Going the Distance, Pt 2

By Adam Carter, Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Read part 1 here. 

The view outside the Pro Natura raptor banding station.

The view outside the Pro Natura raptor banding station.

My trip to Veracruz, Mexico to collaborate with Pro Natura, developing Distance Education materials, is one I will not forget. 

Ever since 2012 when I was a Hawk Mountain Conservation Science Trainee I heard so much about Veracruz and its amazing migration.  Finally getting to go in-person as a Hawk Mountain staff member and witness first-hand was like a dream come true. 

Adam posing with students outside the Chichicaxtle Bird Observatory.

Adam posing with students outside the Chichicaxtle Bird Observatory.

A significant portion of my visit was spent at the Chichicaxtle Bird Observatory located just outside of Cardel, Mexico.  Surrounded largely by sugar cane fields, this is one of the locations where the passage of migrating raptors and other species like anhingas, wood storks, and other water birds can number in the tens of thousands in a single day.  During heavy flights there can be easily more than 100,000 migrants in a single day. 

At the observatory is where the Pro Natura staff and I had multiple discussions sharing our successes and challenges in conservation education.  One of the specific topics we discussed was about a Distance Education trunk and its materials to stay in Mexico for use at the observatory and in surrounding classrooms.  I was able to visit one of the local schools where such materials would be used.  The students lit up when the Pro Natura staff entered their classroom, getting to handle a replica owl and hawk skull to compare and contrast.  Hopefully in the near future, our collaboration can enhance these experiences with additional materials and activities.

Hawkwatching from inside the raptor banding station outside of Chichicaxtle along the Carribean coast.

Hawkwatching from inside the raptor banding station outside of Chichicaxtle along the Carribean coast.

One morning I was able to spend several hours at the Pro Natura raptor banding stations along the coast.  Although we didn’t catch any birds, during the entire period I was there, a torrent of eastern kingbirds, ruby-throated hummingbirds, dickcissels, scissor-tailed flycatchers, and barn swallows poured through in a continuous stream as clusters of broad-winged hawks, mississippi kites, black and turkey vultures passed over head. 

It was here I felt the true enormity of migration and experienced the realization of how critical this corridor is for migrating birds.  For me, it reinforced why we need awareness, education, and conservation of these species undertaking such incredible journeys across the hemispheres.

You can help in supporting Distance Education efforts in Mexico, please donate at gofundme.com/raptor-trunk. Your donation will contribute to our final push to our campaign goal! Thank you so much for your support. 

Culture in Conservation

By Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo, Former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

During my time at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I realized that conservation was a science and has to be regarded so. Before then, I thought it was a love for the environment, turning off lights around the house or turning the tap off when I brushed my teeth. All these acts are important, and if everyone did them they could make a difference.

However, as raptor biologists and conservationists, Dr. Keith Bildstein taught us that conservation is so much more. Conservation is not just an explosion of emotions, because emotions are personal and no one approach is a panacea.

In Africa today, various ‘cultural’ practices have had a negative impact on raptors, particularly vultures. It seems as though culture is playing a part in the demise and extinction of our vultures. This is odd as culture has always been the driving force to safe guarding and conserving wildlife and forests for centuries. Going into this year’s vulture awareness month, I had the question of how culture has evolved so much in southern Africa into a monster that is wiping out vultures in their hundreds.

In my culture, there is no fairy godmothers or tooth fairies, so when my teeth fell as a child, my mother took me outside and taught me a song. The song is to the Yellow-billed Kite Milvus aegyptius, an Intra-African migrant. What you do as a child, if you want your tooth to grow back is to sing the song that goes Mzwazwa! Mzwazwa! Thathi’zinyo lami ungiphe’lakho elihle! This directly translates to: "Yellow-billed Kite! Yellow-billed Kite! Take my tooth and give me your beautiful one!" This is weird since birds have no teeth, and this bird’s tooth is a yellow, curved, and razor sharp bill, which nobody would like growing on them. After singing the song, you are then supposed to throw the tooth over the roof for the Yellow-billed Kite to collect as it flies over your house. This small tradition in my corner of the world makes the bird so important, because children everywhere want the safety of the bird as it brings their adult teeth, and parents everywhere want that moment my mother shared with me so many years ago, passing along the tradition.

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

My second annual International Vulture Awareness Day seminar at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe for this year was themed Vulture Conservation and Culture in Zimbabwe. My intention was for scientists, the general public, and culture experts to talk about vulture conservation issues and what needs to change in Zimbabwe for their protection. I invited the BirdLife Zimbabwe Conservation officer for Special Species Ms. Fadzai Matsvimbo, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) senior ecologist Ms. Lovelater Sebele, and renowned author, historian, and culture expert Mr. Pathisa Nyathi. We had a great turn out of people from all over the city that knew close to nothing about vultures but were intrigued and interested in getting to know about them.

The two speakers from BirdLife Zimbabwe and ZimParks illustrated the current status of vultures in Zimbabwe and what conservation efforts are happening on the ground. BirdLife Zimbabwe works closely with ZimParks in Hwange National Park and has reported on various vulture poisonings around Zimbabwe. In Hwange Park, cyanide poisoning on salt leaks in elephant poaching is the main cause of mass deaths of vultures and many other scavenging animals; however, in other parks like Gonarezhou on the boarder of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Aldicarb a carbamate insecticide is the most common, along with the harvesting of body parts for muti (traditional medicine).

The major problems faced by organizations like these two are the lack of understanding of the value of vultures and inconsistencies in the litigation process. The judiciary system is failing our vultures, delivered sentences are inconsistent, and often vultures are not included as part of the cases. There is a lack of awareness in game rangers working in the parks, where vulture losses are not properly documented. For these and many other reasons, the two organizations have partnered in educating rangers on identification, data collection on poaching crime scenes, and conservation status.

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

Our historian and culture expert explained the African philosophy on conservation, and he reminded us that African communities were the best conservationists of natural resources whilst being utilitarian at the same time. African conservation is linked to cosmology and African spirituality, the belief that the earth is our mother and provider—that all matter has life in it, and in order for there to be life there has to be death. This spiritual approach to nature and the world, compared to the scientific, modern approach instills in all Africans a reverence to nature that inspires conservationists.

Due to the philosophy that all matter possesses life, all the parts of an animal carry spiritual characteristics of the animal, and for this reason, vulture bones, beaks, feathers, talons, and even meat are used as muti. Originally, because of the ability of vultures to ‘miraculously’ tell where carcasses are, it was only used by traditional healers for divination as part of their wardrobe. The use of vulture body parts for muti has only recently spiraled out of control due to increased possibilities for foretelling with sports betting, gambling,business successes, and investment results among others.

The biggest take home for all that night, especially for the conservation scientists, was that no external policing is more effective than internal conviction. This means that African children today need to be taught about African philosophy and spirituality to regain that awareness of wildlife. Along with western, scientific, material/physical education, African spirituality also needs to be taught to younger generations as it is being lost in current generations. The scientists were also urged to educate the public of the world view and wildlife understanding through indigenous African knowledge systems and to remain respectful of local people’s beliefs; perceptions are real, just as their consequences are.

In the end, I learned the value of my culture in conservation and how to be a holistic and effective advocate for conservation in my country. Most importantly, I realized the value of one day teaching my children the Yellow-billed Kite song and sharing with them the folklore that made me love and respect nature in my life and my career.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.

Hawk Mountain's Educational Outreach

By Kirsten Fuller, former education intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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Who was the most influential teacher in your life?  In my experience it was my high school English teacher, Mr. Kranz.  I was always captivated by his passion for theater and music, and his ability to provide me inspiration in a subject area I typically didn’t care for.  I am currently in the last stage of completing my teaching certificate, student teaching at a challenging high school, and it has been a bumpy ride.  The daily chaos and mayhem I have had to face as a naive student-teacher has proven to be taxing on my sanity at times.

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What has kept me motivated has been the moments in which I’ve had the opportunity to inspire students in the same way my English teacher in high school had inspired me. One of these moments occurred recently when  I was invited to teach a lesson on birds and what it means to be a bird scientist for a 7th grade class at Long Valley Middle School.  

I began the lesson providing an introduction as to what ornithology entails, and more specifically, what a raptor is.  I loved having a simple discussion with these bright 7th graders about the characteristics that make birds-of-prey different from songbirds.  Borrowing materials such as talons, skulls, and wings, from Hawk Mountain’s education department, majorly enhanced my lesson.  We were even able to look at Great Horned Owl and Red-tailed Hawk feathers under a digital microscope to observe the differences!

Feather comparisons

Feather comparisons

To inspire and engage my students, I wanted them to get the experience of what it means to actually be an ornithologist.  Using my own experience as a scientist conducting nest observations in real life, I designed an activity to allow students to conduct nest observations using a computer.    

Using YouTube, I found a video of a Great Horned Owl nest camera.  Then, I created a “Field Notes” worksheet for students to complete as they watched the video.  They took observations on the sights and sounds, they drew a picture, they described the habitat, and they took behavioral observations.  I was so excited about how engaged in the activity every student was.

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At the end of the lesson, students got time to share their drawings and their observations on the board. I loved watching how excited they were to share their thoughts and their artistic abilities with the class.  

Fast forward to my Monday-morning reality: after a fleeting stint with a utopian 7th grade classroom, I am re-immersing myself in my intimidating high school classroom.  However, I have gained a new perspective, and have developed new motivation to share how much I love science with my students.

High school biology class should not be about fulfilling science standards or preparing students for standardized tests; it should be about exploring current scientific research and learning about the natural environment around us.  I believe my time spent as an education intern at Hawk Mountain opened my eyes to this style of teaching.  I plan to continue tackling the teaching challenges I am faced with daily with this in mind.

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Learn more about Kirsten Fuller's successful work with the creation of Hawk Mountain's new technology-interactive broadwing curriculum, using Hawk Mountain tracking data, by checking out the Teacher Feature on the New Jersey Science Teachers Association website

One-Health on the Horizon

By Rebekah Smith, Former Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain educator Adam Carter presenting a live raptor program at the Pottstown Public Library, featuring a red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain educator Adam Carter presenting a live raptor program at the Pottstown Public Library, featuring a red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, known worldwide for its revolutionary work on raptor conservation, also uses living education raptors to help inspire and teach others about birds of prey. If you’ve ever wondered how important the jobs of the birds that live at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary are, the answer is as easy as watching the countenance of a young audience when one of our educators introduce our “feathered co-workers.” The majestic animals captivate pupils of all ages and provide that essential connection between the wilderness of the outdoors and our own humanity. This connection is sometimes grievously missing from the current discussions surrounding climate change and public health, and the world is in need of people who can restore it.

The education raptors at Hawk Mountain were once wild birds that were severely injured and rehabilitated at a wildlife rehab center – given a second chance at life. In most cases, wildlife rehab centers are able to release the birds after they are sufficiently functional, however, there are some cases where raptors are deemed unreleasable. This is how education raptors come to be.

The question is, who is responsible for diagnosing, treating, and prescribing medicine to the injured animals both while they are in rehabilitation or while they remain in captivity to be used for education animals? I don’t think many people realize that veterinarians specializing in exotics and wildlife are needed to help care for animals like these and others in captivity all over the world.

The truth is, veterinarians specializing in treating animals other than the traditionally domesticated are vital to conservation efforts worldwide. Not only do wildlife veterinarians work to conserve global biodiversity through the lenses of medicine and animal health, but they also help contribute positively to the one health initiative that many conservation scientists have taken. This initiative usually is defined by understanding the inextricable connection between human health and animal health which hangs in a delicate balance. The spread of disease, environmental toxicity, and even natural disasters are some examples of this connection.

Dr. Susan Pello of Mt Laurel Animal Hospital gives Hawk Mountain's red-tailed hawk a yearly checkup.

Dr. Susan Pello of Mt Laurel Animal Hospital gives Hawk Mountain's red-tailed hawk a yearly checkup.

During my time as an education intern at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I was able to achieve a clear vision of my future as a wildlife and exotic veterinarian. Hawk Mountain provided me with the chance to watch this career in action, and I made connections with professionals in the field that I will be able to continually draw from for the rest of my career. I had the opportunity to watch a wildlife veterinarian examine and vaccinate all four of the sanctuary’s education raptors. Hawk Mountain’s veterinarian, Dr. Susan Pello, welcomed me to her clinic again soon afterwards where I watched her diagnose and treat an eastern screech owl with a severe eye infection.

Dr. Pello and many other wildlife veterinarians work both at a traditional veterinary clinic and with potential wildlife cases. The future prospects of this career pathway is broadening as we enter an age in which humans are having increasing impact on the general environment and global biodiversity. As people realize that protecting wildlife is a social responsibility both locally and globally, veterinarians will need to step up and offer their specific medical expertise.

When I attended the Jemima Parry-Jones vulture conservation lecture in early September, I found that veterinarians with experience in raptor medicine, nutrition, and captive breeding are desperately needed globally. In Southeast Asia, vultures are commonly poisoned by diclofenac-NSAIDS given to cattle, and their populations are declining rapidly. Electrocution and collision with poerlines are other causes of injury. The ecological role of vultures in such an environment is imperatively bound to the health and wellbeing of the humans that share the land. Vultures are a natural management system for carcasses that can become vectors for disease, bacteria, and other harmful or even deadly microorganisms. As animals continue to die from the shocking changes in climate and weather on a global scale, the ecological need for vultures could potentially increase where we are instead seeing degradation in natural populations.

In captive breeding efforts, veterinarians trained to recognize the health of both the young and adults are needed in order for there to be successful results. Many of the offspring produced in the captive breeding programs suffer from vitamin deficiencies resulting in a dire need for individuals who are well-versed in raptor nutrition and health.

Lazarus from the Carbon County Environmental Education Center

Lazarus from the Carbon County Environmental Education Center

Although this branch of veterinary medicine is still in the midst of developing, it is easy to predict where its future is heading. Not only can veterinarians help animals in the field for ecological and biological research, but they can also aid in the overwhelming need for general education that we hope will create the behavioral changes necessary to minimize the negative impacts of human beings on natural populations of animals such as birds of prey.

I am a firm believer that getting the opportunity to connect with an animal face-to-face can affect your own personal daily decisions that make an environmental difference when broadened in the lens of the over-all human population. Many of the potential solutions to issues in conservation come from a pool that reaches many different bodies of expertise. We cannot simply expect our problems to be solved without the contribution of the knowledgeable and their efforts. Veterinary medicine is just one facet to the mosaic of the one-health initiative that ultimately aspires to nurture the ecological balance between humans and animals globally.

Rebekah atop South Lookout, viewing the horizon.

Rebekah atop South Lookout, viewing the horizon.

Red-Letter Days

Broadwing kettle photos by Bill Moses

Broadwing kettle photos by Bill Moses

By David Barber, Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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Maurice Broun, the Sanctuary's first curator, described "red-letter days" as "those days when hawks flood the Sanctuary skyways, as in fulfillment of a hawk-lover's hopes and dreams."  And the great thing about red-letter days is that they are often unexpected.  Such is the case with the peak of our broad-winged hawk flight this year.  Sunday, September 17th had an inauspicious start, the ridge was completely socked in with low clouds and the front of the lookout was barely visible.  It was the type of day where you wonder if the clouds will ever lift or will you sit in the clouds all day.  It was a great chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones as there wasn't much to see except for the fog.

Finally, around 11:15 the clouds started to break up and we could see patches of blue.  I looked up at a patch of blue over the Kempton valley and could see broadwings coming out of a dark gray clouds appearing briefly before quickly disappearing into another dark cloud.   Two questions immediately popped into my head, how could they be up so high already and how many have we missed.   We all started scanning the blue and would occasionally see small groups of broadwings streaming though.  At the end of the hour counters tallied 157 broadwings.

Everyone's spirits were boosted and thoughts turned to the possibility that today could be the big flight of the season.  Was the previous day's count of 1,589 broadwings just the beginning?  We know that there had some big flights in New England earlier in the week, but those birds should have already passed through Pennsylvania. 

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Counts started to build over the next few hours, with 247 broadwings one hour, 527 the next, it was turning out to be a good day with just over 1,000 broadwings.  Around 3:15 someone called out "there's a big kettle over #4."  They weren't kidding,  I put my binoculars on #4 where birds were streaming in and started moving up, the kettle stretched from just over #4 to three to four glasses high.  The size of the kettle immediately brought me back to the time I visited the Veracruz  River of Raptors watchsite in Mexico, where daily counts can exceed 100,000 in a day. "They're streaming out the top" one of the counter yelled and soon the only sound you heard was the sound of clickers as the counters tried to keep up with "flood" of broadwings.  This clicking continued almost non-stop for the rest of the hour as new kettles formed and birds streamed past the lookout.  At the end of the hour we all looked at each other in awe having just witnessed 2,908 broadwings pass by in 45 minutes.    

Just as quickly the "flood" of broadwings slowed to a trickle and by day's end 4,019 broad-winged hawks were counted, a "red-letter day" that I, and I'm sure many others will remember for the rest of our lives.

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Soaring Opportunities

Kirsten birdwatching in Maricao State Forest

Kirsten birdwatching in Maricao State Forest

By Kirsten Fuller, former education intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

What a whirlwind the past six months of my life have been!  When I arrived at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary back in March, I never expected that my four-month internship would end up being cut in half for what proved to be an amazing adventure.   

View of the Toro Negro mountain range, where the majority of the sharp-shinned hawk nests were located. 

View of the Toro Negro mountain range, where the majority of the sharp-shinned hawk nests were located. 

Last November, I had applied to work for the Peregrine Fund, an organization dedicated to the conservation of birds of prey.  Slated to begin in January, the project had already been in progress when I was approached with an opportunity: there was suddenly a need to hire a field technician for a study of the endangered Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawk in the central mountain region of Puerto Rico.  I could not believe this opportunity was available to me, and I was incredibly excited to pursue it. 

Finishing up my project at Hawk Mountain, I arrived in Puerto Rico at the end of April.  We jumped right into learning about the project and catching me up on what had been going on for the first four months of the study.

Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawks are an endangered species of forest raptor.  They perform mating displays above the forest canopy in late winter and begin building their nests and laying eggs in spring.  By the time I arrived on site, 18 nests had been located.  The original field crew on the project had put in all of the legwork of searching for pairs – including using a machete to chop through the thick Puerto Rican jungle – so by the time I got there my role was mainly observing the nests. 

Let me set the scene for a “routine” day in our lives:

Wake up and eat breakfast.  Get dressed in pants and long sleeved shirt.  Gather equipment: binoculars, notepad and pen, wristwatch, and GPS.  Hop in the jeep.  Mentally prepare for the mayhem and pandemonium of Puerto Rican drivers.  Avoid crater-sized potholes that could swallow the jeep whole.  Search through the radio stations until we heard “Despacito.”  Arrive at the parking site for a specific nest and then breathe a sigh of relief for arriving unscathed.  Upon arriving, my task was usually to hike from the jeep to one of the nests on a footpath created by one of the members of our team. 

Kirsten climbing a coconut tree.

Kirsten climbing a coconut tree.

Ah, the hikes!  Most of the hikes took about 20 minutes to reach the nest site.  Along the way, I would focus almost entirely on not falling down.  The Puerto Rican jungle was friendly, but there were a lot of things to slip on; palm fronds are like Puerto Rican skis. 

These hikes were always such an adventure, and at times they were so surreal that I felt like I was living someone else’s life.  The first hike I joined, our group got stuck in a sudden torrential downpour.  The creek we were hiking along started rapidly filling up with water, the rocks became incredibly slippery, and the spiky tree ferns were tearing my hands apart as I accidentally reached for them to maintain balance.  Yet all the while I could not stop laughing!  Although not every day would prove to be as much fun or exciting, and admittedly the thrill of the jungle would eventually wear off a bit, my first trek was an unforgettable experience.

A female Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawk enjoying a bananaquit.

A female Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawk enjoying a bananaquit.

Once at the nest site, our task was simple: first, identify if the female was present.  If so, examine if she was still incubating her eggs and note any unusual behaviors.  As time went on the challenge became identifying the hatch date for the eggs, and then observing the growth and development of the nestlings from afar.  I always enjoyed spending the time at the nest sites listening to the sounds of the jungle, hoping to hear a male call to signal that he had prey to deliver, and then watching the interaction between the female and the male around the nest site.  We were lucky enough to watch the nestlings grow into fledglings.  While we had nests predated by pearly-eyed thrashers and nests fail due to unknown reasons, there were still some pairs that fledged young. 

A digiscoped photo of a young sharp-shinned hawk beside the nest is Toro Negro state forest. This nest was almost entirely made out of pine needles!

A digiscoped photo of a young sharp-shinned hawk beside the nest is Toro Negro state forest. This nest was almost entirely made out of pine needles!

There was one nest that looked structurally pathetic.  It was made almost entirely out of pine needles, and we were certain it would not last long enough for the young to leave the nest.  However, to our surprise, the pair ended up fledging two young!  These kinds of triumphs were so exciting to witness.

I am certainly happy to be home after such an adventure and to resume my normal schedule, but there is still a part of me that would love to be back in Puerto Rico climbing a coconut tree, struggling to order a burrito with my poor Spanish skills, and hiking to a serene and secluded spot to enjoy what beautiful nature the jungle has to offer.  This experience reinforced my interest in studying birds of prey and has left me anxious to start my next, and hopefully just as exciting, adventure. 

Research Serendipity

By JF Therrien, Senior Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain has a rich research and monitoring history. For several decades now, on-staff researchers have been carrying the torch, keeping numerous inestimable monitoring projects going. The migration counts conducted at Hawk Mountain indeed represents the longest running raptor monitoring project in the world.

JF reviews American kestrel nest box data with summer intern Jenna Schlener. Photo by Gigi Romano. 

JF reviews American kestrel nest box data with summer intern Jenna Schlener. Photo by Gigi Romano. 

Starting some 80+ years ago, the counts were first designed to assess the usefulness of the protection offered by the newly created Sanctuary. Not long after, Hawk Mountain's curator Maurice Broun and others realized the invaluable long-term dataset that those counts represent and they could be used to study population trends of 16 North American raptor species. Then in the mid 1950s, Alex Nagy, then Hawk Mountain's assistant curator, installed a few bird boxes on his farm to see if he could get American kestrels to use them. What most likely started as a humble backyard experiment resulted in what is now the American Kestrel Nest Box Program, which will proudly celebrate its 65th anniversary next spring.

Research and monitoring projects sometimes begin after a carefully designed approach. However, in reality, many such projects simply start serendipitously, as in the previous examples. Traveling around Hawk Mountain to visit the 125 man-made nest boxes of the American Kestrel Nest Box Program during summer 2017, we noticed odd and conspicuous behaviors of bigger, darker birds. Indeed on distinct occasions, black vultures would suddenly appear flying low overhead or even flying out a window from the very barns our kestrel nest boxes are attached to. At that point, we had little doubt; those vultures are likely using the building to nest.

JF holds a newly tagged black vulture named Versace. Photo by Rebekah Smith. 

JF holds a newly tagged black vulture named Versace. Photo by Rebekah Smith. 

From a research point of view, having access to nest sites is highly valuable. In addition to being able to handle adults and chicks to assess their life history traits (body condition, growth rate, disease prevalence, etc.), monitoring nesting activities allows us to assess breeding success and breeding rate, age at first breeding, and nest site fidelity on the population level over time. Those aspects are all immensely important to understand the complete cycle of individuals that compose populations.

Finding this access to several nests for any raptor species is challenging, because individuals are often territorial. Their nests occur at low density and are usually concealed. Therefore, monitoring nesting raptors often becomes an unrealistic task, given the time required and the area that would need to be covered to locate a fair number of them. A good breeding monitoring project requires a relatively easy way to access several nests across a relatively small area to allow researchers to visit them periodically.

Black vulture chick found in a local barn. Photo by J. Dallas. 

Black vulture chick found in a local barn. Photo by J. Dallas. 

During summer 2017, our team found just this. We were able to successfully monitor 3 black vulture nests that we found without even searching while checking our kestrel nest boxes. Those birds were using Pennsylvanian barns just like giant man-made nest boxes, and thankfully they were all in a relatively small radius around Hawk Mountain.

This project has just begun, and we are now looking to double or triple the number of monitored nests in the coming years. So if you notice black or Turkey vultures flying out of abandoned buildings or barns, please let us know. We would be thrilled to add new nest locations to our newly-born monitoring program.

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

By using individual markers (such as wing-tags and telemetry transmitters), we will be following the where and wherefore of those individual birds through their lifetime. Anytime you see a vulture, keep an eye out for wing-tags (a brightly colored tag showing a distinct number). Any sighting of a tagged individual represents important information for locating roost sites, feeding hot spots, survival rates, and dispersal behavior. Help and support these studies by reporting any sightings at this link.

Monitoring programs such as these are an essential part of conservation science: they form the backbone of long-term population assessments. They allow researchers to keep track of historical population size and productivity in order to identify declines in a timely fashion and become aware of problems that otherwise could have gone undetected.

To learn more about our work with North American vultures or any other species of raptors, or if you wish to support our monitoring efforts financially, contact me at therrien@hawkmountain.org.

Nature's Reverberations

By Rachel Iola Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

What would a perfect day at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary look like to you? Like a page out of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” the outside temperature on the ridgetop was not too hot and not too cold. The humidity was not too high, not too low, the breeze was not too strong, not too weak. You know the story –the conditions for an educational adventure were just right.

Prior to the arrival of my group, I took a sound survey by simply closing my eyes and listening to the environment. Shortly after hearing the sound of a vehicle engine approaching, I welcomed a group of folks from the Vision Resource Center of Berks County, who were accompanied by a handsome and well-trained guide dog named Winston.

We took a seat on the carpeted benches next to the bird feeder station just a few footsteps through the Visitor Center’s front doors. I gazed at the larger-than-life mural of our founder, Mrs. Rosalie Edge, as I introduced Hawk Mountain as a Sanctuary, a protected place for all animals, plants, rocks, sticks, and even spiders. I aimed to provide an extra safe place for my group, many who were visiting Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for the very first time, and some who had permanent vision loss.

To complement our discussion on raptors and help visualize the amazing animal diversity found in the Appalachian Forest, I passed around feathers, snake skins, turtle shells, and the tail of a gray squirrel, while I introduced my avian coworker to the group. Although we do not allow or encourage touching raptors, as the live bird stood on my gloved hand, I passed around a life-size plastic replica of an eastern screech owl (Megascops asio). We also felt real raptor talons and compared a feathered foot of a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) in contrast to the smooth, scaly toes of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). With the aid of real raptor wings, we listened to the noisy wing of a diurnal hawk and felt a gust of air against our cheeks.  In contrast, we struggled to hear the near silent flap of an owl’s wing and agreed that these amazing nocturnal adaptations allow owls hunt with the element of surprise.

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In addition to the owls’ adaptation of being silent flyers, we discussed the art of camouflage and how this adaptation helps many animals blend into an environment.  Our group embraced our inner facial disk by listening to several songs of common birds like the eastern towhee and black-capped chickadee with the aid of Audubon bird toys and my very own rendition of a “miniature horse and trill” of an eastern screech owl, which seemed to evoke a soft whimper from the otherwise silent guide dog Winston. I even revealed one of Hollywood’s secrets: bald eagles are actually lip synching to the impressive screams of Red-tailed Hawks when filmed in movies and television. Several folks recognized this familiar call.

Walking outdoors, we encountered a pollinator party—bees buzzing and hummingbirds humming. Okay, they don’t actually hum. The sound of those tiny wings beating is what generates the humming noise that we could hear from the thick patches of bee balm located just in front of the Visitor Center. In the Native Plant Garden, many folks commented on the warmth of the sun and fragrant aroma of blooming swamp rose. I also couldn’t pass up an opportunity to highlight Turkey Vultures as raptors who sniff out their meals with their incredible olfactory sense. We agreed to leave the smell of fresh baked bread and cookies to us and let the Turkey Vultures remain nature’s garbage collectors, cleaning up road kill.

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As we explored the pond from the deck, we listened for frogs calling and heard turtles leaving their exposed log perches for the safety of thick patches of water lilies. We enjoyed birds singing from all layers of the forest—delicate warblers hopping after insects in the canopy, catbirds curiously watching us from nearby branches, and the familiar sounds of robins foraging through the leaf litter.

Crossing Hawk Mountain Road was also a new experience for most of these folks. We navigated the crosswalk by listening for on-coming traffic, and I provided a grateful thumbs up and smile to those drivers who slowed down.  We took the Silhouette Trail one step at a time, taking advantage of the opportunity to rest at the benches before reaching our destination at South Lookout. As Winston led the way, he sniffed his way past Mountain Laurels and Rhododendroa to the flat, open area looking down toward the Kempton Valley. Once again my star students could tell they were in an open area since the sun warmed our faces and the soft, gentle breeze rocked the nearby trees. 

Although not everyone could see the view, we all felt the magic of this very special place, the birthplace of raptor conservation.

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Cyprus: An Island of Birds

Looking at the grifon vulture nest in the cliffs at Limassol

Looking at the grifon vulture nest in the cliffs at Limassol

By Rebekah Smith, Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Driving up a dusty incline through an ancient olive tree grove, we watched as construction workers altered one of the few remaining undeveloped areas on the island of Cyprus in order to build a new road. In Cyprus, old farmlands and wild areas are scarce; however, they serve as havens for the wildlife there, including many species of passerines and raptors.

On a hot day in mid-June, we were scanning the landscape for a flash of blue amongst the green-brown leaves of the stout olive trees. The European roller (Coracias garrulous) population within Cyprus experienced a recent decline, so BirdLife Cyprus has been monitoring the population at historical nesting sites across the island. This historical nesting site was becoming a highway. In Cyprus, the farmland is actually valuable to the wildlife, because human settlement and agriculture has existed there since approximately 8,200 BC. When farmland is lost to tourism and development, it’s a loss for the wildlife, specifically for the nesting bird species of Cyprus.

Leaving the newly forming roadway and heading toward a more narrow, unofficial path, I saw my first European roller sitting on a telephone wire. The vibrant turquoise bird made our day trip across the island well worth our time. This is just one of the many projects BirdLife Cyprus has taken on to protect, study, and educate people about the wild birds of Cyprus. From the start of the decade, BirdLife Cyprus researchers conducted surveys and searched desperately for proof of the successful nesting of griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) on the island. They finally determined that there were only six to eight individuals left.

In an attempt to prevent the disappearance of the only species of vulture from the island, BirdLife Cyprus coordinated a program with Crete, Greece, in which they captured and transported 25 vultures and brought them to Cyprus to be released in hopes that the species might regain its hold on the island. Since then, they’ve been observing the griffons closely. One pair in particular has captured the attention of BirdLife Cyprus’s head research scientist Christina Ieronymidou. Nestled in the cliffs of Limassol, we watched the pair of vultures—one huddled over their clutch while the other perched close by, scanning the cliff lined shore.

Christina mentioned under her breath that the other vultures in the colony must have headed towards the center of the island for the day in search of carrion, which is not a frequently available resource on the island, as there are only seven known species of mammals nationwide. In contrast, nearly 400 species of birds have been recorded on the island of Cyprus.

The disregard for the ecological importance of birds on the island is a cultural remnant that’s been passed down through generations. In the past, the passerines that migrate through Cyprus along with those that are natives, were a valuable source of protein when no other food was available to the inhabitants. Generations later, they are no longer a necessity for survival but rather a delicacy. During the spring and fall migrations, poachers set up mist nets and lime sticks to capture thousands of unsuspecting birds, even using call recordings to attract them. If the bird species caught is not of culinary interest, they are still killed and discarded.

This 15 million Euro, illegal operation is the source of BirdLife Cyprus’s biggest struggles. Their part in the scheme is mostly lobbying for the passing of bills that would protect the animals, although new legislations could call for decreased fines for poachers and the ability to bring already cooked birds to restaurants, making the illegal birds harder to identify. Pictures leaked of a politician partaking in a passerine dish suggest that authorities may also be involved in support of bird poaching. BirdLife Cyprus is one of the only voices on the island moving against these new legislations and attempting to protect the 150 million migrating birds that pass through the country during each round of migration.

BirdLife Cyprus claims the role of wildlife advocate for the entire island. BirdLife Cyprus works to educate the community, lobby for legislations in favor of wildlife, work closely with the Game and Fauna service on the island, and even sometimes rescue abandoned chicks.

Although BirdLife Cyprus is not a rehabilitation facility, they constantly receive phone calls about abandoned and injured birds. In most cases the birds have to be euthanized by a small animal veterinarian, as there are no exotic veterinarians that know how to treat injured birds on the island. In some cases though, such as the common swift chick (Apus apus) that was delivered to their doorstep, the birds are lucky enough to get a second chance.

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Before leaving the office of BirdLife Cyprus, I watched their Development Officer,Elena Markitani, crush the heads of some fresh mealworms and beetles purchased at a local pet store by myself and the assistant researcher Yiannis Christodoulides on the way back from the roller surveys. She gathered them in a pair of tweezers and used her thumb to open the fragile beak of the baby swift. She was trying to force-feed the chick who had suddenly decided it wanted to refuse food—a sign of being ready to leave the nest, despite the fact that it was largely underweight and could not yet fly. I later learned that the baby swift survived it’s last few days of shoebox rehab and was released, hopefully with a brighter future, thanks to BirdLife Cyprus and all they are doing to help the island birds.

As I return to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for the remainder of my summer education internship, I feel encouraged by the enthusiasm we share with BirdLife Cyprus concerning the protection of wildlife, though the ecosystems in Pennsylvania and Cyprus are in stark contrast. Looking back at the history of Hawk Mountain, I see that BirdLife Cyprus is in a similar position to our founders. Humans are driven to hunt birds all over the world, however it is also our responsibility to make sure that there remains a balance in the populations that we impact. It will take a group effort to reduce the negative impacts that humans have had on wildlife, and it’s good to know that we have allies, even on the other side of the world.

Raptor Reflection from Across the Pond

By Zoey Greenberg, Former Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Voices silenced and the sound of swishing wings flooded the blind. Our faces tilted towards the sky and I felt palpable awe take over our family as we watched magnificent birds swirl against a cornflower blue sky. We were perched on wooden benches looking out onto the sheep-peppered hills of mid-western Wales while visiting Gigrin Farm Red Kite Feeding Centre, a raptor oasis and primary contributor to the rehabilitation of the red kite (Milvus milvus).  

The kites took to the sky as soon as the rumbling of the “meat truck” was heard.

The kites took to the sky as soon as the rumbling of the “meat truck” was heard.

Each week the feeding center tosses out a quarter ton of sliced beef for red kites, buzzards (Buteo buteo), and rooks (Corvus frugilegus). For the price of six pounds (entrance fees pay for the on-site rehabilitation of injured raptors brought in by the public), we entered the blind of our choice and waited with the kites, gathering and perching in anticipation of man, shovel, and meat. Suddenly, we heard the rumbling of an approaching vehicle, and the kites took to the sky in a swooping ballet of excitement. As morsels were flung into the air, the birds responded in a paradox of frenzied hunger and practiced grace. They positioned themselves in a seemingly organized line, streaming towards the ground in quick succession with talons open. When successful, the kites would float up to their own pocket of air and eat on the wing, bringing a yellow foot to their curved head in an admirable maneuver of private dining.

Corvids remained on the ground, stealing morsels whenever possible.

Corvids remained on the ground, stealing morsels whenever possible.

Red kites form a pecking order similar to other gregarious raptors, and the first smatterings of meat were snatched up by the eldest birds. Eventually younger kites joined the mix, followed by cautious rooks and crows. An amusing yet primal attitude of wariness hung over the field, and as I watched it became clear that each species employed their own unique set of tricks in order to obtain each snack. The corvids remained on the ground, alert but cleverly filling their crop at every opportune moment until a fat pouch formed beneath their shiny black beak. Finally, two buzzards plopped themselves down in the middle of the commotion, ducking when swooped upon but holding their ground as they gingerly hopped about, stabbing the ground with their powerful feet.

Birds danced, and time slid away. The sun dipped below the hills as the red kites continued to cartwheel towards the ground. As I surveyed the blind, I saw unanimous tranquility in the faces of my companions, and I realized that the kites leave an impressionable mark on the many minds that watch them each day, each week, each year. However, it was not always this way. In this region, concern for raptors is a heartening step forward following an era of persecution that plagued the red kites of Wales for the better part of the 18th century.

A buzzard grabs a morsel of meat with its outstretched foot

A buzzard grabs a morsel of meat with its outstretched foot

The feeding station began in 1993 at the request of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) following an all too familiar story of decline. In the Middle Ages killing a red kite resulted in capital punishment. The birds were valued as street-cleaners due to their scavenging habits and were considered an integral part of landscape. However, by the 16th century, improved sanitation became a priority and the Tudor Vermin Acts were put into place. This legislature led to the establishment of a bounty on kites, as well as other raptor species.

As the kites became rare, egg collectors and taxidermists further contributed to a decrease in their numbers and by 1903 there were only a few breeding pairs left in Wales. By then, red kites had been declared extinct in both England and Scotland. In 1903, prompted by an impassioned letter written to the British Ornithologists’ Club, a self-funded group of landowners, farmers, and other concerned community members was created. Through pamphlets and the involvement of the RSPB, the last remaining nests were defended with the help of local army commanders, and attitudes towards the birds slowly began to shift. In 1989 RSPB stepped in and initiated an intensive reintroduction program to help the kites regain a foothold in their former range. The feeding station became part of this effort. Today, there are over 300 pairs in Wales alone.

A red kite and buzzard face off over a piece of meat

A red kite and buzzard face off over a piece of meat

These efforts have not gone to waste, and now on any given day, as thermals swirl above the countryside, residents in Wales can look up to see the sunset-colored tail of a red kite drawing circles in the sky. This turnaround should provide an uplifting parallel to those of us working on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to protect raptors, seeing as the kites of Wales were subjected to shooting pressures very similar to those that defined raptor numbers along the Kitattiny ridge for many years. Different country, similar trajectory.

Sadly, there are still countries where shooting and poisoning raptors is the status quo, perceived as necessary management or an acceptable pastime. All of us in raptor conservation hope that one day every species will be free to roam the skies unharmed; however, our environmental history shows us that traditions die hard, and new conservation frameworks are rarely successful when forcefully imposed. Many rural communities do not have the tools, whether tangible or otherwise, to wake up one day and alter their collective opinion on raptors. As a global conservation community supporting a group of animals that does not see borders, we must be creative and recognize the role of human perception in the success of our work. Reintroduction programs may place birds back in the sky, but if they remain unvalued by locals, their success as a species will crumble.

As I watched the kites that day, a calm drifted over me. Each twist of a wing was prominent but subtle, isolated but surrounded. The birds' movements felt primitive. I was witnessing a creature that creates its own wind and defines its own sky with nothing but the biological potential it was born with. While there is a chance that supplying free food to raptors creates its own side effects, it was also clear that visitors walked away from that field with a newborn fondness for the natural beauty of the raptor world. At the end of our visit, I spoke with a staff member and instantly recognized a commonality in our awe and respect for the birds. He believes in the kite’s potential for changing minds, and we concluded the afternoon swapping raptor stories, smiles on our face and agreement in our hearts. Overhead, red kites wheeled and turned, making this world a better place one dive at a time.