Quick Q&A with the New President

At the beginning of this year, Sean Grace arrived on the Mountain as the new president of the Sanctuary. Read below to learn more about his background and what his plans for this position. 

1. Tell us about your previous experiences that have led you here to Hawk Mountain.

I've always been very passionate about the natural world and I learned that right away from the time I was a very young person, and that led to  a strong connection with nature that includes raptors.

I grew up in MA, and through my explorations, I became very connected to the Assabet River, and the section where I lived was the Mill Pond. I knew every square inch of that for many miles, upstream and downstream. I would go down there to fish, and that connected me with birds and wildlife. Those explorations were pretty formative for me as a child. I also had experiences with my mom feeding birds, and I got my first birding field guide from my mom.

When I went to school for my undergrad, I decided to do the practical thing and majored in business management. I always had this strong connection with nature, enjoying hiking and backpacking and outdoor pursuits so when I finished school, I matched my personal interests with my scholastic training and started a career in outdoor retail. I worked first for Eastern Mountain Sports and then Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, both in New Jersey.

At a certain point, when I had been with Eastern Mountain Sports,  I was able to take advantage of this program where I could take a 3-month sabbatical. I travelled out west and ended up at a place called the Teton Science School, and the director at the time, Jack Shay, invited me out to take the winter ecology course for free, if I could get the plane ticket. It was a two week course that was always scheduled after Christmas, so of course, working in outdoor retail, I couldn't leave then.

Eventually, I decided to take a left turn in life, and I applied to the Teton Science School (TSS) grad program and got in. I did 34 graduate credits through Utah State University, but all of the work was actually done at TSS. It was a residential education facility, so groups would come in from anywhere from a week to five weeks. It was a fabulous experience, and I had opportunities to work on three different scientific research programs, including elk, coyote, and moose  studies. It was simply the best $9 an hour job I could ever have.

I had met my wife-to-be while finishing my master's at the New Jersey School of Conservation, so I decided to come back east and put my life as a wildlife guide to the side. I then ran the operations for Blue Ridge Mountain Sports for a couple of years in New Jersey as a District Manager. I liked this experience because I learned all of the practical aspects of business. I was working with people and learning about their adventures. 

An opportunity came up to run the Plainsboro Preserve for New Jersey Audubon. When I came in it was their number three center in terms of educational volume, and in a couple of years we were number one. It was a great opportunity to design an entire educational platform. I had had many previous experiences, but my rule has always been to find what the community needs and then to build the program around that.

Sean with an American kestrel. 

Sean with an American kestrel. 

I had interviewed at the time for the National Audubon, and they came back with the opportunity to run the Sharon Audubon Center, which is comprised of four nature sanctuaries. At Sharon we did a whole diversity of things: we have a kestrel nest box program that we are a part of, we monitor close to 200 bluebird boxes, we had five different MAPS stations (mapping avian productivity and survivorship), and we had the wildlife rehabilitation unit.

One thing I want to point out about that: all of that work is all done through volunteer efforts. For me, it's really important to recognize the importance of volunteers. Even if we look at it here at Hawk Mountain, we have 18 employees, 25 board members, and about 250 volunteers. That really magnifies the ability for us to meet our mission. Everyone is here for the same reason, because they are passionate about that mission and what they do.

I was also the team leader of a forest program, the eastern forest work in the state of Connecticut. I launched that program about a month after I arrived. A big part of that was censusing the property by different habitats, essentially mapping it and documenting the avian populations present. In that realm, I am highly skilled: identifying species of birds by ear.

The magic of that program was the fact that you're giving that landowner their own private field trip on their own land. There was power in connecting people with their local wildlife and land.

All of these different opportunities, including fundraising and specific program responsibilities, lead me here to Hawk Mountain. I'm really excited just to be here and to embark on a new chapter. I can't wait to work with the team here; I want to listen, first and foremost, and learn what we do. Collaboratively we can move forward together and build off the platform we have.

2. What kind of leader are you, and what strategies will you bring to Hawk Mountain?

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My strengths may lie in my diversity in experiences, because I have had to wear a lot of the hats that the members of this senior team wear. I understand the opportunities and the challenges, so I want to strategize and work collaboratively to bring the best out of what we already have here.

Hawk Mountain is this awesome organization that has an incredible reputation. Really good organizations are built because there are great and committed people that work there. I know that going in.

I'm definitely a person who likes to innovate; I like to strategize ways to keep improving. One of the things that I always strive to do, is look through the lense of the community, which can be done on multiple levels: our staff, board, volunteers, local visitors, national and global partners , etc. I'm invested in exploring all of those lenses and creating this network of supporters with those communities who are committed to our mission and to raptors. There is strong power at the intersection of people and raptors.

If we at Hawk Mountain "win" and are successful, then raptor populations and their habitats are successful, and then people as a whole are successful. It's an easy thing to come into work every day and be committed to. We can continue to be that beacon of light that's guiding those global successes from the top of Hawk Mountain.

3. Do you have anything you want to say to our supporters?

I'm here to listen. I like to meet people and hear what their connection is to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. I want to know what your interests are what opportunities you see for us. The best ideas come from within, and that includes our local community.

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Eyes Up and Open

By Abigail DeVizia, 2017 Hawk Mountain Artist in Residence

In April of 2017, I was preparing to graduate from Kutztown University. With only one month left, all of my remaining energy was focused on soaking up any knowledge and practice I could get out of my last few weeks of classes. My professors often encouraged us to find new languages and meanings for our artwork, but I was always focused on the question of how I was going to start an art career after school.  Luckily for me, I had helpful advisers that suggested the first step: apply for the Hawk Mountain Artist Residency.

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By August, I had moved into the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning alongside a few education interns and trainees. In the beginning of my two month stay, most of my time was spent driving and taking pictures.  I photographed gas stations, overgrown backyards, and some quiet factories for reference. I was accustomed to painting in my familiar language—tattered, small town landscape—despite being surrounded by a grand new landscape full of life.  But, as expected, plans change. I considered painting the sociopolitical exchange between Berks and Schuylkill inhabitants, but after a couple weeks, I realized that this was neither compelling nor could it be explained well without painting the people themselves. I was, however, still interested in the image of the two counties dividing the mountain in half, and how differently they appear.  One was comforting and folksy with wide farm fields, and the other was commercial with numerous strip malls, restaurants and supermarkets.  But something still felt missing.

Day by day, I did a mixture of drawing, hiking, painting, and photographing.  Being a part of this environment, where every day the interns were discussing migration, the daily bird sightings, and the importance of conservation, I was noticing the small glimpses of life.  I hiked the mountain on my own and observed that everyone, from the experienced birder to the novice visitor, was interested in learning about the raptors.  All of this was new to me because, prior to my stay, wildlife painting was not as meaningful to me; yet now, I wanted to talk about it.  I wanted to learn how raptors travelled, how they hunted, when I could see them.  I knew that my paintings would have to focus on the migration. 

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When the interns returned to the residence, I would often ask them about the birds they saw that day.  They told me what was travelling through the area and how to identify raptors, and I would look for them when I photographed.  Unsurprisingly, certain birds would make their way into my paintings.  Every new painting made me think about what bird was active at that time, or what kind of raptor would be common in the scene I was forming.  For example, I labored for weeks on one watercolor that was filled with branches, flora and tall grass, but in this scene, I was drawn to a white fence that felt like a perfect place for something to be perched.  I asked many of the resident scientists what would be seen sitting so obviously in the open, and was the right size for the fence.  All of them agreed that a Coopers Hawk would be the perfect fit, so I painted a Cooper’s Hawk looming over its prey.  It was finally concrete in my mind that all of my work was a spotlight on the raptors and the unique places they inhabit.  

I decided to take advantage of my location and began painting on site.  I painted at North Lookout a few times to make a rather simple but warm depiction of the rising sun.  This inspired me to start painting the other lookouts and expand the flow of this series to include sites from the Mountain. 

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Each lookout, such as North Lookout, the Kettle View, the River of Rocks, and the Lookout Trail, offered insight into the geographic layout of the land.  These sights from Hawk Mountain's own trails bind together the paintings from off the Mountain and showcase that raptors have traveled hundreds of miles to make a temporary home with us in our wildly varying landscape.  This is the idea that countries, states, and counties are all sharing the opportunity to look up and experience the birds during migration, and now I have the opportunity to share those glimpses in visually compelling ways.  

What the Sanctuary offered to me was an invested look into how birds are counted, identified, and studied every day. It taught me to be open-minded with my plans, and never closed off to changing my inspiration.  I always felt that I painted subjects that were underappreciated, and now I know to keep my eyes up to the things that I myself have ignored.  Thanks to the work of many, I can share what should be adored in the quiet Pennsylvania landscape of Hawk Mountain, and a new love of wildlife and narrative.  Hawk Mountain Sanctuary brings joy to visitors on a daily basis, and I am proud to say that now, I can bring this joy wherever I go.

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Come and experience the incredible series of work that Abby created during her time at the Sanctuary at her art show entitled "Sharing the Birds," which will be on display in the Hawk Mountain Visitor Center Gallery from August 19 to September 15, 2018. It will be free and open to the public.

All photos and art by Abigail DeVizia. 

All photos and art by Abigail DeVizia. 

Percy the Victorious Vulture: A Hit in Zimbabwe

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

Black vulture perched on a boulder. Photo buy Nina Duggan.

Black vulture perched on a boulder. Photo buy Nina Duggan.

Vultures are generally not people’s favorite animal, especially with kids. They see them only in movies and story books that do no justice to the story of vultures, but only portray them as loathsome beasts. It cannot continue like this in our time; we cannot afford to let children go on being ignorant about issues of the state of their planet or the important role every organism plays in the ecosystem around them. If we let it happen, the world is going to be handed over to a more disastrous people than we have been, people that will not appreciate the life in it.

I personally did not think anything of vultures before my year-long internship at VulPro in South Africa. I did not love or hate them, but I knew they were not my preferred choice for birds to work with. I certainly thought I was going to be bored to death with them. My childhood had only just exposed me to the cute and grand side of wildlife: the lion prides filmed on television and the fluffy, little animals I would see at the wildlife orphanage from time to time. However, I always felt drawn to the weird animals, the strange ones that were not as easy to love, like painted wild dogs instead of cheetahs and lions. After seeing a lot of species of vultures, all affected by human actions, helplessly ceasing from poisonings, paralyzed from lead, and sometimes reduced to being flightless and confused from power line collisions, my passion for championing their cause was ignited. All birds should fly free, and it is up to us, the humans of today to make the right decisions to make it possible.

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The children’s book Percy the Victorious Vulture was published in April 2017 while I was a trainee at Hawk Mountain. This book features the message of the importance of education birds and birds that are survivors of the hazards they face in the world today. The text in the book is very simple and precise, and it teaches kids about the importance of vultures, scientific techniques of tracking and trapping, monitoring, migration, and interactions of wildlife with humans in human-dominated landscapes.

With just this one small book, I am certain that Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has changed people’s perceptions on black vultures and vultures as a whole, and has opened a window through which readers can look into the everyday lives of the species.

I was very excited when I got my own copy of the book, as it gave me the idea of writing similar books on African raptors, since such education material is much needed in my region, and encouraged me to spread this story in my community. After talking to librarians in my city, they agreed to let me use their library space for education programs. This was wonderful, as the space is central for most people and is a hub for students and adults in the city. All the education and awareness work I had been doing before at the Natural History Museum had been a little exclusive because of time and location. A book reading was a perfect program to begin with, being at the library, and it justified my conservation education effort.

Merlyn prepares to begin the reading of Percy the Victorious Vulture.

Merlyn prepares to begin the reading of Percy the Victorious Vulture.

The turnout was amazing, kids with their parents and friends, and even some young adults who came to just ‘check it out’, all had never been to a book reading before, nevermind one about vultures. I myself had never been to a book reading and had no idea what happens at one other than reading it aloud to the audience. I was nervous, but eventually the day arrived, and kids filled the hall. Anybody that has presented in an educative capacity knows that kids are not the easiest crowd, and that they are sharp and can spring questions on you that take you back to the roots of a concept. It can be very intimidating. You also need to be entertaining and engaging, or else you’ll lose their attention, and they’ll be bored.

I talked to my friends at the museum, and they helped me put together my makeshift raptor education trunk. Unfortunately they had lost their vulture mount to an infection and only had a martial eagle and another raptor’s head that I could use. I put it in the box together with a cattle ear tag labelled 43 (Percy’s wing tag number) and made my way to the library. At the library, I set it up on a table and used the specimen mounts to define what raptors are and to compare adaptations of raptors to their different lifestyles, especially focusing on eagles and vultures which I had pictures of on a slideshow. Almost all of the kids in the room had never seen an eagle or vulture, and it was clearly exciting to be that close and able to touch them. The time came to read the book, and everyone was eagerly waiting to hear the story of Percy. To prevent stuttering and calm the nerves, I started off with introducing African vultures and their distribution using beautiful posters loaned to me by a friend, I know this information so well it is like telling a story I have told a thousand times but still get excited over; this made it easier to move on to the ‘book reading’ that I had no idea how to do.

Attendees' hands shoot up to answer Merlyn's raptor questions. 

Attendees' hands shoot up to answer Merlyn's raptor questions. 

I only had one copy of the book, and this presented the challenge of how to read and showcase the lovely illustrations while maintaining that excitement and enthusiasm readers must have with kids. Fortunately the kids were attentive and patient with me, and the contents of my raptor box kept them awake. At the end of the reading, I invited questions expecting a dozen questions to be fired my way but nothing came. I decided to then fire questions their way, and the response was amazing. These kids remembered all of the complex scientific terms I had read and explained plus some I had defined in passing. They seemed to have been absorbing everything I was reading. To be honest, just one question was asked, “Where can we buy or get copies of this book?” Unfortunately, I did not have the answer to this question.

This book reading I had planned to teach kids about vultures ended up teaching me a lot more. It reaffirmed the value of conservation education and awareness, especially at grass root level where perceptions are being sewn and grown in the minds of our future. I will endeavor this year to continue seeking opportunities to educate more youth and most importantly developing raptor education material for children in my region, for there is truly so much diversity in species, ecosystems, and cultures regarding raptor conservation. I’m afraid this counts as a publicized new year’s resolution!

Merlyn (right) poses with some of the children who attended the education program.

Merlyn (right) poses with some of the children who attended the education program.

On the Vulture Chronicles: Vulture Detectives Pt 2

A black vulture tagged by Hawk Mountain named Versace, perched on a barn in the Kempton Valley. Notice her wing tag and antennae of the telemetry unit.

A black vulture tagged by Hawk Mountain named Versace, perched on a barn in the Kempton Valley. Notice her wing tag and antennae of the telemetry unit.

By Adehl Schwaderer, former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

As a Hawk Mountain Conservation Science Trainee, you have the opportunity to be a part of many influential experiences, including counting migrants as they pass North Lookout and educating visitors about the importance of raptor conservation. But the experience that I have learned the most from this autumn was working with my fellow trainee Zoey Greenberg on our black vulture movement ecology project. This blog is part two of our vulture series so be sure to check out part one to gain a complete understanding of our project.

The plan was to locate three black vultures, Versace, Gifford, and Hillary, based on their recent GPS locations and observe what the birds were doing at these locations. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was excited to get started and gain new field experience, but no one had ever attempted groundtruthing with this species before, and it is still a new concept. We accepted this challenge with enthusiasm but were anxious about getting results. In the end we knew that no data would still be valuable information, however who doesn’t want groundbreaking results from their first ever field study?

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Click here to continue reading this blog on The Vulture Chronicles

Click here to read Part 1!

On the Vulture Chronicles: Vulture Detectives Pt 1

Female black vulture named Donald over a quarry during September of 2016 near Palmyra, PA.

Female black vulture named Donald over a quarry during September of 2016 near Palmyra, PA.

By Zoey Greenberg, former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

he tires crunched on gravel, and I shut the engine off. We had entered vulture country. With scope, data sheets, and binoculars in hand my project partner, trainee Adehl Shwaderer and I walked carefully up the gravel road as we scanned the tree tops for hunched silhouettes or soaring shadows. This was our first foray into the Kempton Valley, east of Hawk Mountain, in search of black vultures (Coragyps atratus). Our expectations were not high. However, we had innovation on our side: we were testing a method called “groundtruthing” to better understand the movement ecology of several vultures that had been tagged with satellite transmitters by Hawk Mountain scientists. After investigating their movements in Google Earth, we had discovered interesting patterns including an individual who spent time near quarries, and another that seemed to prefer cities. The problem was, we didn’t know why.

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Late Migration Mountain Musings

By Dr. Laurie Goodrich, Director of Long-term Monitoring
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

“… break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”  - John Muir

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Migration flow slows in late November and December, with some days seeing barely a trickle.  But, nearly half the birds we count can be eagles, bald and golden.  Because thermals are rare, the eagles hug the ridge so close that they seem to barely clear the treetops. And, late season days are the only time I have ever seen a northern goshawk or northern harrier strafe the decoy owl.  December is often the best time to see rough-legged hawk, an arctic nesting species that rarely visits Pennsylvania, and one of the rarest raptor migrants. And, northern nesting songbirds such as red and white-winged crossbills are often only seen on these late season days.  Despite these exciting possible sightings, the visitor numbers diminish drastically at this time and counters are often found alone on the rocks.

Laurie scans the sky for migrants from atop North Lookout.

Laurie scans the sky for migrants from atop North Lookout.

Thanksgiving Day, November 23 2017: My sister calls me 9 am.  She asks “where are you having thanksgiving dinner?” I tell her I am going to count hawks in afternoon, though a volunteer is working there this morning.  She is audibly horrified, “they make you count on a holiday? “

“Well…” I say, “ I cannot ask a volunteer to be there, although one is there for the morning. And, other staff have covered other years so it is my turn….” She is quiet and I can tell she is feeling sorry for me, so I say, “and the birds still fly south even on holidays.”  

Secretly, I don’t tell her I am looking forward to my afternoon “on the rocks”.  Later that day I count nine red-tailed hawks and an adult bald eagle gliding south and greet nearly 100 visiting hikers on a sunny Mountain day, sharing my Thanksgiving pumpkin bread. 

Since the 1980s, Hawk Mountain staff and volunteers have manned the North Lookout daily from mid-August through mid-December for the annual autumn migration count.  However, in the early years the season began September 1st and ended November 30th. As we learned more about raptor migration timing, we realized a longer season was needed to fully sample the raptors, particularly eagles and buteos, so we extended the hawk count. 

An immature bald eagle soars past the lookout. 

An immature bald eagle soars past the lookout. 

Bald Eagles have a bi-modal migration with two peaks, one in late August or early September and one in November.  The early eagles are the southern nesting race, that begins nesting in late fall in southern states, while the later birds are the northern bald eagles that nest in New England, Mid-Atlantic and northward.  The northern birds often do not move south in large number until waterways start to freeze up north.  If we have mild autumn weather, we often can have double-digit daily counts of bald eagles into mid-December, which for a species where we record 300 to 500 annually can make a large difference in annual totals.  Golden eagles also can be observed into December with the golden-tinged adults more likely at this time.  Add in an adult goshawk or rough-legged hawk and you have the makings of a great day.

Late season counting is also a great time to ‘wash the spirit clean’ as John Muir states.  The forest is often quiet save for the occasional common raven or pileated woodpecker call.   The skies can be still, save for the occasional raptor or skein of snow geese or tundra swan passing by.  When the sun hits the rocks, sometimes frosted with snow, the peace and beauty of the Mountain can recharge.  Though I hesitate to share this secret of Hawk Mountain, these late season days are worth a few hours time, whether there are migrating raptors or not.    

On that note, happy holidays everyone, and be sure to join us in the Spring!

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Adventures and Advancements in Captive Raptor Management

By Rachel Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Rachel and TRC’s Education Program Manager Gail Buhl work through passing off and handling a bald eagle.

Rachel and TRC’s Education Program Manager Gail Buhl work through passing off and handling a bald eagle.

Earlier this season, I had the incredible opportunity to attend The University of Minnesota’s 2017 Care and Management of Captive Raptors four-day comprehensive workshop from October 13-20, funded by a Philadelphia Foundation grant. With over 20 years of “talons-on” experience working with raptors in captivity, I have returned to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary from The Raptor Center (TRC) with a renewed sense of empowerment and motivation to propel our captive management practices to a world class status.

Prior to handling and training birds at the TRC, I successfully completed hands-on medical exams and necropsy under the direction of expert clinic staff. Although far from being Dr. Dolittle, after learning the best practices in diets, nutrition, equipment, and raptor housing, I am eager to implement modifications to provide the highest quality of life for my feathered coworkers.

Rachel assists Hawk Mountain's veterinarian, Dr. Pello, during a routine check up of our red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Rachel assists Hawk Mountain's veterinarian, Dr. Pello, during a routine check up of our red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Education Department is responsible for a collection of birds that require care and maintenance 365 days a year. In my role as senior educator and lead raptor care manager, I schedule, train, and supervise volunteers ensuring best practices and the safety of volunteers and birds. With the support of my education teammates Erin Brown and Adam Carter, I created a vetting process for volunteers to ensure consistency and high standards of care. Unable to send a text message or call staff when they are ill, we are responsible for feeding, cleaning, conducting routine health checks for the birds year-round. We take this responsibility seriously 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, monitoring bird welfare through polar vortex temperatures, mosquito-breeding season, and beyond. Attending the TRC workshop fostered my deeper appreciation for the role of avian educators as ambassadors for raptor conservation.

We also manage on-going training and enrichment for both the birds and volunteers throughout their tenure, aiming to provide a stress-free environment for our avian educators throughout their lifespan. Although young at heart, several members of our avian education team are entering their “golden years” and have geriatric needs. The HMS avian educators have individual special needs in addition to the natural history requirements of each species.  

Rachel hones her raptor training skills with TRC’s resident red-tailed hawk.

Rachel hones her raptor training skills with TRC’s resident red-tailed hawk.

In recent years, I developed a Raptor Care Advisory Committee consisting of an avian veterinarian, raptor rehabilitator, and professional bird trainer who share their unique knowledge, specialized skills, and experience to meet the needs of our captive raptor management plan. With the guidance of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE), I’ve created a collection plan, training and enrichment plans, and a retirement position statement to ensure consistency and adherence to our mission of serving as a model facility.

Although the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service require annual audits of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s collection of captive birds, we also undergo a yearly voluntary audit by an outside source. Most recently, my ultimate raptor conservation hero, (after Rosalie Edge, Maurice and Irma Broun, of course), Director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey, Jemima Parry-Jones conducted a thorough exam of all birds and an audit of our enclosures and indoor raptor care facilities.  

I owe a debt of gratitude to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s team of volunteers, advisors, staff, and mentors who continue to support me.  When you visit the Sanctuary and enjoy a live raptor program, ‘Raptors Up Close’ or meet one of our ambassadors at a festival or large event, please know that your support makes a positive impact!

Best Laid Plans

By Andrea Ambrose, Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Andrea scans the sky for migrants from North Lookout.

Andrea scans the sky for migrants from North Lookout.

I thought that I had it all figured out when I got my first taste of being a field biologist. I was in the last semester of attending my local community college, and I always knew that I wanted to work with wildlife in some capacity, but I just couldn't quite figure out what direction to take. A professor at my school was offering a three-week field ecology course on campus with local field trips. We learned identification of local birds to monitor species on campus, (incidentally this is how my passion for birding began, leading to a pursuit for many jobs focused on avian conservation), went for a weekend to a marine science consortium in Virginia to learn about marine research and marsh and wetland ecology, and visited a local arboretum to see work being done on invasive plant removal.

I was immediately hooked on the idea of wanting to learn more about what I could do to help monitor and protect our native wildlife, and the thought of working outdoors as a job while getting to study local species was exceedingly appealing. This was it! I'd found what I wanted to pursue as a career. Field biology seemed to be my perfect fit.

Fast forward 6 years to getting my bachelors degree in Biology with a focus in Ecology and Conservation. I got accepted to work at several summer internships with various organizations including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an avian rehabilitation center, where I learned the ins and outs of conducting field research in various states. After graduating, I got my first field technician position in Missouri, working with a bird observatory doing grassland bird studies. Here is where things started to change for me, although it took me another year to figure it all out.

Andrea holds a female red-winged blackbird while working for the Missouri River Bird Observatory.

Andrea holds a female red-winged blackbird while working for the Missouri River Bird Observatory.

At the Missouri River Bird Observatory, there was a strong focus on educating the public by attending local events, where we would mist net and band birds and share with the visitors the importance of protecting local species. I was delighted by the reaction of not only the children, but the adults as well, when they got to see a bird in hand, up close and in person. The interest that these events sparked in people to learn about the natural world around them seemed to have great importance and value, and I was intrigued by the notion of conservation education as a possible career path.

I still loved most aspects of field research after 5 years of experience, but began to have doubts as to whether or not it was for me. I put this new interest on the back burner for another year as I worked a fairly intense field research job in South Texas. Upon returning home, I decided to see what I could do to possibly change my path yet again. Enter Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

Andrea holds one of Hawk Mountain's education birds, a gray-morph eastern screech owl. 

Andrea holds one of Hawk Mountain's education birds, a gray-morph eastern screech owl. 

Living half an hour away from this world-renowned sanctuary was going to be the start of something amazing for me. I began as a raptor care volunteer and within a few months was accepted as an education intern, when I expressed my newly found interest in conservation education. I will never look back.

Andrea hosts a public Raptors Up Close program. 

Andrea hosts a public Raptors Up Close program. 

I've been fully integrated into my new passion in every way imaginable- from learning to work hands on with our education raptors, to presenting live raptor programs, to leading guided school groups up the mountain trails while providing interpretation about our local flora and fauna. I've presented Wee Ones programs to 3-5 year olds and learned how to channel my inner child again in order to teach this age group.  I've had several months’ worth of meeting some of the most amazing people I've ever met in my career, and although I will always be grateful for the experiences gained while working as a field biologist, and I can still use the knowledge that I gained in my future jobs, I know now that this is what my path is meant to be. I look forward to what the future holds and to teaching many more people, be it children or the general public, about the importance of conservation.

 

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.