Story by Sarah Keller for the Intermountain West Joint Venture
Hank Taliaferro is translating his love of birding into conserving farmland along the Rio Grande.
As a kid, Hank Taliaferro’s father took him quail and dove hunting on the farms near Annapolis, Maryland. Along the way, he learned the call of every obscure songbird. It was his first step towards growing into a passionate birder and conservationist.
After earning a biology degree, Taliaferro left for Costa Rica to study birds on cacao plantations. He assumed he would return to the United States and get a Ph.D. in ornithology. But the time alone in the rainforest made him feel isolated, and he started wondering if he should work with people instead. One day Taliaferro’s neighbors asked if he could help their critically ill baby. The experience sealed Taliaferro’s decision to change course, and study emergency medicine while remaining an avid birder in his free time.
A medical residency landed Taliaferro and his family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which they loved. He started taking his kids dove hunting on farmland south of the city. But they eventually had to quit because developers subdivided the land he had permission to hunt, just like where he grew up in Maryland.
For Taliaferro, that experience drove home how little bird habitat remains along the Middle Rio Grande. For instance, at least 90 percent of the region’s wetlands have disappeared in the last century. The remaining islands of habitat that are crucial for overwintering and migratory birds traveling the Central Flyway through New Mexico. Taliaferro began wondering if he and his wife could do their part to keep the migratory corridor intact by buying a farm and also managing it for birds and other wildlife.
“Maybe instead of development there’s a way of creating something, and actually preserving something,” he recalls thinking.
After fits and starts trying to find the right property, he met a conservation-oriented water attorney interested in selling 108 acres of farmland and riparian forest south of Albuquerque. With luck, and financing help from sympathetic sellers, he now owns 550 acres along the Rio Grande near Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. He plans to permanently protect that land and the water rights that come with it, by working on a conservation easement with the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust.
The property is a haven for Southwestern Willow Flycatchers, waterfowl, migrating water birds, mule deer, and a resident elk herd. Along with an ag-savvy friend, Victor Saiz, who helps to manage the farm, Taliaferro now grows 350 acres of alfalfa, grass, oats, and sudan that they sell to locally to the zoo, a dairy, and many horse and cattle farms.
He rotates and times his irrigation so it benefits overwintering and migratory birds. For example, one winter he counted 5,000 Snow and Ross’s Geese using a flooded field. One spring he counted 500 Swainson’s Hawks walking in the fields hunting grasshoppers and other prey. Farming is also how Taliaferro raises funds to help support habitat restoration work, and to expand the property.
Taliaferro’s ultimate goal is create a large wildlife conservation area along the Rio Grande, piecing together as much property as funding will allow. Taliaferro’s vision has been infectious. Recently, one of his neighbors planned to sell, and wanted Taliaferro to have the first chance to buy. Since Taliaferro couldn’t afford the asking price, the neighbor eventually offered a discount. He told Taliaferro he was getting to the age where he wanted to contribute to something worth more than money.
“For not very much he sold me this entire piece of land, which in a sense is invaluable, and in another sense I don’t know if it is worth that much money,” says Taliaferro. “But to me it’s worth the world.”
Check out all the stories in IWJV’s Summer 2017 Newsletter: