Night Wanderers

By Zoe Bonerbo, Conservation Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Very few people get to experience the Mountain at night. Trekking through the rocky understory in near pitch black was one of the coolest experiences I had while interning at Hawk Mountain. I had never before experienced the outdoors like I did that night.

I was born and raised in New York City—the furthest you could get from the rugged outdoors of the mountain. Nonetheless, I grew up loving the outdoors and was fascinated by animals and nature. When the opportunity arose to help organize an exclusive night hiking event, I jumped on it.

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The special guest we arranged to come speak before the hike was Charles Adams, author of Ghost Stories of Berks County. He spoke about the paranormal activity and “spirals of energy” that exist on Mountain. It was a fantastic way for me to learn about the history of the place that I called home for three months. That night, as stories were being divulged, it started drizzling right above our group of guests in the Laurelwood Niche, but nowhere else on the Mountain. On all four sides, you could see the lining of where the raincloud stopped and the civil twilight sky stretched beyond. Intriguingly, the rain only lasted as long as the stories did. Once the hike started, the clouds broke way to stars.

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At night, your senses come to life. Madi, a former Hawk Mountain education intern, challenged us to focus on our senses other than sight to help guide us on the walk up to North Lookout. While headlamps were allowed, guests only used them on a red light setting to help enhance night vision. However, since we were short one headlamp, I gave mine to one of the other hikers, and that’s when the adventure really began. The trails I thought I knew well became a puzzle with no light. I had never been challenged in this way before. Climbing and scrambling over rocks in the pitch black had my blood rushing. I found myself having to rely primarily on my sense of touch, feeling out the next step I would take, steadying myself on the rocks and trees beside me, and shifting my center of gravity to retain my balance.

 The dusk view from the South Lookout, before they headed up to North Lookout..

The dusk view from the South Lookout, before they headed up to North Lookout..

The adrenaline of the hike was calmed when we reached the lookouts. With so little light pollution and our eyes well-adjusted to the darkness, we could see hundreds of stars dotting the sky. Everyone remained quiet, taking in the stillness of the night. We didn’t arrive back to the parking lot until past 11pm. By 9am the next morning, I was back up the Mountain leading a school group up to the Lookout.

A few weeks after the excitement, I noticed a quote sitting on my supervisor's desk, “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” After spending three months on the Mountain, I don’t think John Muir couldn’t have said it any better.

 Zoe hosting an outdoor portion of the July Wee Ones Walk for children ages 3-5. 

Zoe hosting an outdoor portion of the July Wee Ones Walk for children ages 3-5. 

 

 

The Circumference of Home

By Maren Cole, Conservation Corps Member
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Forty-five miles, ninety-five degrees, twenty-five to forty lbs. packs on our backs. Can we do it? Can we brave the heat and circumnavigate the place we call home?

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The ten member HMCC team (six teenagers and four adults) left the Education Building on Hawk Mountain at 5:00 AM Saturday morning and began the four-mile hike to the Little Schuylkill River. The hike was wet, due to the dew that still held on to the blades of grass, but aside from that, it was relatively pleasant. The sun hadn’t risen yet, so the air was still fresh and cool.

We reached the river in an hour and a half and inflated our packrafts, tied down our packs, and by 6:45 AM we were afloat and on our way to the train station in Port Clinton. The paddle was peaceful. Other than a few fawns and a bald eagle, we had the river all to ourselves. We then finished our three miles on the Little Schuylkill, packed our rafts back up, and headed to the train station.

The train rolled into the station at 9:30 AM, and we were there with time to spare. A highlight for all the members was seeing the shocked faces of the train crew as they saw us—wet clothes, muddy legs, and big packs. The train ride to Jim Thorpe was relaxing, and many of us tried to nap, knowing that we had a full day of boating and hiking ahead of us.

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After the train ride, the team grabbed a bite at the Subway. The heat was definitely overpowering! Everyone could not wait to get onto the Lehigh river, where there would be an opportunity to cool off.

We walked down to the river, and our team leader Todd Bauman went 75 yards ahead to set up a drone for overhead footage. Once that was ready, we set off, ready to conquer the eleven miles of rafting ahead of us. A little over three hours later our team got off the river, exhausted from the paddle.

After the river we all relaxed, made dinner, and recuperated for the next few hours, trying to avoid the intense heat.

When dark arrived, we got ready to set out again, hoping to make it up the mountain and onto the Appalachian Trail before setting up camp. The hike was steep and rocky, and we got increasingly tired as the hours went by—our steps began to slow, and our breaths quickened. We made it onto the trail and up about a mile and a half, but due to blistered feet and fast-fading energy, we finally decided to turn in for the night at the nearest available space around 1 AM.

That night we all fell asleep after a twenty-one hour long day, exhausted, but content with our day’s progress.

The next morning we set off again, and continued to hike all morning until we reached Bake Oven Knob, and had lunch brought to us. We then were shuttled to the Blue Mountain Summit Restaurant, where we all slept the afternoon away before eating dinner, bandaging blisters, and setting off rested and ready for that night's miles. We traveled eight more miles that held a variety of breathless singing of “Country Road” (with adapted lyrics that fit our trip), and speed walking before pitching camp.

Our last morning, we woke up early and prepared to head out for our final stretch. We hiked a few miles before reaching the Hawk Mountain Skyline trail. After getting more drone footage as we hiked up to North Lookout, we finished our hike looking out over where we had traveled, a satisfied feeling knowing that we were almost finished. Although, the trip really finished with a bang when Todd went bounding from rock to rock to catch the drone that had snagged a tree but thankfully came tumbling down to his arms unharmed. A loud cheer went up from the team when he caught it!

Forty-five miles, ninety-five degrees, twenty-five to forty lbs. packs on our backs. Can we do it? Can we brave the heat and circumnavigate the place we call home?

Yes. Yes we can.

Preserving Diversity in Education

By Rachel Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

The world’s very first refuge for birds of prey attracts diverse individuals, and we welcome nature lovers, hikers, hawk watchers, native plant enthusiasts, autumn leaf peepers, and conservationists alike. Traditional school students explore our "school in the clouds" and eat lunch at North Lookout while eavesdropping on the hawk counters during the spring and autumn migration seasons. As a staff member, I’ve witnessed visitors become hypnotized by the magic of raptor migration, old friends reunite over trail mix, and first-time visitors fall in love with the landscape and our global mission. Every visitor encounter reminds me that Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a very special place and how important it is to preserve special places.

Recently, several groups with special needs investigated the Mountain through an array of multisensory experiences. Students ranging in age from elementary to young adults from Saint Joseph’s Center for Special Learning located in Pottsville, Schuylkill County, and students with visual impairment from the Vision Resource Center of Berks County visited the Sanctuary. As a licensed elementary and special education teacher, my understanding of multiple intelligences, learning styles, and differentiated instruction allows me to offer accommodations that meet the needs of diverse learners.

 The Wings of Wonder downstairs gallery provided space to spread our own wings and flap like a falcon, soar like a buteo, and glide effortlessly like a turkey vulture A.K.A Bloodhound of the Sky.

The Wings of Wonder downstairs gallery provided space to spread our own wings and flap like a falcon, soar like a buteo, and glide effortlessly like a turkey vulture A.K.A Bloodhound of the Sky.

The love of teaching and learning, enthusiasm and encouragement allows educators to provide special experiences. Hawk Mountain's programming is inspired to connect ALL visitors with Appalachian forest ecology, highlighting raptors as important bio-indicators of healthy ecosystems. To do this, students were offered an array of sensory experiences including touching feathers, snake skin, turtle shells, and mammal fur. We listened to recordings of the most commonly seen raptor in North America, the red-tailed hawk. Students listened while I waved wings of diurnal hawks in comparison to silent owl wings. Touching the feathered foot of a great-horned owl and carefully examining the scaly toes of a hawk allowed everyone to feel sharp and pointy talons and learn how they serve as tools for catching, gripping and killing prey. It amazed me how engaged everyone was for the entire presentation.

A stroll through the Native Garden offered sounds of green frogs, buzzing pollinators, and songbirds, before heading across the road for more outdoor exploration. Leaving the garden, we enjoyed the aroma of native swamp rose and the faint scent of sunscreen and insect repellant wafting by our group. Channeling our inner turkey vulture, we engaged our olfactory senses and, without hesitation, students shared their thoughts on smelling cigarette smoke and approval of smelling fresh baked bread. Several kids decided to give the turkey vulture a nickname: Bloodhound of the Sky. I approved.

 Edwardo helps to illustrate raptor adaptations for his classmates. Since he has family in Mexico, Edwardo was thrilled to learn about our sister site in Veracruz, also known as the River of Raptors!

Edwardo helps to illustrate raptor adaptations for his classmates. Since he has family in Mexico, Edwardo was thrilled to learn about our sister site in Veracruz, also known as the River of Raptors!

Finally, we entered the accessible Silhouette Trail, connecting the trailhead to Laurelwood Niche and South Lookout, allowing all students to explore the ridgetop with ease. As a team, many navigated the trail with the help of wheelchairs and therapeutic personal assistants, others relied on canes or following the voice and arm leading them forward. Instead of ignoring the various tiny bumps and lumps under our feet and wheels, we examined tiny acorn caps, oak tree galls, and snail shells. These extraordinary students reminded me of the importance of appreciating the small things like looking out my window and seeing the lush, green leaves wave at me in the breeze. As we sat in peaceful silence at South Lookout, we felt the warmth of the sun peeking through the forest canopy and enjoyed breathing fresh, unpolluted mountaintop air. No one wanted to leave.

The students said that Hawk Mountain was their favorite place on earth, and I agreed. Every visit makes a difference, and we thank you for your continued support.

Searching for Two Secretive Forest-Raptors

By Lauren Sarnese, Goshawk and Broadwing Project Field Assistant 2018
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Working on the Pennsylvania Goshawk and Broad-winged Hawk projects has given me a whole new set of experiences and has opened my eyes to a different sector of field work. My degree is in biology with a personal focus in entomology from East Stroudsburg University (Spring 2016). Coming into this, I had no experience with raptors, but I did come with enthusiasm, passion, and a general love for ecology.

It began with sifting through gear lent to me by Hawk Mountain—a plethora of technical resources mixed with lists of places and names I had never heard before. Dr. Laurie Goodrich and Rebecca McCabe helped prepare us for the upcoming field season with a training session at the Sanctuary. I took notes and wrote down names and dates in preparation to make calls and schedule site visits for the upcoming weeks. As the end of March approached, I was eager to get out in the field and start searching for these raptors.  

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The field season began with nest-searching for northern goshawks. Being inexperienced, I was pointing out squirrels’ nests, insignificant stick clusters, and nests that I now know would crumble under the weight of a goshawk. Over time, I developed an eye for large nests, large birds, and an ear for raptors (and maybe a few passerines). The work always gave me more energy than it took from me, which is how I classify a passion. It became increasingly more exciting with each new thing I saw; I became hyper-focused when looking for nests and listening for raptors.

The first day conducting goshawk broadcast surveys was wonderful and challenging! As to be expected for the northern part of the Pocono Mountains, the terrain was rough. The surveys were interesting in a way that they challenged you to pay attention to all visual and aural details of your surroundings in a fixed period of time. The anticipation was much like fishing: you don’t know if you’ll catch anything, but if you do, it’s a stellar day! This mindset persisted and carried us through the rough terrain, and there was only a minor mishap of accidentally spraying my former professor with bear spray.

However, at the fourth broadcast point (a total of 19 were done at each historical site), we got a response. That initial callback gave us all an electric amount of energy; this was what being in the field was about! We continued forward in hopes of crossing paths with this elusive creature that I had yet to see. We played more calls but those few responses were all we were fortunate enough to hear that day. The excitement was still overflowing as we finished the survey and walked to the car anxious to call Laurie. She, being equally as excited, immediately reached out to Chelsea, a Penn State graduate student overseeing goshawk surveys statewide, who instructed us to schedule another day of searching at that site.

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During the time of Goshawk broadcast surveys, I also began searching for broad- winged hawk nests in the Delaware State Forest. This was definitely a learning curve for me. Spotting a broad-winged hawk female on the nest was more difficult than I anticipated. She would hunker down only looking at me with one eye. If you were lucky, her tail might have been sticking out of the nest too. The broad-winged hawks were equally as exciting and easier to find than the goshawks. I found myself attempting to anticipate their movements, so I could track them back to their nests in hopes of finding a female incubating.  

 Working on both projects, I gained so many unique skills that will carry me through my career as a biologist. I developed relationships with foresters, private landowners, and, of course, the wonderful team at Hawk Mountain. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such a fantastic organization and team. I look forward to seeing all of the ecological advancements they make in the future.

 Lauren with a banded red-tailed hawk. 

Lauren with a banded red-tailed hawk. 

Click to learn more about Hawk Mountain's PA Goshawk Project and Broad-winged Hawk Project, and how you can support these efforts

Monitoring Migration in Eilat, Israel

By Ana De Osma Vargas-Machuca, Autumn 2016 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

A month ago I came back home from my Israeli adventure, where I have been monitoring the spring raptor migration in Eilat, a dream came true.

This all began in 2011, when I met Re'a Shaish while volunteering in the Migres Program in Tarifa, Spain. He is an Israeli guy who was extremely passionate about birds, and at only 19 years old was able to identify every single species of raptors flying over us. He told us about Eilat and the migration there, and since that moment Eilat had been always on my mind.

Last year we met again in Extremadura for a couple of days, where he was assisting Yoav Perlman with his field work, and both of them told me again about the spring migration in Eilat. I was working as a biologist in Spain, but it wasn't anything related to conservation biology. I greatly missed being in the field, so at the end of the year I arranged to be off from work in the spring and contacted Noam Weiss (the director of the IBRCE) to apply for a position as a counter in the raptor team. When I got his reply telling me that I was accepted, I was elated.

So there I was at the end of January, flying to Eilat, watching through the window the beautiful Negev desert, getting goosebumps and feeling excited for all of the experiences to come.

 Counter station in the Eilat Mountains. 

Counter station in the Eilat Mountains. 

We were two teams of volunteers: the raptor counters, working mainly at the stations in the mountains, and the ringers and guides, working at the sanctuary.

The first of February was the first day of the count. The count was conducted by four of us (Daniel, from UK; Gaidis from Latvia, Ragnar from Denmark, and myself), divided in two stations, Low Mt. and High Mt. Station, both of them in the Eilat mountains, close to the Egypt border.

 Ana in the "office."

Ana in the "office."

At the beginning of the season, the migration was still very low, so those not counting would have the chance to go to the sanctuary to assist with other work or to just bird around. I remember the first day being at High Mt., and even if I had no birds migrating, I felt so grateful for just having the chance of being there, in such a beautiful office, with Jordan on the east, the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia in the south and Egypt in the west.

Some brown-necked ravens, Tristam's starlings, two dessert larks, a hooded wheatear, and a very nice juvenile white crowned wheatear were our regular visitors who sat at the station and kept us company. On those days of counting steppe eagles in February, there were some amazing days with birds flying overhead, very close to us. Such incredible creatures in that stunning landscape... I was happy no matter what weather I had, how many eagles were migrating or how many people visiting; being there was just amazing.

 Ana with the rest of her team at Eilat. 

Ana with the rest of her team at Eilat. 

In February we would finish work before sunset and still have time to go to the beach for some snorkeling before the light was gone. We lived in the Field School, right in front of the beach near the Taba border with Egypt, so coming back home from the mountains and walking to the beach with the guys for some snorkeling was our daily afternoon routine. We found some spots with well-protected coral reef and snorkeling there with all of those beautiful fish was delightful.

 Ana in the Arava Valley near Hatzeva during the Arabian warbler survey.

Ana in the Arava Valley near Hatzeva during the Arabian warbler survey.

First week of March, I was selected together with Anton (a Danish ringer) and Ohad (Israeli birdwatcher) to be part of the Arabian warbler survey taking part in the Arava Valley, close to Hatzeva (2 hours north to Eilat). This survey was very important, as there is very little information about the species, and the first and last survey was on the 1980, conducted by the SPNI. We walked around 10-15 km everyday in the desert, looking for Arabian warbler territories but also recording every bird species around, but this incredible opportunity of going where few have had the chance to go felt like a holiday. It was really special to be surrounded by that nature, and at the same time to know that we were making an impact for the species.  We actually found more new territories than they were expecting, and I feel very thankful to Noam, Inbar, and Eli for letting me be part of this.

 Ana during a day off on Shlomo Mt, the Sinai peninsula in the background.

Ana during a day off on Shlomo Mt, the Sinai peninsula in the background.

The rest of March flew by, and the migration came to peak time. Steppe buzzards, black kites, black storks together with other species started to pack the skies. Days became longer, counting from sunrise to sunset. It was exciting and exhausting at the same time, but we were happy no matter how tired we were; having those numbers of raptors migrating in front of you gives the energy you need to keep clicking and counting. And that's what we did until the 10th of April when we completed the count.  From the 12th -14th of April we were part of the Raptor breeding survey, and we finished work the 15th.

After that I went traveling around the country, spending most of the time enjoying the north (Hermon mountain, Golan Heights, Hula Valley), and it was so different from the desert I had worked in. I returned to Spain at the end of April.  

 Ana with Re'a in front of the Field House on her last day in Eilat. 

Ana with Re'a in front of the Field House on her last day in Eilat. 

It's difficult to summarize in a post a 3-month experience, so I hope at least I gave you a brief feeling of how it was. Not everything was just work, there were also days off, and I spent most of them going hiking in the Eilat mountains, where there was much to explore and see.

Israel is a beautiful country with very warm and welcoming people, and felt at home from the start. Thanks to everyone who made this experience so amazing for me: my teammates, all of the special people that stop by High Mt. station, Frank and his lovely company, Libi and Tdazok, but specially Noam and my good friend Re'a; without them none of this would have happened. 

Shalom!

For those who want to check the numbers of birds recorded this 2018 season, check this out: http://trektellen.org/search?q=Eilat

For anyone interested in migration, follow the Eilat Birding Center - IBRCE on Facebook!

Experiencing Your Moment

By Madi Wachsmuth, Spring 2018 Conservation Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Stop and Look

When I first set foot on the mountain top as Hawk Mountain’s new spring education intern, I wanted to explore and embrace the land that would become my home for the coming months.  I arrived in the early morning on a cold February day, and at that time, the mountain was engulfed within a cloud. The world around me was shrouded in fog and shadows. As I wandered the trails around the sanctuary, I discovered statues and gardens that seemed to sleep under a blanket of snow in the grey pale morning. The amphitheatre, though empty, held a promise of spring days to come when it would be filled with visitors, eager to learn and see all that the mountain top has to offer.

I then decided to venture up towards the South Lookout. As I wandered up the path, I saw in the distance two posts at the trailhead.  The posts stood erect with a single word written on each, ‘Stop’ and ‘Look’. The words themselves halted me in my path. I was impressed with the precise power of those two simple words. I began to reflect on those columns, their wise mantra filling me with excitement, curiosity and wonder.  What laid in wait before me? What would I bear witness to on the misty mountain top? In that moment, I made a promise to myself that I would live and experience as much as I could in the coming months.

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I wrote ‘Stop and Look’ 3 months ago, at the start of my internship.  You can imagine my surprise and slight embarrassment when I realized that the posts in the story were actually just for a pedestrian road crossing. But in that moment those words held a higher meaning to me in both heart and mind.  When I see them, they still hold that same meaning that they did on that misty morning. To me, they will forever be moving words of guidance for the wandering traveler.

Now summer is just around the corner.  That cold breath of winter is a distant memory. This internship has truly gone by in a flash, and it was filled with plenty of twists and surprises.  In the beginning, I promised myself that I would take it one step at a time because all too often we think only in terms of destinations and deadlines, missing the experience of the journey.  In the blink of an eye the moment has past, and we are onto the next. This is why I believe that taking the opportunity to not only experience but document the finite and fleeting moments in life is so important.   

Some people may let landscapes inspire them to create art in forms of poetry, drawings, photography. One person's art can even become a muse for others seeking inspiration.  Others prefer to chronicle sightings or the changes that they notice in the world around them. Birders in particular keep detailed lists of sightings in hopes of tracking the seasonal movements of animals or the growth of plants.  I recently met a 3 year old with his very own life list and was very impressed to see him identifying songbirds at our bird feeders with his grandmother. This boy would grow up with an appreciation and understanding of the world around him that many of his peers would not.  These catalogs help us to see the beautifully intricate patterns that surround us as the years go by.

Whether you find yourself on the mountain top for reasons of inspiration, enrichment, or investigation, there’s bound to be something amazing for all to find. So bring your camera, or a notepad and try some new form of expression.  Let the world around inspire you, and experience your moment for what it is: one of a kind.

 Madi with summer education interns Zoe and Karissa. 

Madi with summer education interns Zoe and Karissa. 

The Best Kept Secret at Hawk Mountain

By Sean Grace, President
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain and the Kittatinny Ridge are part of a global super-highway for bird migration. If you've been to the Sanctuary during fall, you have probably witnessed the grandeur of diurnal raptors migrating south. Hawk Mountain was the first in the fight to protect these apex aerial predators that are such an important part of a healthy ecosystem, but where does their ecosystem start and stop?

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On May 13, I slipped into the woods behind my home which lies at the base of the Kittatinny. I’ve been a naturalist my entire life, and connecting with the land, especially where I live, is vitally important to me. It’s these adventures that help satisfy my desire to understand and immerse myself within my local surroundings. My goal was simple: connect with the land where I live and hike to the top of the ridge. What I discovered along that hike was amazing. 

Our woods are under pressure from both man-made and natural disturbance. New homes and other development fragments the forest, and in recent years, the tress here have suffered from repeated assaults by gypsy moths, leaf rollers, and periods of sustained drought. The result is a die-back in some areas of 60% of the chestnut oaks, which provide food in the form of caterpillars for migrating and nesting birds in the spring and act as an important mast crop for many of our resident wildlife populations during colder months.

As I ascended a series of escarpments that were strewn by boulder rubble, I realized that while the boulders make for difficult hiking, they also create a barrier to dissuade development. I also noted many areas where the overstory trees had died back, and beneath the looming skeleton trees, the new regeneration on the ground was the greatest. With death comes life. It was in such an area where I stumbled across what I can only describe as a super-cell of Neo-tropical migrating birds.

In a pocket where the overstory had died back and the understory was almost too dense to walk, I came upon a spot of auditory overload. Never in my life have I heard so many birds call simultaneously. A raptor flew overhead, causing hundreds of birds to drop into the forest surrounding me, in an effort to find refuge.

 Photo by Bill Moses. 

Photo by Bill Moses. 

Hawk Mountain by location is connected to the Canadian Arctic and Alaska down through Central and South America by birds that breed here in North America and over-winter in the southern United States, Central America, and South America. Every moment and every day is different for those birds, and each year they survive the changes, man-made or otherwise, that are created across the landscape where they live.

Our annual raptor migration counts, the longest such record in the world, are just part of our story. We find and collaborate with the best and the brightest young minds in raptor conservation around the globe and invite them to Hawk Mountain to hone their skills as raptor conservation scientists. To date we have worked with 409 trainees from 80 different countries on six continents. These are the people that are shaping global raptor conservation. We continue to collaborate with others and work with all of the significant raptor migration corridors around the globe. In recent months our scientists have been from the Canadian Arctic to South Africa, from Taiwan to the straits of Gibraltar, and our education team has collaborated with colleagues from Zimbabwe, Ghana, and the United Kingdom.

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Our main goals include working to keep common raptors common and to prevent rare raptors from becoming extinct. By shining the conservation spotlight on raptors, we help to protect raptors and the ecosystems where they live.  Raptors in turn act as an umbrella, protecting other birds and wildlife that live within the same regions where these vital predators live, breed, migrate, and overwinter. Birds, like the hundreds I encountered during my walk, benefit.

This year is being coined the “Year of the Bird,” and Hawk Mountain, by the very nature of the work that we do, is perhaps the most cost-effective organization leading the charge in conservation science.  If you share my passion for raptors and other wildlife, I encourage you to become a member, act as a volunteer, or donate in support of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and our mission.  And of course, stop by for a visit! I hope to see you out on that global super-highway of life.  

Yours in conservation,
Sean Grace

Cape Coral Kestrels

By Kirsten Fuller, Spring 2018 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

 Kirsten with a recently banded male American kestrel.

Kirsten with a recently banded male American kestrel.

Over the last year I transitioned from my familiar world of science education and immersed myself in the exciting field of raptor research!  In January, I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel to Cape Coral, Florida to learn about American kestrels with Hawk Mountain research biologist Laurie Goodrich, and long-term kestrel researcher Sue Robertson. 

Sue and her husband Bob first noticed the abundance of American kestrels wintering in Cape Coral in the late 1980’s.  They began trapping and banding the birds, and nearly 30 years later the data is still being collected.

These small falcons prefer open fields with low grass, which makes it easier for them to spot their prey.  In the winter, these birds have plenty of insects to eat in Florida, but they also find small rodents appealing.  This was our bait of choice. We searched for kestrels as we drove around the northern part of the peninsula, which is less developed than the southern part.  When a bird was spotted, we would toss the trap out the door of the car, taking care to do this quickly and stealthily.  It was then a waiting game for the bird to abandon its perch and land on the trap.

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Once we had a bird trapped, we moved quickly to release it and begin the banding process, during which Sue taught me how to measure the length of the tail feathers and the wing chord.  The majority of birds we trapped were male, which was interesting because 30 years ago Sue found that the majority of the small falcons in the same area of Cape Coral were female.  In the past, this may have been attributed to females migrating earlier than males and therefore staking a claim on the available optimal habitat.  A more equal distribution of male and female kestrels in the optimal habitat in Cape Coral, as we observed, may be a reflection of the declining trend in American kestrels that scientists are seeing nationwide.

Over the past 30 years, the available kestrel habitat of Cape Coral has changed quite a bit.  What was once a habitat perfectly maintained for kestrels, with mowed plots of land and plenty of telephone wires for perching (foreshadowing the impending land development), there are now rows of homes and less undisturbed open habitat. 

 Sue teaches Kirsten how to measure and band a recently trapped kestrel.

Sue teaches Kirsten how to measure and band a recently trapped kestrel.

It was an invaluable experience to learn from knowledgeable and passionate conservation researchers, Laurie and Sue.  Plus, it wasn’t so bad to hang out in Florida for a few days in January, and I got to catch a glimpse at a Burrowing Owl! I am back at Hawk Mountain now, and I am so thrilled to see American kestrels buzzing around farmlands near the Mountain, preparing for nesting season.  Check out the Hawk Mountain kestrel nestbox cam at www.hawkmountain.org/kestrelcam, and learn more about our farmland raptor conservation efforts at www.hawkmountain.org/farmlandraptors.

 A beautiful male American Kestrel, trapped and tagged in Northern Florida. 

A beautiful male American Kestrel, trapped and tagged in Northern Florida. 

Springtime in Montana

By Dr. Jean-Francois Therrien, Senior Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

 Spring sunrise in Montana, over the Mission Mountains.

Spring sunrise in Montana, over the Mission Mountains.

It’s spring time in Montana. Well, at least according to the birds. Not that the weather has been any better than in the East lately, but birds are showing definite signs of a change in seasons. Following Hawk Mountain's global and inclusive mission geared toward collaborating with like-minded colleagues and organizations to lead lasting raptor conservation programs, I was recently invited by long-time researcher, collaborator, and friend, Denver Holt, from the Owl Research Institute, to get a feel of the pre-breeding season in his study area in scenic Mission Valley, Montana.

Holt, founder and leader of the Owl Research Institute, has been conducting field-based owl surveys for over 30 years now, including long-term monitoring of snowy owls in Alaska. Thus, there is an amazing opportunity to combine and compare results from our ongoing long-term research project in snowy owl breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, and to learn about the population status of this charismatic species across North America.

In addition, spending a few days in the field in Montana allowed us to identify potential projects for future collaborative work. Among them, assessing the pre-breeding condition of individual owls and how it is affected by the previous winter conditions, and then how it relates to upcoming nesting success, is on top of the list. The fact that we know very little of the basic ecology for most of those species is not a surprise for any owl biologist. However, according to any source of available information, several North American owl species are facing an uncertain future. Indeed, population trends of long-eared and short-eared owls are both showing alarming decline on a continental scale. In light of the threats impending on these species, such collaborative research projects have to happen now.

Numerous accounts have recently suggested that to understand the reproductive ecology of any species in order to better protect them, we need to have a holistic view and turn our attention to the non-breeding season. With that in mind, there is an amazing opportunity for collaboration with the Owl Research Institute and their extensive field-based experience.

 Dr. JF Therrien (senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain) and Denver Holt (founder and president of the Owl Research Institute) just before releasing a long-eared owl.

Dr. JF Therrien (senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain) and Denver Holt (founder and president of the Owl Research Institute) just before releasing a long-eared owl.

Those few days in Montana confirmed for me that they sure know the ropes of studying owls in the field: before lunch on the very first day, we had already captured and released 5 long-eared owls to assess their pre-breeding condition. We then proceeded to observe a phenomenal amount of great-horned owls (most of them sitting tightly on their nest), as well as short-eared owls flying and displaying territorial behaviors over the grasslands at dusk, among other things.

Research collaborations are an essential part of conservation science. Individuals alone can go a certain way, but with colleagues, we make real change. That is why at Hawk Mountain, we put much value in cooperation, team work, and network building. To learn more about our work with North American owls or any other species of raptors, or if you wish to financially support our research efforts, contact me at therrien@hawkmountain.org.

A Back-to-Back Snowy Owl Adventure

By Rebecca McCabe,  PhD Student, McGill University
Hawk Mountain Research Assistant

 The view on Amherst Island

The view on Amherst Island

It was 6:15 a.m., and the sun had not yet come up as we stepped from our cars onto the ferry deck on the ice-covered waters of Lake Ontario. We were on our way to Amherst Island, a 70 square-kilometer island off the coast of Kingston, Ontario, which is a known hotspot for wintering snowy owls and the reason why we were there.

Myself, Jean-François Therrien (Hawk Mountain), Tom McDonald (Rochester, NY), and Dave Okines (Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory) arrived on the island with the hopes of deploying transmitters on snowy owls as part of the collaborative research of Project SNOWstorm (www.projectsnowstorm.org).

 The sun rises over the frozen Lake Ontario.

The sun rises over the frozen Lake Ontario.

As the sun finally rose, we were already driving the main roads searching for white silhouettes in the distance. Luckily for us, Amherst had plenty of snowy owls! We estimated over 25 owls on the island, and now all we had to do was trap a few. We came up short in the morning and afternoon, but as soon as the sun started to set, our luck changed. Within 20 minutes both Dave and Tom had trapped an owl.

 Snowy owl Stella, a female trapped and tagged by Project SNOWstorm in Amherst

Snowy owl Stella, a female trapped and tagged by Project SNOWstorm in Amherst

We were fortunate to have a wonderful host, Janet, who allowed us to bring the owls back to her place so we could process them out of the cold. The two immature females, later named Emerald and Stella, were in good condition and each weighed over 2 kg making them eligible to receive a transmitter before being released back into the night.

In just a short amount of time we have learned that the neighboring birds  established territories approximately 3 km from one another on the island, and Emerald has spent more time inland whereas Stella has been going offshore onto the ice during the day. I look forward to following these two individuals as they make their way north in the upcoming months.

One week and 2,370+ km later, I am scanning for snowy owls from the passenger seat again, but this time I am looking out on the prairies of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. My co-supervisor Karen Wiebe (University of Saskatchewan) and I follow behind raptor bander Marten Stoffel in our pickup truck as we search the tops of telephone poles and fence posts. We spent six hours that day driving the survey route and had easily seen over 30 snowy owls. We were also very fortunate to trap and band six, a record day of trapping snowy owls on the prairies for Marten!

 Male snowy owl trapped and tagged in Saskatchewan. 

Male snowy owl trapped and tagged in Saskatchewan. 

The next day we decided to go out again to see if luck was still on our side, this time driving about 150 km northeast of where we were the day before. I was shocked at the stark difference between locations and by the lack of owls we encountered on our second day. The habitat appeared similar but we only saw one adult male that afternoon. Marten decided to try trapping it, even though it was a more difficult catch with blustery winds and the male sitting high atop a transmission tower. Moments before calling it quits, I watched intently (and completely mesmerized) as the owl leapt from its perch and with a few strong flaps, came streaming in towards the bal-chatri before getting trapped.

Spending just a few days on Amherst Island and in Saskatoon and getting to see where these owls spend their winter was not only exciting but informative. I was able to observe them on their territories, take note of their favorite perches, and see first-hand the conditions they were in. As I move forward with my PhD at McGill University and analyze the movements of our GPS tagged snowy owls, my time spent in the field has allowed me to gain a better understanding of how these magnificent birds move throughout the landscape, the habitats they occupy, and the threats they face.

 Becca with a recently trapped and tagged snowy owl right before release.

Becca with a recently trapped and tagged snowy owl right before release.

To learn more about these efforts or to support the project, visit hawkmountain.org/snowyowls.