Thar She Soars!

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Leadership Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Many people associate the term “birder,” with images of a khaki-clad, hat-wearing, field-guide holding, binocular-wielding, mud-splattered nature enthusiast carrying a massive camera and an intense look on their face that says “SHHH…did you hear that?” Of course, there are many types of birders (I myself bird, and wear exactly one of these items), but to those unfamiliar with the lifestyle, a birder should be dawning the appropriate materials to claim the term. Imagine then, trying to explain to a police officer that the reason you are pulled over in someone’s lawn staring at their house with binoculars is because you are, in fact, birding. You are not wearing khaki, there is no mud on your pants, but you do have a camera. He does not believe you. The camera does not help your case. This is what we call a predicament.

Zoey scans the skies from the roof of her car.

Zoey scans the skies from the roof of her car.

Such a circumstance is one of the amusing side effects of conducting road surveys to monitor vulture populations. Hawk Mountain has been doing this over the last 12 years, gradually collecting baseline data on both turkey and black vulture populations throughout the Western Hemisphere. Our protocol involves following roads that are least likely to induce rage from other drivers (we drive 40 miles per hour, and frequently swerve to hop out and count birds on cell towers, sometimes climbing the car for optimal vantage points). We need at least two people, a reliable vehicle, and enough time to accurately gather data. Ideally we conduct these surveys every 10 years in both summer and winter, for each site. Compared to other research projects, road surveys are a good bang for the buck because they are relatively cheap to conduct but provide us with critical baseline data on a group of animals that are crucial to the health of our environment. In total, Hawk Mountain has conducted over 50 vulture surveys in 9 countries.

Many of you may be aware of the vulture crisis that has occurred in the Old World over the last two decades, but I’ll offer a reminder by first reviewing the numbers: out of the world’s 22 species of vultures, 16 are spread among Africa, Asia and Europe. 11 of these have recently become at risk for extinction in our lifetime. Some species have experienced a 99% decline since the late 1990’s.

Courtesy of BirdLife International

Courtesy of BirdLife International

With the combined effects of persecution, poisoning, drug-induced kidney failure, and harvesting for parts, the Old World has faced a fast-acting recipe for vulture disaster.

In Asia the primary cause of these mass die offs is a pain killer for cattle called Diclofenac that is ingested by vultures feeding on livestock carcasses.

In Africa the main threat is poisoning. In Europe, Diclofenac is still legal, and declines are anticipated if policy-makers don’t act quickly. There is a less harmful alternate drug available that offers the same therapeutic effects for a similar price, but so far, new legislation has not been passed.

Griffon vultures live on all three continents. Photo by Emmanuel Keller

Griffon vultures live on all three continents. Photo by Emmanuel Keller

Prior to the declines recorded in Asia and Africa there was no reliable baseline knowledge on the population size of affected species, meaning estimates of loss are likely conservative. Consequences from loss of vultures have included an increase in rabies cases due to a higher prevalence of wild dogs, as well as the spreading of diseases that were previously processed in the gut of these under-appreciated scavengers.

This is a perfectly heart breaking example of how human bias towards the most lovable species can sometimes harm those that float under the radar. To make this mistake once is somewhat forgivable. To make it twice is not.

This is why I believe Hawk Mountain’s vulture surveys are crucial. Vultures have been misunderstood and ignored, and while there have been commendable efforts to remedy this issue in Asia, Africa and Europe, we still have work to do in the Americas. We need to be proactive in deciphering how many vultures there are, fully understanding their role within our shared ecosystems, and proving their value to the public. Science alone cannot prepare us. The integrity of our future environment requires that we establish a culture of appreciation around vultures that will allow them a seat at the ecological table.  

glass half full with vulture smaller .jpg

Okay, that’s the heavy part. Now, let’s focus on the fact that in the U.S., our vulture glass is half full. Our last survey resulted in a count of 979 vultures, between five routes in Georgia and Florida. Ten years ago, this same survey produced similar numbers, proving stability exists within that region. We continue to witness healthy numbers of black and turkey vultures throughout Pennsylvania and much of the eastern United States. This may not be the case in Central and South America, though our upcoming surveys in Costa Rica, Panama, and Argentina will hopefully add to our body of knowledge on population size and trends.   

On one of our final days in Florida, we spotted a group of vultures circling something yellow and indistinguishable. A scout landed and tore into whatever “it” was. After scanning with binoculars, exchanging excited hypotheses, and crossing a treacherous road, we discovered that the mysterious yellow “entrails” were no more than the sad remnants of a Happy Meal. This not only confirmed my suspicion that vultures are closet vegetable lovers but also reminded me that scavengers are adaptive problem-solvers. Black vultures in Central America drag coconuts into the middle of the road and wait for cars to pulverize them into a meal. We hear of crows and ravens using tools, eagles stealing fish from other birds, and raccoons breaking into, well…everything. Scavengers are scrappy, and vultures are no exception. This gives me hope that with support, they will adapt to our ever-changing human dominated environments.

As we watched the sun set behind the french fry frenzy, I felt optimistic that with continued monitoring my innovative feathered friends would have many more happy meals.  

Tips for Conference Confidence

By Zoe Bonerbo, Summer 2018 Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Zoe (front left) joined by fellow Hawk Mountain staff, trainees, and board at the HMANA 2018 Conference.

Zoe (front left) joined by fellow Hawk Mountain staff, trainees, and board at the HMANA 2018 Conference.

Last month I attended my first professional conference, the HMANA (Hawk Migration Association of North America) conference in Detroit, Michigan! The conference was focused on raptor migration research and education. While it was initially nerve-wracking, by the end of the three days I didn’t want to leave. I therefore decided to I compile a list of tips for anyone who might not know how to prepare or what to expect their first time attending a conference.

1)      Ways to attend

Conferences can be expensive but also very rewarding! For my first conference, I volunteered part time in exchange for free registration. Try contacting the host organization to see if they have any opportunities available. Additionally, if you are a student, look into any scholarships your school may provide for professional development and conference travel. This can help reduce costs.

2)      Confirm and double-check all reservations

Often times flights are delayed (mine was several times), or reservations could be booked under a different name resulting in confusion at the hotel service desk. Either way, once you know you’re going, make sure to communicate your plans to any other parties involved. Everybody will be much more reassured knowing everyone is on the same page!

An American kestrel introduced during one of HMANA’s presentations.

An American kestrel introduced during one of HMANA’s presentations.

3)      Do a bit of background research

Find out who will be presenting and on what topics. Read a bit about the speakers’ backgrounds and find sessions you think you’d be interested in listening to. Often, very technical vocabulary is used in presentations. If you don’t know much about a topic and want to go to the session anyway, try to read a bit of general information on the subject so you know you’ll be able to follow along! Also, make sure you know the general outline of the conference schedule (while you don’t need to memorize it, it is helpful knowing the start times of major events throughout the day).

4)      Start small

If you have the option, look for a smaller conference to start out. One of the reasons I felt I had such a great time at the HMANA conference was because it wasn’t overly packed. I wasn’t overwhelmed with too many events or too much information. There was a more casual approach to dressing, and the general vibe was much more intimate and relaxed. It also gave me the opportunity to talk with many of the people there, which leads me to my next point…

Zoe (left) with HMS Conservation Science Trainee Amanda Woolsey.

Zoe (left) with HMS Conservation Science Trainee Amanda Woolsey.

5)      Don’t be afraid to start conversations! 

Many of the people attending are professionals and experts in the field, which is both inspiring and intimidating. However, don’t go in with the expectation that you need to network. Networking is very useful, but can often lead to stress and disappointment. Instead, simply try to learn from both speakers and those around you. Showing genuine interest can build relationships and lead to potential collaborations down the road. I was able to passionately discuss and speak with several individuals who lived in other countries, which greatly broadened my perspective and knowledge about global wildlife.

6)      Let yourself rest

Lastly, while it’s important to take advantage of opportunities, it’s also alright to take breaks. Packing in all the events or speakers you want to hear may seem fun at the beginning but could end up burning you out by the end. It’s okay if you skip an event or two to recharge. The dynamic of conferences can be intense, so let yourself be flexible. This way the events you do attend will be much more enjoyable!

Now you can embark on your first conference adventure! Hopefully, with a little preparation your first conference will be a big success.

 I would like to extend a big thank you to Jane Ferreyra, Executive Director of HMANA and Erin Brown, Director of Education at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for greatly assisting me in attending this conference!