further fragment habitats.
So, keep your bird feeders full until the bears show up. It does get complicated then. Every time you turn on a faucet, think about how you can minimize water use. And think of your yard as both a refuge and a corridor—a refueling stop on a life-or-death journey.
Katherine Eagleson is executive director of The Wildlife Center, located near Española, NM. The center works to protect NM’s wildlife and their habitats. 505.753.9505, www.thewildlifecenter.org
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