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.

The Mystery of Pennsylvania's Lesser Black-backed Gulls

By David Barber, Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

We stood around the back of the pick-up truck tearing up day old bread, cookies, and muffins into bite-sized pieces.  When we thought we had enough, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist, Patti Barber, grabbed a bag and walked to the middle of the vacant parking lot and started tossing pieces into the air.  Within seconds ring-billed gulls came flying in to take advantage of the free meal.  But these gulls weren't the reason we were all gathered on this cold March day at Nockamixon State Park.  Patti was after lesser black-backed gulls.

Adult lesser black-backed gull with satellite transmitter. Photo by Pat Rago.

Adult lesser black-backed gull with satellite transmitter. Photo by Pat Rago.

Lesser black-backed gulls have captured the attention of Pennsylvania's birdwatchers ever since they first started showing up in winter in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1960’s.  You see, lesser black-blacked gulls do not nest in the United States and these birds typically appeared in November and disappeared in March.  Where were these birds coming from and where were they going?  Armed with 10 satellite transmitters, Patti along with biologists from the Game Commission, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary hoped to find out. 

While the ring-billed gulls were not shy about coming into the buffet, the lesser black-backs were more aloof, standing off to the side of the food scrum, just outside the range of the rocket net.   They had to come into the center of the feeding frenzy in order to fire off the rocket net.  By moving around with the food Patti was able to manipulate the flock's movements.

Hawk Mountain Research Biologist David Barber and PA Game Commission Biologist Patti Barber check the fit of a satellite transmitter before releasing a lesser black-backed gull. Photo by Pat Rago.

Hawk Mountain Research Biologist David Barber and PA Game Commission Biologist Patti Barber check the fit of a satellite transmitter before releasing a lesser black-backed gull. Photo by Pat Rago.

By late afternoon, the flock finally moved so the lesser black-backed gulls were in the target zone.  With a boom the net arced out over the gull flock ensnaring nearly 80 gulls, a mix of ring-billed, herring, and lesser black-backed gulls. Everyone mobilized, releasing the ring-billed and herring gulls and saving the prize, 20 lesser black-backed gulls.  By the time all of the gulls were released, the sun was setting and the cold was seeping into our fingers.  Not willing to simply release our captives, we needed to need to find a warm, bright spot where we could band the birds and attach the satellite transmitters. 

We drove back to our house, turning the garage into a make shift banding station.  The immature gulls were measured and banded, while the adults received both a band and a satellite transmitter.  We finally finished processing the last bird at 2 am and caught a little sleep before driving back to Lake Nockamixon to release the birds at sunrise.

According to Patti, the transmitters are providing a wealth of information, the birds don't just spend the winter at Lake Nockamixon, but often commute to different water bodies in southeastern Pennsylvania and central New Jersey, including Green Lane and Peace Valley reservoirs in PA and Spruce Run and Round Valley reservoirs in NJ.  Some even spent time on the NJ shore before commuting back to Lake Nockamixon. 

Movements of  lesser black-backed gulls through June 2018. Map by PA Game Commission.

Movements of  lesser black-backed gulls through June 2018. Map by PA Game Commission.

And where do these birds go in the spring? Of the 9 birds that were tagged with transmitters in 2018, one transmitter stopped working before the spring migration, but five of the birds spent the summer in Greenland and three spent the summer in Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland, Canada. 

As of early February, six of the gulls returned to southeastern PA, one was wintering in Virginia, but is heading north to PA and one transmitter failed on the breeding grounds.  An additional satellite transmitter was deployed on an adult bird last week and is hanging  out at the New Jersey reservoirs.

Thanks to the Pennsylvania Game Commission with help from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and volunteers, we are well on our way to solving the mystery of Pennsylvania lesser black-backed gulls. 

Visit the Game Commission's Lesser Black-backed Gull project page for updates as they become available.

Land of the Sky Clowns

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Leadership Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

King Vulture

King Vulture

King vultures are ridiculously handsome scavengers. When one of these color collages fixes you with a bright yellow gaze it’s akin to locking eyes with a sky clown, though somehow the moment feels un-funny. True to their name, they carry an air of royalty that is impossible to ignore and as a species, they are a breathtaking compliment to the diversity of the natural world.

I saw my first king vulture this month in Costa Rica, as I joined senior research biologist JF Therrien and former trainee from 1999, Pablo Porras, to assist in Hawk Mountain’s vulture surveys as part of our ongoing population assessment study. On this trip six surveys were completed, covering a wide expanse of Costa Rica’s rich and diverse habitats and updating our web of vulture knowledge by furthering our understanding of their winter movements. We also succeeded in confirming a collaboration with the non-profit Osa Birds: Research and Conservation, in which two annual vulture surveys will be completed by director Karen Leavelle and her crew.

Driving survey routes through Costa Rica

Driving survey routes through Costa Rica

There were many a day when the note taker (often me) remained in a constant state of scribble-frenzy as vultures swooped literally everywhere, and while neck cramps became my constant companion, they were worth the discovery that this year’s numbers were plentiful. In total, 2,785 vultures were counted! Turkey, black, and yes, king vultures were recorded as were other raptors, such as road-side hawks, black hawks, yellow-headed caracaras, and crested caracaras. The next step is to compare the numbers recorded in our 2019 surveys with surveys conducted in 2006. Hawk Mountain and its partners intend to repeat vulture surveys in many regions of the Americas in the next few years.

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 Costa Rica is part of an important geographical bottleneck that funnels migrating raptors to and from South America. During the early 2000’s there was a raptor count site called Kekoldi  located on an indigenous reservation close to Puerto Viejo. Kekoldi was run by Pablo from 2000-2006, and our own Dr. JF Therrien volunteered there as a counter, returning on this trip for the first time in sixteen years.

To revisit the site, we hiked from a lodge built and run by Sebastian Hernandez, a member of the Cabeca tribe, up to a tower built by Sebastian himself using trees from around his home. After climbing four flights of wooden steps our heads popped into sky surrounded by canopy, butterflies, chattering toucans, and eye level turkey vultures. Only moments later we caught the silhouettes of double-toothed kites, black hawks, white hawks, and a fascinating turkey vulture mimic, the zone-tailed hawk. All of these birds and more, in February.

Kekoldi and the Costa Rican migration corridor see one of the top five highest counts of migrating raptors in the world, and one of the most numerous peregrine falcon flights in the Americas. The Kekoldi tower was built with the intent of hosting visiting scholars, educators and enthusiasts from local communities and internationally. Regretfully, financial support became a limiting factor all too soon, and after a count of six years there were no longer resources to keep the tower manned each season, although sporadic counts are occasionally conducted. 

Many cutting edge studies are illustrating the need for understanding of species’ annual cycles, and this means investigating multiple hotspots along their journey. The Costa Rican Caribbean flyway is part of the migration pathway for many North American birds. Perhaps with greater outreach in raptor conservation, those with the knowledge and passion to start another count site may be inspired to do so. When that day comes, raptors throughout the Western Hemisphere will have higher chance of survival through their long migratory journeys in the years to follow because as we have learned, monitoring and education are a powerful duo that when used properly, can change the trajectory of conservation.

In addition to surveying vultures, Another intent of our visit to Costa Rica was to explore the possibility of promoting the importance of raptors within schools. Hawk Mountain is already partnering in Veracruz Mexico to promote environmental education and outreach and has been for more than 25 years. Our hope is to extend the raptor conservation message by providing materials and training throughout this critical flyway. 

There are approximately twenty schools near the Kekoldi count site that already receive outreach from the Talamanca-Caribe Biological Corridor, overseen by the country’s Ministry of Education. This organization is a well-established and respected facilitator of nature engagement for public schools in the area. During our visit we received a positive response from their education coordinator about the possibility of inputting a Hawk Mountain generated raptor component into their future programs. The intention would be to contribute materials such as children’s books, lesson plans, posters and interactive activities that would fit the needs of local schools, and prove useful within their community’s environmental reality. 

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JF and Pablo searching with binoculars from the tower.

JF and Pablo searching with binoculars from the tower.

On my final day at the tower I contemplated the strong undertow of the country’s natural history. Tropical creatures danced and shuffled by in erratic circles as we kept our binoculars skyward, waiting for a raptor to carve figure eights in the clouds above. Our hope is that one day this experience will be available to others, and that visitors will be able to engage in their very own sky clown moments, solidifying in their minds the majesty of the tropics and the beauty of the raptor world.

Heroes of Hawk Mountain: Fred Beste

By Mary Linkevich, Director of Development
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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Fred Beste had a lifelong connection with nature and a love for Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and stands out as a Hawk Mountain Hero for legacy to the Sanctuary and the indelible marks he made.

He and his wife Polly moved to the Lehigh Valley in the early 1980s when he joined Mid-Atlantic Venture Funds in Bethlehem, Pa, to serve as its founding president and CEO. It wasn’t long before he discovered the Sanctuary and remained one of its staunchest supporters and most passionate ambassadors throughout the remainder of his life.

He often shared the story of the day he brought their daughter Megan as a young girl and the two visited the North Lookout. As luck would have it, the winds were kind and the two marveled at the great kettles of broadwings that boiled overhead. While most visits thereafter paled in the number of birds that passed, he always said that “every day is a good day at North Lookout.”

Fred and fellow board member Minturn Wright standing outside the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning.

Fred and fellow board member Minturn Wright standing outside the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning.

I had the pleasure of meeting Fred when he joined the board of directors the same year that I joined the staff. He served more than 15 years including positions as chair of the development and nominating committees, as vice chair, and four as chairman of the board. During his tenure, the Sanctuary opened the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning, fully endowed its international training program, upgraded and expanded the Education Building, and constructed an accessible trail. He also chaired the Benefit for Birds Gala, spearheaded fundraising to build a director of education endowment, and led the charge each November to generate support for critically needed general operating dollars through our Annual Fund.

In short, he supported virtually every program at Hawk Mountain.

With his endless energy and positive outlook, one would never guess that Fred was born with a life-threatening heart condition. In fact, he outlived his doctor’s estimates by at least five years, but his very special heart stopped beating in December 8, 2018. We are comforted to know that he and Polly were able to make a final walk to the North Lookout that October. The trek could not have been easy, but Fred was determined, and never one to shirk a challenge.

Fred and his wife, Polly.

Fred and his wife, Polly.

During his lifetime, Fred made a legacy gift to help protect the view he loved so much, and those dollars helped to conserve forever 66 acres of riparian lands directly below the North Lookout. He rallied for land conservation and the need to protect the Sanctuary for generations to come, and his leadership and advocacy helped to protect at least two additional parcels rated highest need for protection.

Off the Sanctuary, Fred was an amazing human being who lived a full and wonderful life. He was a brilliant businessman with a long list of professional accolades, loved to brag about his family, and was quick to always add to his vast collection of friends. He had an insatiable quest for knowledge, a love of books and gardening, and founded a group of readers he called his Select Literate Friends. I’m honored to have been part of “SLF,” and the stories of his semi-annual two-day “Gathering” of SLFers at his home are legendary.

Hawk Mountain President Sean Grace met Fred during his interview process and had the pleasure of working with him throughout his first year on the Sanctuary.

“Fred was highly successful in both business and in life because of his perseverance and perpetually glass-half-full perspective, which now stands as a lesson to each of the staff and board members who knew him,” Sean says.

Today we remember Fred as a Hawk Mountain hero for his love of Sanctuary and his work as a tireless ambassador, leader, and supporter. 

Please Pass the Machete: The Quest for the Harpy Eagle

Panama Eco-Tour Blog Part 2
Read Part 1 by Dr. Laurie Goodrich
here.

By Jamie Dawson, Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

It was dark in the thick Panamanian jungle, well before dawn. Before the howling monkeys rustled the vine-choked trees, the magical blue morpho butterflies flitted between flowers, and long before the creatures of the rainforest awoke to begin their daily balance of finding food without becoming food, gringos were stirring deep in the Darien, where the wild has not yet been tamed by man. They were a venturing on this mysterious Central American journey and forever bound in fellowship forged by the quest for the elusive harpy eagle.

 We loaded into our trusted van and excitedly sunk into our familiar seats, clutching dirty daypacks laden with our gear, water, and most importantly, copious amounts of dove chocolate. Fueled by strong coffee and the anticipation of fulfilling lifelong harpy dreams, we silently drove through the darkness.

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 Eventually our vehicle turned onto an unpaved dirt road, where two hardcore pickup trucks, seemingly straight out of Jurassic Park and decked out for off-roading safaris, were waiting to transport us to the next leg of our journey…the Chucunaque River. After rousing bumps and jolts, we arrived at the rural riverbank port cloaked in light rain, just as sun began to rise. There in the brown river floated our awaiting riverboat queens: two long, dugout canoes. After cautiously boarding, our canoe captains launched us down the longest river in Panama towards secluded harpy nesting grounds on the outskirts of the remote Sinai village.

 It was raining. We sat completely exposed to the elements without reprieve, as the water pelted us relentlessly for the entire three hour boat ride. I never expected to be cold in Panama. Furtive glances downstream revealed large flocks of disgruntled ibis dispersing in unison to escape the annoyance of our approaching vessels. Only one thought kept my chilled, rain-drenched despair at bay—chocolate. I watched the misty trees pass by and imagined the pleasure of gorging myself with the dove chocolates, tucked safely in my pack, upon reaching our destination.

Never has such an indomitable concentration of raptor enthusiasm been captured in quite delightful Argentinian form as our fearless leader, Sergio Seipke of Raptours. We left our canoes and followed Sergio through the thick banana fields, down the narrow trail carved out of the encroaching jungle. We had been given firm orders to strictly adhere to the trail and remain focused on the pursuit, as we were on a time-sensitive mission. Like a kid in a candy store, it took all of my willpower to resist the temptation to stop and explore the cornucopia of tropical life engulfing the trail.

We found the harpy eagle.jpg

 With adept grace, our machete-wielding guides escorted us through deep, swiftly flowing streams as we pushed further into the lush heart of the forest. Finally, after mud, sweat, toil, and water-filled “water-proof” boots, we emerged victoriously to a small clearing hidden beneath the thick canopy. Draped in low-hanging, camouflaged netting and dappled with light and shadow, our eyes fell in awe on a majestic ceiba tree, prominently the highest point in the green expanse of the forest. Boasting superior views, the ceiba presents prime realty for nesting harpies, as few predators can summit the smooth, immense trunk.

 There it was at last, the harpy nest! Thick layers of strategically intertwined sticks lay nestled high in the ceiba canopy. With necks craned towards the clearing sky, we eagerly scanned the nest area for signs of the raptor residents. As the tense moments melted into minutes, our hopeful anticipation transformed into awkward disappointment; the harpies were nowhere to be seen. Despite our valiant efforts, we knew this unwanted outcome was always a possibility.

The female harpy eagle preening her feathers.

The female harpy eagle preening her feathers.

 But then, a large feather-crested head slowly emerged above the nest. To our astonished delight, the female harpy leisurely perched on an open branch, carefully preening and drying her feathers in the sun. The harpy’s mystical, whistle-like calls pierced the still, humid forest air, and her powerful wings shook rhythmically from the effort. Our guides quietly explained to us that she was calling for her mate to bring food. Mesmerized and elated by this privileged glimpse, we realized that the morning rain was truly a blessing. If the harpy hadn’t been wet from the early rain, she may not have left the security of her nest to dry off in the open sun.

 I could have watched the harpy forever, but the time had come to depart. We didn’t want our presence to deter the male harpy from returning to the nest with food, and we had a long journey back to our lodge, best made in daylight. I indulged myself with one last look through my binoculars and reluctantly pulled away from the blind to follow our group back to the canoes.

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 I’m no navigational genius, but somehow the trail looked different on the way back. I was sure we must have made a wrong turn, as our jungle trail was nowhere to be seen, and instead we carefully trudged through turbulent, waist-high water swiftly coursing its way through the understory. A flash flood had overtaken the region, and the water level of the river had risen over twelve feet in two hours. With this realization, a new heightened urgency hustled us to our canoes to depart while we still could.

 I stared incredulously at the swollen river. The canoes had been carried far inland by the rising water and were nowhere near where we had left them. Sediment, logs, and thick debris choked the fast moving current. We bravely boarded our canoes and braced ourselves for the perilous homeward journey. The air was tinged with electric excitement, as we straddled the thin line between adventure and real potential danger. The furrowed brows and distressed faces of our captains revealed the seriousness of our circumstances. Our reflexes were tested as we instinctively leaned into turns and quickly ducked under rapidly approaching riparian branches, hanging just inches above our canoe seats.

 At one point, we lost control as our canoe motors became tangled and clogged with debris. “Please pass the machete!” said one of the captain’s assistants who, against our protests, proceeded to jump out of the moving boat and scramble across the swirling, floating logs to cut away the debris from the motor. Entire unearthed trees swept past us ominously in the floods. I began to look around at my companions and silently assess their swimming abilities. Who would be able to survive and fend for themselves if we were to capsize?

 Finally, the motor was freed and we were moving again! But, wait - what was happening now? Our boat was moving backwards, and we were slowly reversing upstream, dodging collisions with oncoming hazards carried by the current. Utterly confused and equally concerned, I asked the captain in Spanish what was going on. Apparently, the captain’s jacket that contained the cash payments for the entire crew must have been snagged and caught on a branch, as it was now missing. So the captain logically informed me that we were now going back upstream in attempt to locate his lost jacket with the money. The group exchanged worried glances, and the HMS passengers called an emergency team meeting. We decided to pool our collective cash to replace the captain’s lost wages to avoid the unnecessary risk of traveling upstream. However, just as we were about to reveal our mutiny to the captain, against all odds, the missing jacket was spotted in the water. There it was, barely visible, caught on a branch submerged beneath the surface. The captain reached into the water, fervently pulled the soaking jacket until it snapped off the branch, unzipped a drenched pocket and triumphantly clutched a fat wad of dripping cash.

After an exhilarating trek back down the river, the HMS passengers are back on land.

After an exhilarating trek back down the river, the HMS passengers are back on land.

 Relieved to safely return to our port of origin, we disembarked our canoes in high spirits, cohesively bonded by the intense shared experience. The adventure continued as we mounted the open backs of the safari trucks for a bumpy bird-watching sunset ride. Delirious with fatigue and soaring on natural highs, Karen and I enthusiastically waved and yelled friendly “hellos” from the back of the truck as we passed by groups of children, and chickens, from the village. It had been, by far, one of the most amazing days of my life, made even more special by the humorous camaraderie and cherished friendships. It was truly unforgettable.

This blog is dedicated to Hawk Mountain volunteer, Karen Davidheiser, who accompanied us on several eco-tours in recent  years.

Thar She Soars!

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Leadership Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Many people associate the term “birder,” with images of a khaki-clad, hat-wearing, field-guide holding, binocular-wielding, mud-splattered nature enthusiast carrying a massive camera and an intense look on their face that says “SHHH…did you hear that?” Of course, there are many types of birders (I myself bird, and wear exactly one of these items), but to those unfamiliar with the lifestyle, a birder should be dawning the appropriate materials to claim the term. Imagine then, trying to explain to a police officer that the reason you are pulled over in someone’s lawn staring at their house with binoculars is because you are, in fact, birding. You are not wearing khaki, there is no mud on your pants, but you do have a camera. He does not believe you. The camera does not help your case. This is what we call a predicament.

Zoey scans the skies from the roof of her car.

Zoey scans the skies from the roof of her car.

Such a circumstance is one of the amusing side effects of conducting road surveys to monitor vulture populations. Hawk Mountain has been doing this over the last 12 years, gradually collecting baseline data on both turkey and black vulture populations throughout the Western Hemisphere. Our protocol involves following roads that are least likely to induce rage from other drivers (we drive 40 miles per hour, and frequently swerve to hop out and count birds on cell towers, sometimes climbing the car for optimal vantage points). We need at least two people, a reliable vehicle, and enough time to accurately gather data. Ideally we conduct these surveys every 10 years in both summer and winter, for each site. Compared to other research projects, road surveys are a good bang for the buck because they are relatively cheap to conduct but provide us with critical baseline data on a group of animals that are crucial to the health of our environment. In total, Hawk Mountain has conducted over 50 vulture surveys in 9 countries.

Many of you may be aware of the vulture crisis that has occurred in the Old World over the last two decades, but I’ll offer a reminder by first reviewing the numbers: out of the world’s 22 species of vultures, 16 are spread among Africa, Asia and Europe. 11 of these have recently become at risk for extinction in our lifetime. Some species have experienced a 99% decline since the late 1990’s.

Courtesy of BirdLife International

Courtesy of BirdLife International

With the combined effects of persecution, poisoning, drug-induced kidney failure, and harvesting for parts, the Old World has faced a fast-acting recipe for vulture disaster.

In Asia the primary cause of these mass die offs is a pain killer for cattle called Diclofenac that is ingested by vultures feeding on livestock carcasses.

In Africa the main threat is poisoning. In Europe, Diclofenac is still legal, and declines are anticipated if policy-makers don’t act quickly. There is a less harmful alternate drug available that offers the same therapeutic effects for a similar price, but so far, new legislation has not been passed.

Griffon vultures live on all three continents. Photo by Emmanuel Keller

Griffon vultures live on all three continents. Photo by Emmanuel Keller

Prior to the declines recorded in Asia and Africa there was no reliable baseline knowledge on the population size of affected species, meaning estimates of loss are likely conservative. Consequences from loss of vultures have included an increase in rabies cases due to a higher prevalence of wild dogs, as well as the spreading of diseases that were previously processed in the gut of these under-appreciated scavengers.

This is a perfectly heart breaking example of how human bias towards the most lovable species can sometimes harm those that float under the radar. To make this mistake once is somewhat forgivable. To make it twice is not.

This is why I believe Hawk Mountain’s vulture surveys are crucial. Vultures have been misunderstood and ignored, and while there have been commendable efforts to remedy this issue in Asia, Africa and Europe, we still have work to do in the Americas. We need to be proactive in deciphering how many vultures there are, fully understanding their role within our shared ecosystems, and proving their value to the public. Science alone cannot prepare us. The integrity of our future environment requires that we establish a culture of appreciation around vultures that will allow them a seat at the ecological table.  

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Okay, that’s the heavy part. Now, let’s focus on the fact that in the U.S., our vulture glass is half full. Our last survey resulted in a count of 979 vultures, between five routes in Georgia and Florida. Ten years ago, this same survey produced similar numbers, proving stability exists within that region. We continue to witness healthy numbers of black and turkey vultures throughout Pennsylvania and much of the eastern United States. This may not be the case in Central and South America, though our upcoming surveys in Costa Rica, Panama, and Argentina will hopefully add to our body of knowledge on population size and trends.   

On one of our final days in Florida, we spotted a group of vultures circling something yellow and indistinguishable. A scout landed and tore into whatever “it” was. After scanning with binoculars, exchanging excited hypotheses, and crossing a treacherous road, we discovered that the mysterious yellow “entrails” were no more than the sad remnants of a Happy Meal. This not only confirmed my suspicion that vultures are closet vegetable lovers but also reminded me that scavengers are adaptive problem-solvers. Black vultures in Central America drag coconuts into the middle of the road and wait for cars to pulverize them into a meal. We hear of crows and ravens using tools, eagles stealing fish from other birds, and raccoons breaking into, well…everything. Scavengers are scrappy, and vultures are no exception. This gives me hope that with support, they will adapt to our ever-changing human dominated environments.

As we watched the sun set behind the french fry frenzy, I felt optimistic that with continued monitoring my innovative feathered friends would have many more happy meals.