This is the first in a series of articles about finding some of the “better” birds in the ABA area. There is no schedule for when the next article in the series will be released so stay tuned.
I recently helped lead a birding trip to see Aplomado Falcon along Old Port Isabel Road in Cameron County, Texas. Without a doubt, the easiest place in the ABA area to see an Aplomado Falcon is the coastal plain of South Texas, from Mustang Island south to the Mexican border. 1200 or so birds have been released in this region since the 1980s and 90s. Unfortunately, that population of falcons is considered by the ABA as still in the process of being re-introduced, not sufficiently established to be self-sustaining and, therefore, not “countable” under ABA “rules.”
Several Big Year birders over the past 15 years or so (including the presumptive new record-holder, Neil Hayward, and the two birders who follow him in the standings, Sandy Komito and John Vanderpoel) have put falcons seen in this area on their final year lists, and as far as I know, those birds have not been stricken from their totals. But, it is my opinion that under a strict interpretation of the ABA list “rules,” Aplomado Falcons in South Texas are not countable.
To be fair, those Big Year birders did not put South Texas Aplomado Falcons on their lists without considerable misgivings. In fact, in his blog, Neil Hayward gives a complete description of his thought process regarding the falcon and it is clear that he agonized over the decision until the very last before deciding to add it. Rationalizations for including those birds range from “those other guys did it” to “the bird was not banded. It could have been a wild bird.”
So, where do you find countable falcons in the ABA area? The short answer to that question is New Mexico and far West Texas. A slightly longer answer adds a caveat about re-introduced populations in that region.
Aplomado Falcons were essentially extirpated from the ABA area, presumably by a combination of habitat disturbance, pesticide exposure, and persecution. A quick look on eBird shows that the nearest populations are found in Mexico in two main areas, along the Gulf Coast from Tampico south to the base of the Yucatan Peninsula and in the grasslands of central Chihuahua. It is stragglers and hangers-on from the Chihuahua population that presumably occupy the remaining New Mexico and West Texas range of the species in the ABA area.
There are very few “wild” Aplomado Falcons breeding in the area in question. In fact, from 1952 until 2002, there were no accepted records of successful nesting north of Mexico. Starting in 2002 there have been confirmed nesting records in southern New Mexico. All other Aplomado Falcon records for the area are presumably of vagrants traveling north from the Chihuahua, Mexico population. Therefore, the only “countable” falcons in the ABA area are those few breeding pairs and vagrants in southern New Mexico and West Texas.
Finding these birds is a needle-in-a-haystack affair. Very little information is available but eBird records show that the “best” area is southern New Mexico. There have been dozens of records for desert grassland habitats near and along New Mexico Highway 9, mostly in the area west of Columbus and as far as Hachita. (During our Big Year in 2012 we were given a tip by a local birding guide and were able to find a pair of falcons just east of Hachita.) In West Texas, the best area appears to be near and to the northwest of Marfa, although most of the eBird sightings there probably refer to the same bird seen in 1992, and more recent sightings may be of re-introduced birds on private ranches. Other sightings, though extremely rare, have been in the Big Bend region. Most of these sightings can be classified as pure luck, although a falcon seen at Carolyn Ohl’s Christmas Mountains oasis for about a month in 2010 was obviously attracted to her site.
(A note about records: Many sightings of Aplomado Falcons go unreported. Birders, conservation workers, and private landowners often feel that it is better for the birds, or themselves, if the bird’s whereabouts are not widely disseminated. For example, when we were given our tip on where to find falcons it came with the condition that we should not publicize the exact location and only tell others whom we trusted not to do anything that would compromise the birds survival. We did not report our sighting to eBird.)
There is a chance that these Chihuahuan Desert grassland observations will come under a cloud of “countability suspicion” in the future. Re-introduction releases have been taking place on private lands in the Trans-Pecos of Texas since 2002, and on public and military lands near White Sands,New Mexico since 2007. There are other proposed releases, and some rumored ones, on both public and private lands in New Mexico and Texas that could re-introduce more birds and introduce even more uncertainty about which Aplomado Falcons are countable and which are not.
Even more troubling is the recent trend in the Chihuahuan Desert grasslands of Mexico of rampant conversion of habitat to center-pivot agriculture. This accelerated habitat loss makes it even more important that re-introductions into protected habitats in the U.S. take place as quickly as possible. Far better to have birds that can’t be counted than no birds at all!
The “best” way to find a countable Aplomado Falcon is to travel to southern New Mexico and drive along NM Highway 9 between Columbus and Hachita. Scan and scope any areas that are dominated by desert grasslands (a few shrubs and small trees are OK but don’t waste your time searching in areas that are dominated by creosotebush or other shrubs over desert pavement or sand dunes). Get out early in the day. Even during the cooler months heat shimmer makes scoping across the grasslands difficult once the sun gets up any appreciable distance. Protect yourself from the heat, sun, and dehydration.
The birds tend to perch fairly low in the scattered shrubs or on a yucca and are not likely to be seen in flight. Check topographic maps or Google Earth to find areas of suitable habitat and especially look for the presence of available water (stock tanks and the like). There are few side roads along Highway 9 but you should definitely check out some of the county roads that go north from the highway into good grasslands. In particular, try County Road 001 east of Hachita and County Road 003 near Tres Hermanas.
DO NOT trespass on private lands! Landowners this close to the border have many reasons to be protective of their lands. With the current law-enforcement climate along the border it behooves you to be wary as well. Stay on public roads and public lands.
In conclusion, with diligent effort and a little luck, you have your best chance to see a wild and countable Aplomado Falcon on Highway 9 in New Mexico. When you do, be satisfied with your long-distance view (Do NOT try to approach the birds for a better look.) and take a selfie of your big grin!