A Grand Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

Kirsten holding a California spotted owl.

Kirsten holding a California spotted owl.

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

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

A soaring California condor

A soaring California condor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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