Rob Yaksich is the instructional coordinator for New Mexico State Parks outdoor classroom program.
At 7:30 pm Friday, Aug. 8, he hosts “Owl Prowl,” a lecture and night hike to track nocturnal birds at
Hyde Memorial State Park ($5 per car, 740 Hyde Park Road, 505-983-7175).
SFR: You probably know some of the best trails around—ones the rest of us aren’t aware of.
RY: [Laughs] Yes I do. But there are so many decent trails around, it’s not hard to find a good one.
What did you have to study to become a park ranger?
I got a biology degree from [the University of New Mexico] and figured I’d just end up working for the National Parks Service or the National Forest Service as a field technician or something along those lines. I ended up working as a tour guide in Alaska one summer and that just opened up door after door. I haven’t put my degree to too much use, except that it helps me to teach.
How does the ‘Owl Prowl’ work? It’s at night so you can’t really see the owls.
We’re going to have a little indoor program to talk about owls and their adaptations, things like that. Then we’re going to go for a little stroll, in the dark, around the Hyde Park Lodge and listen for owls. We probably won’t be able to see anything, but I’ve heard owls on quite a few occasions [when I’ve been] hiking around at night up there.
So they’ll probably see you but you won’t be able to see them.
They may sit there and watch us walking around and not say anything or move at all. We’ll just hear them chuckling at us.
What other nocturnal birds might you run into at the park?
There aren’t too many birds right now. It’s mostly just owls and nighthawks, which are here for the summer. The nighthawks are like big swallows that fly around at night; they’re insect-eating birds. You’ll hear them more often than you’ll see them, unless it’s right at dusk or dawn. At those times you’ll see these very narrow-winged birds that are really agile. They just zip around. They’ve got a little tiny beak, but it’s deceiving because they can open their beaks really wide and they just suck up bugs as they fly along. We are gearing up for a migration of songbirds, which tend to fly at night to avoid predators. As we move closer to the fall, there will be a lot more night-time birds.
What about here in town?
Surprisingly, yes. There are owls in lots of corners of Santa Fe. Especially Great Horned Owls. People are surprised to find them in their yards sometimes. They would never see them except that crows are mobbing them like a big flashing sign that says, ‘Owl right here.’ They’re anywhere you find mature trees, so you’ll definitely find them near the Plaza. Wherever there’s a tree, they can hide for the day. They’re lazy nest builders. They let someone else build the nest and then they either eat the occupant or wait until the nest has been abandoned. We may have some Western Screech Owls by the Santa Fe River and there are definitely some barn owls on the outskirts of town. In town it will probably be Great Horned.
How hard are they to find during the day when they’re sleeping?
Very hard. If you don’t have some other birds pointing them out to you, they’re almost impossible to find. Sometimes it’s just sheer dumb luck that you encounter one. They’re so well camouflaged and if they’re up in dense foliage it’s so hard. They’ll barely open their eyes and look down at you. They’re so funny because they may be looking at you with their eyes open and they’ll close them just to slits and I guess they think that makes them invisible. It’s just so funny to watch. They’re also the color of the trees; they’re cottonwood gray and they just disappear.
What other night-time critters might you run into up at Hyde Park?
Hopefully none of the big furry ones like the bears and the mountain lions that live up there. One of the rangers, who is no longer there, saw a female mountain lion a few times when he was on patrol at night, just casually strolling down the road. The bears are active just about any time, but they like to go into campsites at night, which can pose problems if people have food left out. We have quite a few gray foxes up there. They’re not exclusively nocturnal, but they are running around at night. I’ve had a few people up at the park tell me they saw a funny looking cat with a fluffy tail running around at night, but those aren’t cats. People think they’re cats because they can climb trees, which other dogs don’t do.
How would campers at the park check out the nocturnal animals from a safe distance?
Definitely keep the food in the car; otherwise you’ll have a big visitor. But one of the best things to do is to find a place and just sit, which is hard for modern Americans to do. But that’s going to be your best bet. Nocturnal animals have good eyesight, hearing and a keen sense of smell, so they’ll see you long before you see them. On a nice moonlit night, though, if you just sit and wait and listen, and try not to get so hung up on sight, and enjoy the silence of the night, if you sit there quietly long enough you’ll see the owl swooping by and maybe the deer will walk by. Along established trails and water is always a good spot, and a lot of binoculars are strong enough to see at night in decent moonlight.
What other programs, aside from the ‘Owl Prowl,’ are offered at the park?
We’re trying to get more people in town to come up and check out their backyard, so we’re trying a variety of things, like night programs. Occasionally we’ve done concerts up at the park. We do things like star parties pretty regularly, so we’re trying to get people involved.