Winged Adventures and Migration Tales

By Pat Dumandan, Spring 2016 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Pat sitting atop boulders at South Lookout during her traineeship in 2016.

Pat sitting atop boulders at South Lookout during her traineeship in 2016.

All animals have their own stories to tell. As someone who plays favorites, I particularly enjoy the sagas of our feathered friends. Conservation science has been particularly useful in helping us peek into their lives, from learning about their family dynamics, to understanding the decisions they make when moving about their territories and across the globe, to keeping us informed about their numbers.

Estimating raptor abundance is especially tricky, because they are secretive species. Luckily, most of them have annual plans to seasonally move back and forth from their homes, following more or less a similar route each way. This allows us to see them altogether and effectively assess their population status. So, when we actually think about it, long-term raptor migration monitoring studies tell us about the adventures of migratory raptors in a human-dominated world.

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Knowing that humans are architects of ecological communities, I am intrigued by how our past intentional or unintentional actions have affected migratory raptors. A few months ago, this idea was fueled by a great mentor and the former HMS Director of Conservation Science Dr. Keith Bildstein, who encouraged me to work on this for my master’s thesis. My graduate research at Boise State University is now focused on gaining insights of how human-environmental changes have influenced the composition and abundance of migratory raptors over extended time periods.

Fortunately, I am able to go on this “winged” adventure and implement this project using the largest raptor migration count dataset worldwide, which is maintained by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (HMS) and was generously shared to me by one of my raptor conservation heroes and current Director of Conservation Science, Dr. Laurie Goodrich.

Dr. Laurie Goodrich and Pat posing in the Acopian Center Trainee Offices.

Dr. Laurie Goodrich and Pat posing in the Acopian Center Trainee Offices.

As a former conservation science trainee, this is both exciting and humbling, because I get to work on an amazing multiple-decade dataset, which is a luxury for wildlife researchers, and also because I get to  work on it alongside my mentors at the Mountain.

During the last few months, I sleuthed historical data by trying out different statistical tools and reading relevant articles written more than 50 years ago.  By doing so, I developed a deeper appreciation for natural history and realized how far along quantitative ecology has gotten. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed being behind the desk, crunching numbers and doing non field-based work. Since I got the taste of fieldwork, I did not think that being “domesticated” in the office would suit me, but somehow I got over it and realized that making sense of data collected over time is equally fun and more challenging, even.

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Currently, I am amidst the process of refining a breakpoint model which would help me determine the “breakpoint” year/s (i.e., when a change in the abundance and diversity of the migratory raptor assemblage is observed) and hopefully, would best describe HMS raptor count data. Once I successfully fit an appropriate model, I can then identify which main threat to raptors (direct persecution, habitat change, and environmental contamination) caused shifts in the assemblage structure. This would help fill in the knowledge gap of how large-scale disturbances influence larger aggregations of animals.

With the continued support of the generous donors of HMS and the Project Soar Grant, I am able to stay in the United States to work on my project during the summer, under the direction of my adviser, Dr. Todd Katzner, and Boise State professors who are in my thesis committee.

These days, I find it thrilling whenever the models I run converge and when I do not get error prompts. As silly and nerdy as it sounds, I feel the same rush as when I spot a huge flock of migrants coming in whenever I get these little wins, analyzing over 80 years of HMS count data. I am very excited to complete this project so I can share a raptor migration tale to the world that is filled with lessons we should have learned from our previous mistakes that have contributed to biodiversity loss, and hopefully find a happy ending with the formulation of effective raptor conservation strategies moving forward.