biology

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

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.

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?

....

Click here to continue reading this blog on The Vulture Chronicles

Click here to read Part 1!

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.

 

Research Serendipity

By JF Therrien, Senior Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

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

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

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

Nature's Reverberations

By Rachel Iola Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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