Leaving the Nest

By Gianna Destefani, Communications Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Gianna posing in front of the Visitor Center.

Gianna posing in front of the Visitor Center.

Last week I had my last day as an intern at Hawk Mountain. For the past 12 weeks, I’ve gotten my hands dirty while helping the Sanctuary’s conservation mission, and by that I mean I have been writing and creating content to promote events, merchandise, and letting the public know about what’s happening on the Mountain.

Hawk Mountain is widely known for their amazing opportunities for education and environmental conservation students from all over the globe, but I’m here to share my experience from behind the scenes as a communication writing intern!

I was elated to get the news back in May that I had landed the internship. I have always had a love for nature and nonprofits, and public relations, and as a communication major at Kutztown University, this was the perfect opportunity to blend these loves while getting experience in my field.

I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first day, but all of my nerves were at ease once was in the office’s comfortable environment. The office at Hawk Mountain is surprisingly mostly women, all of whom are very smart, driven, and passionate about the mission of conservation, as are the men. I was welcomed with open arms, and worked alongside Hannah, a graphic design student from KU and we worked directly under Gigi Romano, communications specialist. Together, we created some great content for the Mountain’s website, newsletter, and social media.

Hannah Hornung and Gianna Destefani, Summer 2019 Communications Interns

Hannah Hornung and Gianna Destefani, Summer 2019 Communications Interns

While I knew I would gain some more communication skills, my time here has also given me more in-depth knowledge about the research that goes on at Hawk Mountain and the research that has spread worldwide that was inspired here. While writing articles, background pieces, and press releases, I absorbed so much new information that I would not even know about if I hadn’t worked here. From learning the dangers of lead bullets on the environment to learning how raptors are tagged and tracked all the way to South America, the pieces I have written for the Sanctuary definitely gave me a stronger understanding and newfound appreciation for the raptors that are being studied here.  

It also gave me insight on why so many of Hawk Mountain’s members and volunteers have stayed for such long periods of time. Being from Allentown, I have been visiting to hike the Mountain periodically throughout my life, but now I have a new lens to view not only the trails, but mountains anywhere. I have seen the love that people have for this place whether it be through interviewing volunteers, editing letters from the president, Sean Grace, or reading comments from dedicated visitors as well as editing articles by a conservationist from Argentina for the newsletter, Hawk Mountain News. The best part is, I see how the staff returns their gratitude for everyone through events and stewardship.

Working at Hawk Mountain has been an incredible experience, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it. After I graduate with my bachelor’s in May I hope to continue to work with nonprofits and continue doing my part to help spread awareness for whatever cause it may be. And remember; even though environmental science, research, and education is the focus on the Mountain, no one would know about it without strong communication.

Flying in Tandem

By Shannon Lambert, Spring 2019 Education Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

I have never been very successful in shared housing situations. I have always been afraid of impeding on my roommates’ space or being too loud or generally not being compatible personalities or lifestyles. So when I came to Hawk Mountain, I was worried about living with four strangers with incredibly different cultures for the next few months. Little did I know I was about to meet some of the best friends I have ever had.

Spring and Summer 2019 Trainees posing with a hawk hand symbol at the end of spring trainee celebration.

Spring and Summer 2019 Trainees posing with a hawk hand symbol at the end of spring trainee celebration.

Living with people from all different cultures was a strange transition from being utterly confused by each other, to learning from each other, and finally blending our cultures together. When we first met, the most apparent difference was who was from independent versus group-minded cultures. The Americans mostly kept to themselves, but many of the international trainees seemed to instinctually work together for everything imaginable: learning how appliances work, cooking, even sharing laundry loads or going on a morning jog together. I had every intention of leaving them alone, afraid to overwhelm them even more with this foreign culture they are surrounded by, but they started inviting me to eat or go grocery shopping with them, insisting they had made too much to eat or needed my help navigating the aisles, and besides they wanted to hang out with me.

Lanso, Sandra, Shannon, and Colin celebrating a birthday in the Trainee Residence.

Lanso, Sandra, Shannon, and Colin celebrating a birthday in the Trainee Residence.

That’s all it took. From then on most of our meals were shared, either taking turns cooking or working together. Sometimes it was a traditional meal, other times it was a wild experiment with new foods we had discovered in the local grocery store. This was the norm for eating out too. We made a fun game of guessing what foods everyone would like best. The losing choices were swapped with a neighbor, and the winners were happily (almost aggressively!) shared so that everyone could enjoy. Our “family meals” were often accompanied with a movie night. Disney was a natural go-to since they are fun and light-hearted, and obviously we stuck with the more animal-themed choices like Jungle Book. We explored classics from other cultures as well, such as Pan’s Labyrinth. This bled its way into our car rides as well, taking turns deejaying. Music is truly a magical medium. The distance that some music has traveled is incredible: the Lanso from eastern India and I both love Creedence Clearwater Revival!

Even when we weren’t actively sharing cultures, there was still a good deal of observed experiences. Momodou is Muslim, and Ramadan happened while we were all living together. He could not eat while the sun was out, so he would wake up before dawn to have breakfast then have to wait until sunset to have dinner. Even something as simple as car horn etiquette is dramatically different in different cultures. I have always understood it to mean a driver needs to pay more attention or needs to be fussed at, whereas another trainee has always used the horn to greet friends, and yet another has always used it to say thank you if someone is nice to them on the road.

Spring 2019 trainees posing with Hawk Mountain staff in the Education Building.

Spring 2019 trainees posing with Hawk Mountain staff in the Education Building.

I think this living situation was so successful because everyone wanted it to be successful. We cleaned up after ourselves, helped each other out, and really tried to spend quality time together outside of work. These folks have become some of my dearest friends, and I don’t know how I got along without them before I came to Hawk Mountain. Although it is sad that we live so far from each other, if we ever find ourselves in a random corner of the world, we have a familiar face to call home.

The Burrow Master

By Zoey Greenberg, Science-Education Outreach Coordinator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

While owls are inherently fascinating, burrowing owls take it to another level.
— David H. Johnson, Director of the Global Owl Project

Conjure up the image of an owl with a furrowed brow, kicking soil out behind him as he digs in the dirt. He stops periodically to check for danger, excavating a burrow deep, complex, and big enough to host a mate and their future offspring. While it sounds like something out of a cartoon, these creatures do, in fact, exist. Did I mention that they decorate the outside of their burrow with firecracker wrappers and coyote scat?

Well, they do.

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Burrowing owls, Athene cunicularia, are a small owl whose historic range includes most of the grassland, prairie and desert ecosystems of North and South America, and some of the Caribbean Islands. Burrowing owls in most of the United States re-use burrows made by prairie dogs, ground squirrels and badgers rather than digging their own, providing an intriguing and unique example of a bird species benefiting heavily from the presence of a mammalian neighbor. One of the smallest North American owls, the prevalence of these charismatic birds has drastically decreased with a decline in suitable habitat and fossorial mammals.

While many formerly suitable prairies are losing owls, there is one magical place near Hermiston Oregon where burrowing owls have a success story to tell. This is largely due to David H. Johnson, or DJ,” as he is fondly called by his dedicated volunteers. David donates fourth months out of his year fighting to maintain a productive breeding ground for burrowing owls (he truly does protect owls night and day. His schedule is very similar to the species he loves). I was lucky enough to visit his site this past Spring, and the experience was nothing short of riveting.

David Johnson holding several burrowing owls.

David Johnson holding several burrowing owls.

The Umatilla Army Depot where David has set up “owl shop” covers 17,000 acres of land. Burrowing owls are natural residents here, however a complex sequence of events beginning in the 1950’s led to the eventual extirpation of a critical burrow excavator upon which the owls rely; the badger. In a nutshell, Pronghorns were introduced to the Depot, but their population soon crashed. Coyotes were blamed even though the true cause was likely inbreeding, and indirectly through a coyote control program, badgers were eradicated. Without badgers to dig burrows, the owls began to suffer from a lack of critical nesting sites. Don Gillis, the Environmental Manager for the Depot at the time reached out for help resulting in the inclusion of David, a known “owl guy.” A team was born, and in July 2008, the first artificial burrows were installed on the Depot. In spring 2008, only 3 or 4 pairs of owls were left on the Depot; in 2009 there were 9 pairs; in 2010 there were 32 pairs. Now, there are between 45 and 55 pairs breeding every year. There is no doubt that without the implementation of this program, burrowing owls would no longer be present on the Depot.  

In addition to enabling the local population to prosper, the project has paved the way for unique research opportunities. David has been coordinating the investigation of over ten research questions, including topics such as mate selection, juvenile dispersal, migratory behavior, the relationship between male vocalizations and family lineages, deciphering whether burrowing owls are flea vectors, and assessing the burrow-decoration techniques of males. Next steps will ideally involve the reintroduction of up to 30 badgers. Preceding studies will aim at assessing the long-term relationship between the owls and the badgers, with an intended goal of re-establishing “natural ecosystem functions of the land,” as David describes it. In essence, putting things back where they belong.

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As is true on most breeding grounds, there are seasonal influences on the population dynamics of the Depot, resulting in good and bad years. Severity of weather, availability of small mammals, and ages of individual owls are such factors. Even considering difficult breeding seasons, through a well-established banding protocol David has found that there are new owls arriving to the Depot, fueling a diverse gene pool and proving that the site factors into a more holistic picture of burrowing owl populations in the West. Each year, roughly 25% of females and 15% of males on the Depot are “new” birds. There are also many returners, with the senior bird being a whopping eight years old. David considers any burrowing owl older than six years to be a “grizzled old timer.” By banding individuals on the Depot, new information has been gleaned about the personal life histories, lifetime reproductive success, and the collective contributions of this population to the species status as a whole.  

David speaks of burrowing owls fondly, saying they “live short, intense, and dangerous lives at the top of the food chain. They are truly driven by nesting success, and undertake absolutely amazing, ingenious, and significant feats of ecology to advance their lives.” He also points out that they offer us an enhanced visibility into the world of owls since we can observe them more readily than other species. There are also notable benefits to burrowing owls being on the land. They control deer mice populations, virtually ridding the Depot’s troop field areas of the rodent and therefore reducing the presence of hanta virus. Without top predators like owls, trophic cascades can occur within ecosystems in which one level of the food web is suppressed, resulting in consequential trickle-down effects. Burrowing owls deserve a place within the desert ecosystem, and as a top predator they occupy a critical position within a complex and beautiful food web.

Zoey holding a burrowing owl chick.

Zoey holding a burrowing owl chick.

After several days involved in the project, I could see why every volunteer’s eyes sparkled while holding these birds. David has cultivated an owl oasis where not only is quality science achieved, but people are simultaneously invited to share in the delights of discovery and become a contributing character to the story of the owls. David emphasizes that his project, while focusing on ecology, also addresses the ways in which owls factor into myth and culture, what he calls a “deep-time human-owl relationship.” Burrowing owls have historically been viewed as having direct connections to the underworld for reasons that are deducible (living underground), yet there is another element to owls that pulls us in. Is it their all-knowing large eyes? Their eerie yet amusing vocals? Their nocturnal existence?

For David, the allure of the burrowing owl stems from the countless ecological insights and complexities that are discoverable by looking at the landscape as they do. For me, owls symbolize a unique predatory mindset, defined by an attuned relationship with prey that I can only dream of understanding. Owls possess this, and something else…a mysterious twist on existence that strikes a chord, perhaps due to their imperceptible presence even when they are sought.

David looked me in the eye and told me he would fight for owls until his last breath. This verbalized commitment forms a cloak of hope over the Depot, and paints an optimistic outlook for a species that may sit under the radar, so to speak, but deserves a home just like us.

David would like to express gratitude to the US Army, Oregon National Guard, and the many, many volunteers who have helped make this owl study so successful.

Zoey releasing an owl into a burrow at sunset.

Zoey releasing an owl into a burrow at sunset.

Photos compliments of the Global Owl Project.

Wonderful and Wild: Volunteering at Hawk Mountain

By Sandy Lockerman, long-time volunteer
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Gary and Sandy at South Lookout

Gary and Sandy at South Lookout

My husband and I started volunteering in the fall of 1991 and have enjoyed it, learned from it, and cherish all the memories that have been made during these 28 years.

I had been hawk watching for a couple of years with my husband, Gary, and we had joined Hawk Mountain as members.  When I learned that there were volunteer opportunities, I thought it would be a great way to both be on the Mountain and to help educate the public.  I had a degree in environmental education but was not utilizing it at that time. So after an interview with the then Volunteer Coordinator, Sue Wolfe, we settled in for what we never thought would be almost 3 decades of volunteering.

Our first job was at the Trail Entrance Gate, which at that time was where the admission fee was collected.  It was an intensely foggy October day but visitors kept coming, paying and then disappearing into the fog on their way to South Lookout. It was great to greet the visitors and learn about where they were from and why they were coming to the Mountain.

When it was not the migration season, I would help in the Bookstore and Gary would tinker in the shop and do whatever Sue asked him to do, he even became a Greeter.

Sandy presenting a Raptors Up Close program with the red-tailed hawk.

Sandy presenting a Raptors Up Close program with the red-tailed hawk.

Soon, the education staff learned about my training and degree, and I moved into the programming aspect of the Mountain.  I presented the History Talk, then the Name That Raptor Talk which was held at that time up at the Slide. Soon I settled into my present job presenting the Raptors Up Close Talk with the live non-releasable birds of prey.

By this time I had obtained employment as an environmental educator at Wildwood Park in Harrisburg.  This is a park operated by Dauphin County. But I couldn’t give up Hawk Mountain. There was a story to tell the visitors and I needed to help tell that story.  I still do even now that I have retired.

I will always be in awe of the beauty and wildness of these raptors.  They are educators, too and when the audience gets to see and hear about their adaptations and migration marvels, I know that I have given them a peek into a world that they only see from a distance. I worked with one particular red-tailed hawk for 21 years, she was a magnificent individual, and I tried at every talk to emphasis that species’ role in the environment.

When I talk with new volunteers I try to emphasis to them that some of the Mountain’s visitors only get to come there one time.  And it is up to us to make that visit a memorable one.  And to get to know the other volunteers is all part of the experience of the Mountain.

Another aspect of volunteering is getting to know the international trainees and interns who come to the Mountain.  Seeing our country through their eyes, learning about their countries and learning about the work that they are going to carry on in their countries are all immensely rewarding.

If you get the opportunity to volunteer at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, by all means, do it. Learn about the wonderful history, meet the knowledgeable staff and dedicated volunteers. You won’t regret it.

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.