Ridgetop Rachel and the Wing Watchers Raptorthon

By Rachel Iola Taras, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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Ridgetop Rachel and the Wing Watchers kicked-off an inaugural Raptorthon migration along 30 miles of Kittatinny Ridge at the Blue Mountain Ski Area parking lot located at Little Gap in Carbon County in Pennsylvania. Along with an adopted Char-Wills German Shepard Luna and a sprinkling of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary staff, volunteers, friends and family – we celebrated migration connectivity and our shared love of place, the importance of supporting organizations like HMANA, and protecting natural places like Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Warming up our binoculars between the Poconos and Greater Lehigh Valley, we confirmed our migration path towards the beautiful Kempton Valley in Berks County. I had the privilege of encountering my feathered professional coworkers earlier in the morning: our red-tailed hawk, great-horned owl, and eastern screech owl. They support conservation because their lives depend on it!

Across the Lehigh River, we traveled into Lehigh County and spotted several turkey vultures gliding on thermals just above the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. Simultaneously, North Lookout Hawk Migration Counters Paul Heveran and Bracken Brown made the one-mile journey up the trails at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, less than 20 miles east. Conservation Science and Education Trainees perched on the sandstone boulders scanning the Kittatinny Ridge learning hawkwatching techniques from Paul and Bracken. With the official start of our Spring Migration Count a day away, visitors were hopeful for early arrival migrants.

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The Wing Watcher mobile road survey through the Kempton Valley included countless corvids like crows and common ravens as we migrated to our first stop at Wanamaker’s General Store for a fueling of locally made beverages and delicious deli options – for seed and plant- eating herbivores and raptor-like appetites alike. With crops full, we migrated to The Nesting Box dairy store along the open farmlands of the Kempton Valley. We licked our homemade ice cream cones faster than a peregrine stooping on a pigeon while scanning for farmland raptors such as American kestrels and northern harriers. A quick visit to Dietrich’s Meats located off interstate route 78 showcased four generations, including family matriarch Verna who recalls the days of hawk shooting along the ridge. Finally, the Wing Watchers landed at the Kempton Hotel to toast our shared Raptorthon experience prior to ascending Hawk Mountain Road to join Paul, Bracken, and Raptorthon supporters at North Lookout.

My tail feathers twitched in delight to see so many supporters cheer and chip us on in the name of conservation. Together, new and familiar faces fell in love with the Kittatinny Ridge all over again. Officially at North Lookout, we tallied a total of 31 avian species with 11 raptor species including both turkey vulture and black vulture, angler of the raptor world, osprey, farmland raptors including 5 northern harriers and 7 American kestrels, 15 accipiters including 10 sharp-shinned hawks, and 5 Cooper’s hawks.

Rachel, trainees Momodou and Sandra, and young hawkwatcher Cooper.

Rachel, trainees Momodou and Sandra, and young hawkwatcher Cooper.

Speaking of Cooper, one of many superstar Wing Watchers was a 10-year-old birding-obsessed student named Cooper Diehl from Whitehall. Cooper dedicated his entire day to spotting birds, promoting raptor conservation, and learning as much as possible about conservation history, raptor identification, and opportunities to keep learning about birds. Cooper documented his entire Raptorthon experience on his YouTube channel inspiring others to take an active role in pursuing their passion for birding and beyond!

Similarly, 8 red-tailed hawks inspired conversations about adult vs. sub-adult plumage, as we were rewarded with 2 red-shouldered hawks and 3 merlin, providing a satisfying variety in raptor species for our inaugural Wing Watcher Raptorthon.  Finally, our national symbol, a Bald Eagle, amazed the crowds with recognizable field marks. Over 1000 visitors explored the Sanctuary thanks to unusually warm temperatures, blue skies, and gentle breeze – perfect conditions for hiking, admiring the viewshed, and making new friends.

Thanks to you, we raised over $2000 for raptor conservation. Fifty percent of what we raised goes to support HMANA and fifty percent supports Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for a comprehensive raptor conservation victory.

Winged Adventures and Migration Tales

By Pat Dumandan, Spring 2016 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Pat sitting atop boulders at South Lookout during her traineeship in 2016.

Pat sitting atop boulders at South Lookout during her traineeship in 2016.

All animals have their own stories to tell. As someone who plays favorites, I particularly enjoy the sagas of our feathered friends. Conservation science has been particularly useful in helping us peek into their lives, from learning about their family dynamics, to understanding the decisions they make when moving about their territories and across the globe, to keeping us informed about their numbers.

Estimating raptor abundance is especially tricky, because they are secretive species. Luckily, most of them have annual plans to seasonally move back and forth from their homes, following more or less a similar route each way. This allows us to see them altogether and effectively assess their population status. So, when we actually think about it, long-term raptor migration monitoring studies tell us about the adventures of migratory raptors in a human-dominated world.

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Knowing that humans are architects of ecological communities, I am intrigued by how our past intentional or unintentional actions have affected migratory raptors. A few months ago, this idea was fueled by a great mentor and the former HMS Director of Conservation Science Dr. Keith Bildstein, who encouraged me to work on this for my master’s thesis. My graduate research at Boise State University is now focused on gaining insights of how human-environmental changes have influenced the composition and abundance of migratory raptors over extended time periods.

Fortunately, I am able to go on this “winged” adventure and implement this project using the largest raptor migration count dataset worldwide, which is maintained by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (HMS) and was generously shared to me by one of my raptor conservation heroes and current Director of Conservation Science, Dr. Laurie Goodrich.

Dr. Laurie Goodrich and Pat posing in the Acopian Center Trainee Offices.

Dr. Laurie Goodrich and Pat posing in the Acopian Center Trainee Offices.

As a former conservation science trainee, this is both exciting and humbling, because I get to work on an amazing multiple-decade dataset, which is a luxury for wildlife researchers, and also because I get to  work on it alongside my mentors at the Mountain.

During the last few months, I sleuthed historical data by trying out different statistical tools and reading relevant articles written more than 50 years ago.  By doing so, I developed a deeper appreciation for natural history and realized how far along quantitative ecology has gotten. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed being behind the desk, crunching numbers and doing non field-based work. Since I got the taste of fieldwork, I did not think that being “domesticated” in the office would suit me, but somehow I got over it and realized that making sense of data collected over time is equally fun and more challenging, even.

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Currently, I am amidst the process of refining a breakpoint model which would help me determine the “breakpoint” year/s (i.e., when a change in the abundance and diversity of the migratory raptor assemblage is observed) and hopefully, would best describe HMS raptor count data. Once I successfully fit an appropriate model, I can then identify which main threat to raptors (direct persecution, habitat change, and environmental contamination) caused shifts in the assemblage structure. This would help fill in the knowledge gap of how large-scale disturbances influence larger aggregations of animals.

With the continued support of the generous donors of HMS and the Project Soar Grant, I am able to stay in the United States to work on my project during the summer, under the direction of my adviser, Dr. Todd Katzner, and Boise State professors who are in my thesis committee.

These days, I find it thrilling whenever the models I run converge and when I do not get error prompts. As silly and nerdy as it sounds, I feel the same rush as when I spot a huge flock of migrants coming in whenever I get these little wins, analyzing over 80 years of HMS count data. I am very excited to complete this project so I can share a raptor migration tale to the world that is filled with lessons we should have learned from our previous mistakes that have contributed to biodiversity loss, and hopefully find a happy ending with the formulation of effective raptor conservation strategies moving forward.

Following a New Path

By Riley Davenport, Spring 2019 Education Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Riley (right) and the other spring education trainee Shannon (left) hiking up the Lookout Trail.

Riley (right) and the other spring education trainee Shannon (left) hiking up the Lookout Trail.

This past spring, I was one of the education trainees at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. This was my first time working in a non-formal educational environment, as well as my first time ever working closely in environmental education. As you can imagine, coming from an art education background from my undergrad, I had no idea what to expect heading into this internship.

Throughout my traineeship, I was lucky enough to have worked with both the education team and the communications team. I used my experience in graphic design to create flyers and educational materials to be shared with the public, and I also tapped into my experience as an artist to paint our logo downstairs in the Wings of Wonder Gallery. With the education team, I shadowed, assisted, and even led several programs during my time here at Hawk Mountain.

Riley shows an off-site group the adaptations of a raptor talon.

Riley shows an off-site group the adaptations of a raptor talon.

I had the opportunity to lead several guided hikes with groups of all ages and backgrounds, taught sample lessons to educators during our Growing up Wild and Project WET teacher workshops, and went to multiple job and internship fairs to further our outreach into the local community. I learned about raptor care and the hard work that goes into caring for our amazing education birds, and recorded data on our programs and guided groups, just to name a few things!

Some of my favorite highlights of my time at HMS include going to the Barn Nature Center during our first week to observe educator Andrea teach a program and fellow intern Shannon and I got to go into their bird enclosure for a feeding (and a few weeks later we joined Jamie and the international trainees back at the Nature Center to participate in their ropes course!). Several weeks ago, I joined some fellow interns and the Pennsylvania Game Commission to band peregrine falcon fledglings. This opportunity was one that I have never experienced before and one that I will never forget.

Riley holds a recently banded peregrine falcon fledgling.

Riley holds a recently banded peregrine falcon fledgling.

Not only was this opportunity at Hawk Mountain a chance for me to gain more education experience, but I was exposed to raptors and conservation science for the first time in my life, and believe me when I say I was an absolute sponge, absorbing all I could.

This summer I have accepted a position as a seasonal environmental educator at the Wildlands Conservancy in Emmaus, PA, and I look forward to incorporating my experiences that I have gained here into this new opportunity. After obtaining my degree in art education and working in the field immediately after graduation, I felt that I hadn’t made the right decision about my career path, but after looking at education through a different lens at HMS, and being given the opportunity to teach people about something that has been a lifelong passion for me, my perception of education and my future on this path has dramatically changed.

I am beyond grateful for Director of Development Erin Brown and Communications Specialist Gigi Romano for helping to make this opportunity come to fruition. Being an Education Trainee at Hawk Mountain has been a catalyst for me, and I look forward to following this new path to see where it takes me.

In the words of Rachel Carson, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

Finding Myself Among the Birds

By Cheryl Faust, Education Volunteer
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

I started volunteering at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in August 2013 after some life changing events. Being able to handle and present programs with the education birds at the Mountain has helped me reinvent myself and start a second chapter in my life. Looking back at the past five and a half years, I’ve had some real ‘stand out’ memories and lessons I’ve learned from the education birds. 

I can distinctly remember the first time my mentor, Rachel Taras (Senior Educator), and I went down to the enclosures, so I could learn how to retrieve the gray morph eastern screech owl (EASO). She was at Hawk Mountain for a year and already knew her job really well. Rachel explained everything to me in detail: how we would enter the enclosure, what we were going to be doing, and what to expect. I watched Rachel ask the EASO to get on the glove, paying attention to her timing, posture, and position.

September 2014. The first time Cheryl retrieved the gray eastern screech owl.

September 2014. The first time Cheryl retrieved the gray eastern screech owl.

The first time I asked the gray EASO to step onto the glove, she hopped on and then hopped off right away. When she hopped off, she went down to the ground and my heart sank! Rachel explained to me she was ok and we would wait until the bird was back on a perch.  I realized then that I had a lot of work to do. My efforts paid off, and after a few weeks the EASO was hopping onto my glove first approach. Working with the owl, I learned how to read those tiny raptor movements we call body language.

The next education bird I started working with was the senior red-tailed hawk (RTHA). She was already having some arthritis issues in her talons, so the decision was made that I would handle her for programs and return the bird to her enclosure, but I would not retrieve her from her enclosure. The senior RTHA was a pro and taught me several things during our short time together. One of the first things I needed to master was paying close attention to both the bird on my arm and my audience. I was good at multitasking, but this required me to broaden my awareness of everyone and everything in my surroundings. Because this bird knew her job so well, I was able to relax, which helped boost my confidence in front of a large crowd. She also kept me on my toes, helping me refine my overall animal handling skills.

Cheryl and the “junior” red-tailed hawk at the 2018 Benefit for the Birds gala.

Cheryl and the “junior” red-tailed hawk at the 2018 Benefit for the Birds gala.

When the decision was made that the senior RTHA would be semi-retired, the Sanctuary acquired a second RTHA who we referred to as “junior RTHA.” The bird was thought to be young and had a wing injury. This bird has been my biggest challenge so far, but also my most rewarding. For months I worked on a weekly basis, entering her enclosure, slowly approaching, watching her body language, and either leaving when the bird moved away or slowly approaching if she remained calm. I can still remember the feeling of exhilaration when she first stepped up on my glove; if I could have done a cart-wheel I would have! Receiving this hawk’s “stamp of approval” was well worth the time, effort, and work.

Cheryl showing the female American kestrel to a visitor at the Silhouette Trail grand opening in 2015.

Cheryl showing the female American kestrel to a visitor at the Silhouette Trail grand opening in 2015.

When I heard that Hawk Mountain was acquiring a female American kestrel (AMKE), I was thrilled!  This would expose me to some new raptor behavior because this bird was an imprint. Her disability was mental, and she was able to fly extremely well.  I was very lucky that I established a trust account quickly with the AMKE, and I was honored to handle her at the opening for the new Silhouette Trail to South Lookout. Honestly, even though I was warned many times not to, I became attached to the AMKE. When we lost her suddenly, I realized my error and learned that while it’s important to have strong trust accounts with the education birds, it’s imperative not to become attached.

These are just a few of the stand out moments and lessons I have had with the education birds. I’ve lost count of all of the amazing memories I’ve created with my fellow volunteers, staff members, family, friends, and visitors.  Volunteering for the education department has been an incredible experience; I have found myself again, reinvented who I was, and became healed by the Mountain.

A Grand Adventure

By Kirsten Fuller, former conservation and education trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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Elementary geometry taught me that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  Life, however, is not geometry. Going from college to career has hardly been a direct path; it’s been more like this photo of the Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon National Park: winding and weaving through the universe.

The path I’ve taken has been riddled with challenging experiences, interesting people, and magical places. I wouldn’t have altered the course I’ve taken for anything, as it has gotten me to places I never imagined I could be.

My first position with Hawk Mountain was with the education department. At the time, I was working on my bachelor’s degree in education, and still contemplating if teaching was in my future. Director of Education, Erin Brown, was a supportive and flexible supervisor and allowed me to tailor my internship directly to my interests: a combination of education and ecological research. 

Since my first internship with Hawk Mountain, I have worked for the Sanctuary as a volunteer and a conservation science trainee. I keep returning to the Mountain because it motivates me to plow forward in pursuit of my goals.  From each member of the Hawk Mountain team I have learned unique skills that influenced my personal and professional ambitions.

Kirsten holding a California spotted owl.

Kirsten holding a California spotted owl.

After my conservation science traineeship at the Sanctuary ended last May, I headed west to California to work for the Institute for Bird Populations as a field technician tracking California spotted owls and northern goshawks. This hands-on fieldwork experience would not have been available to me had I not gained the training necessary from my experiences at Hawk Mountain.

Similarly, I would not have been prepared for my next position with Hawkwatch International as a hawk counter, had I not previously spent a season counting hawks flying up the Kittatinny Ridge in PA during spring migration. For over 400 hours I baked in the Arizona sun, counting raptors flying the 18 mile gap over the Grand Canyon during fall migration. While the species that dominated our count in Arizona were similar to Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to observe species specific to the west as well: ferruginous hawks, prairie falcons, and zone-tailed hawks.

A soaring California condor

A soaring California condor

And I can’t discount the grandeur of witnessing magnificent California condors gliding close overhead (even if they were only flying so low to check on the status of our mortality).

At the start of the year I began a new job as a wildlife technician at the Grand Canyon. My position focuses on threatened and endangered bird species: the California condor, Mexican spotted owl and southwestern willow flycatcher.

Kirsten using the radio telemetry unit to track California condors passing the canyon.

Kirsten using the radio telemetry unit to track California condors passing the canyon.

One highlight of my job is tracking California condors along the rim using radio telemetry. This offers the chance to use my interpretive skills to inform visitors about conservation issues threatening these prehistoric creatures.

Another fun aspect of this job is the opportunity to help other biologists on their projects. Throughout the spring and summer I will be able to help trap bats along the rim and within the inner canyon. Trapping bats is similar to mist netting for birds, except these winged creatures bite. The bat in this photo a big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus).

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Each bat gets swabbed and tested for white nose syndrome, which has not been documented at the Grand Canyon yet. Whether it’s bat, elk, javelina or rattlesnakes, learning about the complete wildlife scene at the Grand Canyon has been informative and interesting; I don’t see myself abandoning my raptor research intentions anytime soon though.

Author and desert activist Edward Abbey once said, “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view”. Amazing, indeed. My view may have changed over time from the Kempton Valley to the desert, but neither one is favored by me.  Both views are unique, special, and inspiring.  

Like so many conservation science trainees, I am now thousands of miles away from Hawk Mountain. Despite the distance, I regularly reflect on my time at the Mountain and how it has helped me get to where I am today. More than once I have hit the trails in the Canyon sporting a Hawk Mountain Sanctuary hat or shirt and ran into a visitor that recognized the name of the organization I love dearly. Hawk Mountain’s reputation is far reaching, and I am so proud to be forever connected to this special place.

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Power Lines Remain a Threat for the Endangered Cinereous Vulture

By Alfonso Godino, HMS Research Associate

Cinereous vulture in flight, with power lines visible in the background. Photo by Scott Bowers.

Cinereous vulture in flight, with power lines visible in the background. Photo by Scott Bowers.

The cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) is an endangered species in Portugal and in the European Union. After the extinction as a breeding species in Portugal during the 1970´s, we observed a few pairs starting to breed in Tejo International National Park in 2010.

After almost a decade after the recolonization, no studies were implemented on this colony with the exception of the annual breeding population census.

Due to the lack of information about the ecology of this colony, in 2018, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary collaborated with the Tejo International N. P., and joined efforts with the Portuguese National Agency for Nature Conservation, the electric company ENDESA, and the Toxicology Department of the Veterinary University of Murcia to study the cinereous vulture in the main colony of Portugal.

The main goals of this project are to study the juvenile dispersion and to identify the limiting factors and threats affecting to this group of the population.

Alfonso and team tagging the vulture from the nest.

Alfonso and team tagging the vulture from the nest.

To achieve these goals, in 2018, all the nestlings in the colony (8) were equipped with GPS-GSM transmitters, six of them were tagged in the nest and other two were sent to the wildlife rescue centre before fledging (one because the collapse of the nest and the second one due to the beginning of a starvation process), but both were released later after recovery.

Movements during the first year of tracking showed all the juveniles stayed mainly in the colony and nearby surroundings, with some excursions of 80-100 km away from the colony. During one of these excursions, one of the vultures showed, thanks to the information sent by the transmitter, small movement and no flight behaviour.

After detecting this lack of movements, on April 10, staff of Tejo International N. P. and Serra de São Mamede N. P., another protected area close where the vulture was detected, went to the location of the last positions sent by the transmitter.

The place, 70 km southwest of the colony where the vulture was tagged, is an area of Mediterranean open forest and extensive livestock, a perfect place for a juvenile cinereous vulture searching for food. Unfortunately, several power lines cross the area.

Park staff load the car after locating and capturing the injured vulture.

Park staff load the car after locating and capturing the injured vulture.

After a few minutes searching for the vulture, the team found the bird, and it was sent to the nearest wildlife rescue centre close to the Tejo International N.P. The first vet check showed a dislocation or luxation on the right wing, affecting some tendons, probably caused by an impact. Due to this diagnostic and the urgent need for a surgical intervention, the vulture was sent to the Veterinary University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD).

First vet visit for the vulture to assess the injury.

First vet visit for the vulture to assess the injury.

The injured cinereous vulture is still at the University and waiting for a diagnostic to start the rehabilitation process with physiotherapy in the rescue centre. Only after this period of therapy will we be able to determine if this vulture could released back to the wild or if it must keep in captivity for all its life.

All signs point to a collision with a wire as the origin of this wing injury, and the presence of several power lines in the area where the vulture was found, none of which have been marked to reduce birds´ collision, lead us to think that this is the cause of this unfortunate incident.

Electrocution and collision with power lines is an important threat for raptors´ conservation in many areas all around the world, despite the effort of public bodies, wildlife conservation NGOs, and electric companies to minimize this threat.

But many times, the incidence of raptor collision and electrocution by power lines is underestimated, because there are no records due to the lack of monitoring. For this reason, it is very important to use new technologies and to equip raptors with GPS devices with the goal to detect potential threats.

The injured cinereous vulture on the way to vet. Notice the satellite transmitter on it’s back, which made locating it possible.

The injured cinereous vulture on the way to vet. Notice the satellite transmitter on it’s back, which made locating it possible.

In this case, the information supplied by the GPS-GSM units provided by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and especially the combination of coordinates giving us the bird’s location and the information on movement speed provided by the device, allowed us to detect very quickly that the bird was not flying. As a result, we could react in time to recover this bird while it was still alive. If this vulture was not equipped with the GPS, it is highly probable that nobody would have known of the collision with power lines and the vulture would have died.

There are still six other nestlings equipped during 2018 with GPS and in 2019, and another eight new cinereous vultures of the Tejo International N. P. colony will be tagged with GPS units thanks to the HMS support. The information provided during this first year of monitoring and the future information gathered for these vultures will be an essential tool to identify and prevent threats on this endangered population, and it will increase our understanding about the juvenile dispersion and survival in this colony.

Trailblazing for Armenian Raptors

By Levon Harutyunyan, former conservation science trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Levon stationed atop Hawk Mountain’s North Lookout during fall migration.

Levon stationed atop Hawk Mountain’s North Lookout during fall migration.

My bird conservation path went parallel to my Hawk Mountain “era” since autumn of 2017, when I was accepted as an International Trainee of the international training program in conservation science. Despite that I had built some experience by that time working in the field of wildlife conservation for several years, those four months of training at HMS were another level, another challenge, and a unique experience for my entire professional career. Working side by side with world-known ornithologists and conservation professionals, is apparently the best way of gaining hands-on experience and motivation for working harder to foster further devotion to nature and birds.

Levon presenting about the Hawk Mountain Conservation Trainee program.

Levon presenting about the Hawk Mountain Conservation Trainee program.

I left the Sanctuary in the beginning of the winter, but with warm emotions, memories, and new knowledge of raptor migration and conservation. With inspiration and confidence, I returned to work at the Institute of Zoology of National Academy of Sciences of Armenia and the Armenian Society for the Protection of Birds NGO.  Several weeks later, together with the Acopian Center for the Environment, we organized information sessions in 3 Armenian universities, featuring the International Training Program in Conservation Science at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Acopian Center for Conservation Learning. During these sessions, the program alumni presented the training program and shared their stories about Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and its conservation practice.

Following that year, I was actively involved in annual bird census programs and bird monitoring projects for the corporate sector, but I have always considered developing my own project proposal regarding raptor conservation. I had many ideas, but none of them were called into action.

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However, after a long period of exploration, in late 2018 I became a PhD student at the Scientific Center of Zoology and Hydroecology NAS RA and finally defined the topic of my research. I decided to study the raptor migration in my country. Being located between the two large flyways connecting Eurasia with Africa, Armenia serves as a one of the migration corridors for northern populations of birds of prey. In the country 39 raptor species are recorded in total, of which more than 20 migrate different distances from Armenia and through Armenia during autumn and spring migration.

Armenia is not an exception in terms of the threats to migratory species. Nevertheless, the volume of migration of birds of prey across Armenia has not yet been assessed, and this fact triggered the necessity for the study. The main goal of my research is to determine the raptor migration stopover sites in the country, assess their importance and ecological aspects, and identify existing threats the types of potential barriers. Although some people think that this is a very ambitious task, I believe that if you love what you do, you will succeed. At present, I am working on the detailed planning of this project and field study design.

In the end, my short story is just one among hundreds of others that have been somehow shaped up by the Hawk Mountain experience. This is the place that can change the minds and attitudes towards nature and wildlife, and one of the important locations in the world to be visited by any prospective student of ornithology or potential bird conservation professional.

Environmental Literacy: A Continuum

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Leadership Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain educators who attended the PAEE 2019 Conference, posing with HMS educational materials. From left to right: Shannon Lambert, trainee; Zoey Greenberg; leadership trainee; Andrea Ambrose, educator; Riley Davenport, trainee; Erin Brown, director of education.

Hawk Mountain educators who attended the PAEE 2019 Conference, posing with HMS educational materials. From left to right: Shannon Lambert, trainee; Zoey Greenberg; leadership trainee; Andrea Ambrose, educator; Riley Davenport, trainee; Erin Brown, director of education.

This March, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary sent several members of the education team to the 2019 conference for the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Education. This meeting of educators is held every year in hopes of encouraging networking, idea exchange, and cultivating a resurgence of passion for our state’s hard-working team of environmental educators. Attendees ranged from classroom teachers to naturalists to folks like Hawk Mountain’s own Andrea Ambrose, Todd Bauman and myself, all of whom presented on the efforts of the mountain to inspire nature immersion and appreciation of raptors. Erin Brown, Shannon Lambert, Riley Davenport were also in attendance, offering valued support and documenting our presentations.

Zoey and Andrea presenting “In the Name of Environmental Literacy, Let’s Make Science Sexy.”

Zoey and Andrea presenting “In the Name of Environmental Literacy, Let’s Make Science Sexy.”

Andrea Ambrose and I co-presented “How to make Science Sexy,” illustrating some of the ways that Hawk Mountain thinks outside of the education box, and engages visitors in creative ways. We focused on the importance of making science accessible, so as not to further perpetuate the lingering reputation that science is for academics only. Among our highlighted examples were detailed natural history posters on several of our migrants, our use of a turkey vulture rap to encourage vulture appreciation, Google earth animations highlighting black vulture movement data, our distance-learning raptor drunks, and build-a-bird kits, with which Andrea decked an attendee out in talons, a beak, and excellent eyesight to illustrate raptor adaptations to an amused audience. Todd Bauman gave an incredible presentation on the use of media to engage youth in natural history, highlighting his experience as a trip leader for the Hawk Mountain Conservation Corps.

These presentations also tied in with the conference theme of “Cityscapes and Greenscapes,” selected by conference coordinators as a way to discuss how environmental education intersects rural, urban, and suburban landscapes, green spaces and everywhere in between. As a well-known destination for both recreation and migration observation, Hawk Mountain attracts people from many walks of life and corners of the world, yet we are located in a rural area and maintain a strong connection with the perspective of Pennsylvanians. This diverse appeal provides us with many opportunities for educational innovation, and to top it off, we are exposing international conservation science trainees to the public, and the public to them. This mixing of world views is a rare and priceless element of education programming, and paves the way for the exchange of new ideas.

Another potent undertone to the conference was our global need for an increase in environmental literacy. Environmental literacy has been defined as the desired outcome of environmental education, which aims to provide learners with sound scientific information and facilitate the development of critical thinking skills as well as creative problem solving and decision-making abilities. Ideally the acquisition of these attributes would lead to increased environmental literacy, or an individual’s “understanding, skills and motivation to make responsible decisions that considers his or her relationships to natural systems, communities and future generations.”

This is a loaded description, and designing programs that achieve these learning outcomes and result in a more informed public can be a daunting task. However, many of us would agree that encouraging this holistic perception of our role within the environment is a societal outcome worth fighting for. One helpful way to break down this concept of environmental literacy is to think of it as a continuum, with a ladder of “steps” that individuals may climb over the course of their lifetime. Even those who work in the environmental field every day such as biologists, environmental educators and park rangers, are still climbing this ladder, and I would argue, there is no such thing as either a perfect score, or someone who is environmentally illiterate. We all start somewhere. 

This conference caused me to reflect on where I see myself on the ladder, as well as how my own style of teaching about raptors may push people towards one level of literacy over another. This was an eye-opening thought process, and allowed me to experience the conference with a fresh perspective on how to engage people in a way that meets them where they are, rather than coerces them to meet me where I am. We all comes from different environmental backgrounds and I believe that working with your audience’s existing context is more effective than trying to persuade them to abandon their context for your own.

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Due to the nature of this educational challenge, collaborative conferences like PAEE are immensely helpful in exposing educators to a variety of tool boxes, as well as success stories that demonstrate how honoring the environmental realities of a given community can stitch people together through a shared passion for the natural treasures in their area. I attended talks on how to get kids excited about bugs, the importance of marketing in conservation, how to tell science through story, the benefits of citizen science, and I even read love letters written by children to their watershed. I believe these local projects are important kindling for a more universal acknowledgment of our responsibilities to the natural world.

I will continue to nourish my own environmental literacy framework, and through my work with raptors, I hope to encourage the same desire in others. As I move through this process, I will remember David Sobel, whose words apply, in my opinion, not only to children but to every individual:

If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.
— David Sobel

Molded by the Mountain

By Adehl Schwaderer, former conservation trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Adehl looks out at the valley from South Lookout.

Adehl looks out at the valley from South Lookout.

When I am interpreting or teaching about wildlife, people often ask me a lot of difficult questions. Out of all the questions I have been asked, the ones that I find hardest to explain are why I know so much about the natural world, how I became interested in birds (of all things), and how I found out about a career in environmental conservation. These are difficult questions to answer because I do not have one clear, summarized response. Who I am today and how I got to where I am now was shaped by every experience I have had leading up to this point in my life, including my time at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. So, when someone asks me this, I wish I could paint a picture of all the people and places that have shaped who I am.  Now, I finally have the chance!

I first found out about Hawk Mountain as a junior at Robert Morris University, and I jumped at the chance to spend the summer working for the education department. I applied for the Heuer Education Intern position, and that experience opened my eyes to the world of avian conservation, molded my professional direction, and changed the way I view my own potential.  

Adehl with the other trainees on a cultural trip.

Adehl with the other trainees on a cultural trip.

Before starting my internship, I was very apprehensive. It was my first time traveling to a completely new place to work, and I had very little knowledge about raptor conservation. Thankfully, none of my worst fears came to fruition. Within my first week of working for Erin Brown, HMS Education Director, I felt settled into my new position, comfortable in the trainee residence, and had many exciting goals to conquer over the next four months. I spent the summer leading educational programs and guided hikes, collaborating with the conservation scientists to create educational videos about their projects for classroom use, and also had the opportunity to learn the basics of raptor care.  That summer I also spent time with international trainees and college research interns from all over the United States. We were living, working, and spending free time together and became close friends as a result. I learned so much about different cultures, environmental conservation in different parts of the world, and was able to see how having an open mind can allow you to learn new things about others and yourself.

Adehl practicing raptor care with the Sanctuary’s red-tailed hawk.

Adehl practicing raptor care with the Sanctuary’s red-tailed hawk.

My time as a member of the education team taught me numerous skills required to be an effective team player, and I learned firsthand that enthusiasm and drive outweigh nervousness and self-doubt. I followed their example, and when I felt nervous about leading a program or unsure of a decision I was making, I would let my excitement and passion shine through to ease my mind.

This support and insight was what pushed me to continue to work towards becoming a better educator. From the moment I arrived at Hawk Mountain, Erin made me feel welcomed, helped me navigate my new role as an intern, and was genuinely excited to add me to the team. She would go out of her way to expose me to new experiences, include me in decisions, and listen to each idea and suggestion I had. Her trust and encouragement helped me challenge what I thought I was truly capable of as an educator.

Rachel and Adehl posing with a “tagged vulture” educational tool.

Rachel and Adehl posing with a “tagged vulture” educational tool.

Rachel Taras, Senior Educator at HMS, is one of the most positive, enthusiastic educators I know! Before her, I didn’t know it was okay to let your audience know how excited you were about the topic you were explaining. When making decisions, she thinks critically about the situation so that the outcome is positive and beneficial for everyone involved. She helped me understand that open communication and following through with responsibilities is essential for the health of the birds and her patience and thorough training allowed me to complete raptor care tasks with ease. Being Rachel’s mentee boosted my confidence and taught me how to greet every obstacle with a smile.

Adam Carter, another HMS educator, showed me how to use my powers of observation to engage my audience. If I knew my audience’s interests, I could go off script and give them the best experience by tailoring my focus. He encouraged me to let people know who I was and reminded me that I had too many important things to say to be worried about other people's perceptions of me. “Normal is boring, Adehl!” His words of reassurance really helped me, and I continue to remember them when I feel unsure of myself.

Adehl holding a recently tagged black vulture.

Adehl holding a recently tagged black vulture.

I loved my first experience at HMS so much that I couldn't resist returning to the Mountain, this time as a conservation science trainee. This allowed me to dive into the research side of avian conservation. From helping Dr. JF Therrien in the field banding American Kestrels, watching Dr. Laurie Goodrich and her team attach satellite telemetry units onto broad-winged hawks, and having the opportunity to hold a black vulture with David Barber, all of these moments sparked my interest in pursuing more opportunities in raptor research. Learning the importance of the big picture when considering a research idea or conservation issue from Dr. Keith Bildstein allowed me to feel more capable in future research opportunities. All of the scientists were supportive, engaging, and helped make my first research experience an influential one.

It took these people saying yes, giving me guidance and room to grow, to help me realize my true potential. My experiences on the Mountain painted a clear picture of the type of organization I wanted to work for in the future, helped me understand my professional goals, and allowed me to connect with people from different backgrounds through raptor biology. I gained the confidence to pursue a career I love and the knowledge to be an effective teacher and researcher. Without this foundation, I would not be the naturalist, educator, or scientist that I am today.

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Heroes of Hawk Mountain: Tom Cade

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The raptor conservation community mourned the loss of Dr. Tom Cade earlier this year. Dr. Cade is not just a Hawk Mountain Hero, but a hero for the entire field of raptor conservation. It was an honor and a privilege to thank him personally for his many contributions by presenting him in 2008 with Hawk Mountain’s Sarkis Acopian Award for Excellence in Raptor Conservation. 

Simply put, the man was a legend. Dr. Cade was an ornithology professor at Cornell University when in 1970 he co-founded The Peregrine Fund in response to the near extinction of peregrines in the United States. At the time, there were no peregrines east of the Mississippi and only a handful in the West.

The culprit behind their decline was DDT, a pesticide that had been in widespread use since the 1940’s and caused eggshell thinning, leading to eggs breaking in the nest. When too few chicks hatched, peregrine populations crashed by up to 90 percent.

What followed is considered the largest and most organized effort in history to prevent the loss of a species and restore its population.At the time, most experts thought it impossible to breed captive birds of prey on a large scale, but under Cade’s leadership, a Dream Team essentially changed the course of extinction. The team was extensive and included falconers who had experience in raising the raptors, biologists who studied them, and volunteers, students and others who understood the implications of losing a species.

From 1974 to 1997, The Peregrine Fund bred and released into the wild more than 4,000 falcons and, in 1999, the peregrine was removed from the federal endangered species list. Dr. Cade’s pioneering work led to other breakthroughs in the field of endangered species research, and his techniques were later used on bald eagles, California condors, harpy eagles, and other species.Today The Peregrine Fund works on six continents and in more than 55 countries, leading and coordinating numerous conservation efforts globally, and Dr. Cade’s contributions are recognized worldwide.

Dr. Cade’s lifetime of work in raptor conservation and recovery left a permanent legacy for raptor biologists and enthusiasts across North America and beyond. The autumn flights of peregrines enjoyed by countless Hawk Mountain visitors,year after year, are a direct result of his foresight and hard work.

Click here to learn more about his work.