conservation science trainee

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.  

Heroes of Hawk Mountain: Sarkis Acopian

Bold ideas require visionaries, and one named Sarkis Acopian arrived at Hawk Mountain 16 years ago. At the time, the board of directors had committed to opening a biological field station, and had even purchased 41 acres of land along the Little Schuylkill River for that purpose. What they lacked, however, was the funding to make it happen.

Sarkis Acopian.jpg

 Enter Mr. Acopian, the most visionary conservation benefactor Hawk Mountain has ever known.

 Then Director of Conservation Science Dr. Keith Bildstein met Mr. Acopian in 1997, during the launch of A Field Guide to Birds of Armenia, a publication that Mr. Acopian spear-headed and had sponsored as part of the Birds of Armenia Project. Two years later, he supported a Hawk Mountain conservation science trainee from Armenia, and in early 2001, he sponsored an in-flight osprey carving for the Wings of Wonder Gallery at the Visitor Center.

 Later that same year, he called Keith to ask about the future of raptor conservation at Hawk Mountain, and Keith described for him the ambitious plans to build a facility that trains young raptor biologists from around the world, and that serves as a global hub for raptor conservation science. Mr. Acopian immediately grasped the potential and asked Keith to summarize in a letter the ideas and costs.

 “Only one page, not two,” he said to Keith.

Sarkis Acopian and Dr. Keith Bildstein check out the construction site.

Sarkis Acopian and Dr. Keith Bildstein check out the construction site.

 One week later Mr. Acopian committed the funds needed to undertake the Sanctuary’s bold agenda. Within two months, site preparation was well underway. On September 7, 2002—less than two years after Keith’s phone conversation with Mr. Acopian—the building was dedicated, the first class of trainees had arrived, and the Acopian Center was in use.

 And it didn’t end there. In 2003, Mr. Acopian provided funds to initiate a major research project using satellite telemetry to study turkey vultures. The study has since uncovered new information about their migration behavior, expanded to include black vultures and the endangered hooded vulture, engaged new conservation partners in North, South and Central America, and provided tools to teach trainees about the use of this important research technique. The following year, he endowed the directorship in conservation science at the Sanctuary, guaranteeing that Hawk Mountain will forever attract high-caliber, world-class leadership for its programs in raptor conservation.

 Thanks to Mr. Acopian and his outstanding generosity and vision, Hawk Mountain had the infrastructure necessary to double its conservation science training program, attract the most talented scientists for collaborative projects, and to emerge as a global leader in raptor conservation. More than 220 young conservationists from six continents have lived and learned at the Acopian Center, and its seminar room has hosted numerous international workshops, which in turn have resulted in several ongoing and international collaborations. More than 300 visiting scientists have used the facility, including seminar speakers for the current trainee classes.

 The Acopian Center continues to serve as a launching pad, not only for new careers in raptor conservation science, but also for new ideas, and for that we thank the late Sarkis Acopian. In the course of his lifetime, he set an example for all who enjoy a life of privilege, and he labored to make a positive change in the world. His distinguished commitment and his contributions to overall environmental health, not just here at Hawk Mountain, but all over the world, will no doubt leaves an extraordinary legacy for humankind.

Irruptions and Innovation

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Coordinator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Stella, a snowy owl tagged by Project SNOWstorm earlier this year.

Stella, a snowy owl tagged by Project SNOWstorm earlier this year.

In 2007, Dr. JF Therrien deployed 12 transmitters on snowy owls on Bylot island in the Canadian Arctic. Snowy owls, like other raptors, can be difficult to monitor due to their territoriality and low densities. Arctic-breeding raptors typically establish nesting sites in remote locations, adding to the logistical dilemma of gaining insight into their life history traits, and the role they play within the Arctic ecosystem.

Satellite transmitters, citizen science, and long-term life history studies are extremely valuable tools that allow researchers to examine the movement ecology of birds, including snowy owls. Mixing and matching these tools can open doors to compelling scientific questions, and in the case of Therrien’s snowy owls, has resulted in papers covering a range of topics. New information on survival, reproduction rate, dispersal of adults, irruptions and winter movements are among recent Hawk Mountain publications that were made possible through this type of innovation. 

Two such papers were led by former conservation science trainees, in collaboration with others, including Dr. JF Therrien. These papers delved into the mystery of snowy owl irruptions, defined as the “massive movement of individuals over large distances, associated with large fluctuations in food supply.” Some of us have been lucky enough to see a snowy owl in Pennsylvania, on those rare winters when the birds venture further south than usual. I myself drove two hours to catch a glimpse, and I will never forget the sight of that owl hunkered down in the middle of a field, glittering in evening light. As I drove away, I couldn’t help but wonder; what brings them here?

Two primary hypotheses have been proposed to explain irruptions; the “lack-of-food” hypothesis suggests that snowy owls leave their normal wintering grounds because of food shortage in certain years. This implies that the snowy owls we see in Pennsylvania should be in poor shape, and likely close to starving. The alternative “breeding success” hypothesis instead links irruptive movements to a surplus of food on the breeding grounds.

A snowy owl that was spotted in a local PA field last year.

A snowy owl that was spotted in a local PA field last year.

Snowy owls specialize in lemmings, a prey resource that occurs in pulses, due to their population dynamics. One year there may be a plethora of lemmings scurrying around the tundra, the next year very few, due to high predation and other factors. Lots of lemmings means lots of chicks, which means lots more owls. The breeding success hypothesis implies that the reason we see snowies in Pennsylvania is because following a high lemming year, there are so many owls dispersing at the end of the summer that some young birds push south.

To add depth to our knowledge of irruptions, Teja Curk, a conservation trainee from 2016, assessed the body condition (mass relative to size) of snowy owls during both irruptive and “regular” years. Teja assessed body condition of snowies on both regular (Great Plains) and irregular (Northeaster North America) wintering grounds, to see whether the birds we see during irruptive years are, in fact, starving. She found that most owls (male, female, juvenile and adult) were in good shape during irruptive years and even discovered that body condition was better on the bird’s irregular wintering grounds. “Good shape” in this context varies depending on sex and age of the bird, however less than 2% of the owls approached the weight threshold that would deem them a starving bird. Her results provide support for the breeding success hypothesis.

Pablo Santonja and Irene Mestre, trainees from 2015, looked specifically at the age of the birds found south during irruptive years. Their results supported the same hypothesis, showing that the majority of owls (up to 90%) seen in eastern North America are juvenile birds, meaning they are less than 1 year of age. As with some other migratory species, the more dominant birds within a population don’t move as far. Adult snowy owls often out-compete young birds, so it makes sense that in a year where adults are laying up to 11 eggs, some of those young owls will need to leave to avoid competition from more successful, experienced adults.

Bylot Island, where the Hawk Mountain team tagged and tracked several snowy owls.

Bylot Island, where the Hawk Mountain team tagged and tracked several snowy owls.

This leads to an interesting point: perhaps these two competing hypotheses are not, as Teja notes in her paper, mutually exclusive. After a highly productive lemming year, many lemmings will be eaten due to a surge in predator numbers, and therefore the next year could produce low lemming numbers. If this happens, snowy owls could be forced to look elsewhere for food. So, it turns out, that both a surplus of food and a lack of food seem to play a role in the patterns of movement among snowy owl populations.

If you ask me, these papers are a beautiful example of the scientific method at work; formulating ideas, testing those ideas, and polishing the conclusions in pursuit of certainty. Hats off to our trainees and their collaborators for hard work and intriguing findings. Teja is currently at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany pursuing a PhD. Pablo is living in Spain, and Irene is now returning from three years in Australia.

Both of these papers utilized a data set resulting from a 25 year-long study in which live snowy owls were weighed, sexed, and aged. Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was also a valuable asset in both studies. For those of you unfamiliar with CBC, every winter thousands of volunteers gather together on the same day, collecting bird records within a territory and submitting them to a database that provides an impressive summary of which birds were seen, where, and how many. These papers demonstrate the utility of both citizen science and long-term studies, and in a rapidly changing world, this cross-pollination of resources is critical. We are very proud of our trainees for their hard work, and grateful to citizen scientists around the globe who give their time to participate in the expansion of our raptor knowledge.

Gaining a holistic understanding of an ecosystem requires acknowledgment of moving parts within, not separate from, the whole. Hawk Mountain’s research is part of several collaborative efforts to better understand the role of snowy owls within the big picture, including Project SNOWstorm and the Bylot Island Ecological Studies and Environmental Monitoring.  

Future projects will include building a model that combines reproductive and mortality rates to assess population trends of snowy owls. This past August, three transmitters were deployed on chicks before they left their breeding grounds. Investigating the movement patterns of these birds will hopefully allow for a comparative look at owls throughout the Eastern tundra, Western tundra, and those in between.

Check out Project SNOWstorm’s website (including a blog written by J.F Therrien on the most recently tagged snowy owls in Barrow, Alaska, as well as interactive maps): projectsnowstorm.org/posts/tracking-young-snowies-in-the-arctic/

Trainee to International Conservation Pioneer

By Alfonso Godino, Research Associate
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

The cinereous vulture was extinct in Portugal as a breeding species at the end of the 20th century, but in 2010 a new colony was established in Tejo Internacional National Park, in the eastern limit of the country and close to the border with Spain.

This colony now hosts 18 breeding pairs, and no studies were done before out of the annual breeding monitoring implemented by the Natural Park’s staff. Due to this lack of information, and being the main population in Portugal, our goal is to get information about the dynamic of this colony. Thus, the first step is to study the juvenile dispersion and the potential causes of mortality of this population.

Alfonso+Cinereous vulture.jpeg

During the summer of 2018, eight nestlings were tagged with GPS-GSM transmitters, supported by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and the Spanish electric company ENDESA. This support will continue during 2019, with the goal to increase the number of birds in this study and to get more accurate and representative information.

All this information will be shared with the Natural Park’s managers, with the objective to facilitate them the conservation and management of the colony, since all the nests of this colony are in private estates inside the protected area.

Alfonso with a tagged vulture outside of the HMS Acopian Center for Conservation Learning

Alfonso with a tagged vulture outside of the HMS Acopian Center for Conservation Learning

But how did HMS reach Portugal? During 2009, I was at Hawk Mountain as a trainee. I was an enthusiast in vultures’ conservation, and HMS offered to me the amazing opportunity to trap turkey vultures and to use wing tags for the first time in my life. But for me, the most impressive was to get access, for the first time in my life, to the huge amount of information about raptors in the Sanctuary library. I spent many days reading papers and copying a lot of info to bring with me after my traineeship. From that time, I was interested in vultures’ juvenile dispersion but never had the opportunity to be involved in a project with this objective.

And again, after almost a decade, a causality joints me one more time to HMS, but this time in Portugal, not in Pennsylvania.

In this new cinereous vulture’s project, HMS is more than a sponsor offering GPS devices. From the beginning of the proposal to HMS, its permanent support and fast reply have encouraged me to work in this project, especially during the hard times of preparations, authorizations, organization, etc. I am sure that the presence of HMS in the project has been a motivation to other bodies to participate and be part of it. The result has been the creation of a task force, where raptor conservation and research organizations such as HMS, a private company such as the Spanish electric company ENDESA, and the government of Portugal, are in a narrow collaboration to study and protect the cinereous vulture in this colony.

Now, with the vultures sending throughout the transmitters lots of daily data, it is time to enjoy learning how these vultures move around the Iberian Peninsula and, who knows, maybe one of them cross the Gibraltar strait toward Africa and offer us new and unexpected information about the movements of this species to sub-Sahara regions!

Check out this video of Alfonso and his team tagging and releasing a cinereous vulture!

Partnership of Promise

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Coordinator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Physiology: a branch of biology that deals with the functions and activities of life or of living matter (such as organs, tissues, or cells) and of the physical and chemical phenomena involved.
— Merriam-Webster
Hawk Mountain’s American Kestrel Poster displayed on Cedar Crest College lab door.

Hawk Mountain’s American Kestrel Poster displayed on Cedar Crest College lab door.

 On October 23, assistant professor Allison Cornell visited Hawk Mountain from Cedar Crest College to provide a seminar on the physiology of developing American kestrels, emphasizing the role of the Sanctuary’s nest box program in her research. Collaboration between Dr. Cornell and Dr. JF Therrien, senior biologist at Hawk Mountain, began in 2017 and has resulted in exciting science concerning a widely-appreciated falcon species that has been experiencing declines nation-wide.  

 In her seminar, Dr. Cornell highlighted the importance of an integrative approach to understanding the ecological context of a species, stating a cherished quote of hers:

 Behavior is observed physiology.
— Vincent Dethier.
Life History Diagram

Life History Diagram

 As a physiologist, Dr. Cornell’s methods include the assessment of internal as well as external factors that could influence the survival and overall condition of developing birds. Her past work has included assessing the relationships between nestling condition and oxygen storage capacity and identifying how factors such as timing of breeding are related to developmental cues in starling chicks. This type of research adds color to the bigger ecological picture, allowing us to learn more about why birds exhibit the behaviors they do, and how this relates to their overall survival. Factors like pectoral muscle mass, aerobic capacity, red blood cell count, and wing area are just a few telling descriptors that can shed light on what prepares a bird to leave the nest. Turns out, there’s more to it then being kicked out by your parents! 

 For Dr. Cornell, Hawk Mountain’s kestrel nest box program has been instrumental to the success of her research. Nest boxes provide an opportunity to observe kestrel development in a natural setting rather than in a lab where results can be compromised by the lack of true environmental influences. In addition, the nest box program has done the ground work of establishing relationships with landowners, which allows for Dr. Cornell’s research to be conducted in a kestrel-friendly culture.

 Hawk Mountain sees immense value in partnering with an experienced researcher who has the time and passion for conducting good-quality science using Hawk Mountain’s long term data set and putting in the field time to monitor boxes. In addition, trainees and students from both sites are benefiting from the academic opportunities included in this project. Mercy Melo, a student at Cedar Crest, and Jen Houtz, a former conservation science trainee, are both currently involved in the work with Dr. Cornell.

Through the deployment of nest cams and this thorough approach to ecology, Dr. Cornell has given students access to several thought-provoking research topics, including how physiology traits change across nesting period and whether “dead beat” falcon dads have an impact on the physiology of their young. This work has the potential to fill information gaps and provide necessary context to the kestrel decline.

Map from Raptor Population Index showing population status in different regions. Red arrows signify significant declines.

Map from Raptor Population Index showing population status in different regions. Red arrows signify significant declines.

 Collaboration between Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and Cedar Crest College has opened doors to new research, and has also given young professionals the chance to step into raptor ecology with resources that are not always easy to come by: a long term data set, accessible observation sites, and supportive advisors from neighboring institutions. This is a clear win-win for raptor conservation and one that Hawk Mountain is thrilled to be a part of.

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Click here for more information on our kestrel nest box program, or see below for Allison Cornell’s.

Variation in developmental trajectories of physiological and somatic traits in a common songbird approaching fledging. Journal of Experimental Biology. Cornell A, Williams TD. 2017-10-13

Experimentally-increased male social behaviour has no effect on female breeding phenology and performance. Animal Behaviour. Cornell A, Hou JJ, Williams TD. 2017-01-23

Double-brooding and individual quality in a highly synchronous songbird population. The Auk. Cornell A, Williams T. 2016-01-13

Physiological maturity at a critical life-history transition and post-fledging flight ability. Functional Ecology. Cornell A, Gibson KF, Williams TD. 2016-10-04

Mid-winter temperatures, not spring temperatures predict breeding phenology in the European starling Sturnus vulgaris. Royal Society Open Science. Williams TD, Bourgeon S, Cornell A, Ferguson L, Fowler M, Fronstin RB, Love OP

Batumi: The Final Frontier for Raptor Conservation

By Sean Grace, President
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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It’s amazing that in the middle of the information age, when everything has seemingly been discovered, that the third largest raptor migration corridor in the world is put on the map. The location is Batumi in the Republic of Georgia. I was fortunate to be invited along to the 10th annual Batumi Bird Festival by one of the founders, a former Hawk Mountain Conservation Science Trainee, Johannes Jansen, to witness the migration first-hand during early September. 

Johannes Jansen and Wouter Vansteelant, another graduate or our international Trainee Program, followed up on some investigative work around the site and found huge numbers of migrating raptors along the eastern border of the Black Sea that acts as a funnel for 32 species of raptors draining primarily from eastern Russia. Johannes and the team from the Batumi Raptor Count have documented 32 regular raptor migrants that average more than 1 million raptors annually. 

Sean at the hawk watch site.

Sean at the hawk watch site.

Captains Log: September 2, 2018

I was “beamed aboard” a jet at 12:30 PM from JFK International Airport and arrived in Batumi after a short connection in Istanbul at 9:30 AM, Batumi time.  We picked up Luke Tiller, a British expat from California, and Andres de la Cruz, another Hawk Mountain trainee graduate, both professional birding tour leaders. We headed off to a four-star hotel nestled by the Black Sea, dropped gear, and drove to hawk watch site No. 2 in a four-wheel-drive van equipped to handle the rougher mountain roads. The drivers were veterans and deftly negotiated steep sections and some local livestock that we learn also use the roads for travel. 

We quickly learned that given the enormity of the migration that the hawk watch is a coordinated effort between two sites, as the stream of birds can fluctuate depending on the weather. There is also a strict protocol in place where on most days the birds are counted from site No. 1, while hard-to-see species are counted from site No. 2. Given the volume, not all birds are counted, but rather priority is given to the Big Three: honey buzzards, steppe buzzards, and black kites. The principal birds seen on this day included more than 10,000 honey buzzards and nearly 1,000 black kites. 

 

View of the Black Sea on the way to the hawk watch site.

View of the Black Sea on the way to the hawk watch site.

Captains Log: September 3, 2018

The rest of our elite special forces birding unit arrived and included an eclectic group of European birders including David Lindo who operates under the alias “The Urban Birder,” Dominic Couzens, a field editor for Birdwatching Magazine, Roger Riddington, editor of British Birds, Jason Moss, a young tour guide from Oriole Birding, Tim Le Bleu, a comic and podcaster, Dirk Draulans, a biologist and science journalist for Belgian’s Knack magazine, Roland Weber of German Birding Tours DE, and Tamas Nagi of Hungary Saker-tours.  One American looms large, the esteemed Bill Clark who is one of the world’s leading authorities on raptors and their identification.

Today we became oriented to the area and visited one of Georgia’s national parks with epic overlooks above the Black Sea. We headed off to the hawk count and site No. 1, where we saw 10,000 honey buzzards and close to 770 black kites that are the number one and three species in terms of numbers counted in any given season.


A Pallid harrier in flight.

A Pallid harrier in flight.

Captains Log: September 4, 2018

I accompanied Johannes and some early morning risers to the roof of our hotel, a good location for early morning flights of harriers. Unlike North America, we will see three species including the Pallid, Montagu’s, and Marsh harriers during early September. During the week we saw many examples of these buoyant aerial hunters that take birds and small mammals. The most delicate and perhaps most exceptional is the male Pallid harrier, a slender version of our male northern harrier, a raptor so beautiful it has become the symbol for the Batumi Raptor Count.   

The host serves wine and makes a toast with the glass horn.

The host serves wine and makes a toast with the glass horn.

Batumi is not all about birds. It offers an opportunity to explore the wonderful culture and generous hosts from the region. Batumi has been working to share their culture and hospitality with the formation of guest houses near each of the respective hawk watch sites, thanks to government support to encourage ecotourism. The guest houses provide comfortable and very affordable accommodations, often within walking distance to the raptor count sites. Our Georgian hosts have been very generous, providing exceedingly substantial banquets often featuring four-course meals with wine for the formal toasting traditions celebrating new friends. Wine is closely linked to the national identity, and our host demonstrates how it is done, putting down a full glass horn of his favorite wine as a way of showing gratitude to his guests. 

Counters set up at hawk watch site No. 2.

Counters set up at hawk watch site No. 2.

Captains Log: September 5, 2018 

Today we enjoyed count site No. 2 and were greeted by swarms of European bee eaters upon exiting the vehicles. Bee eaters feed mostly on Hymenoptera as their name suggests and most are western honey bees. They are both highly beautiful and migratory, overwintering primarily in Southern Africa. 

Batumi shares many things in common with Hawk Mountain, including the shooting of raptors by local gunners at these concentrated migratory routes.  The hunters are local, male, and utilize some but not all of the birds for table fare.  Although the impact does not exceed 1% of the total migration annually, harriers are hit at disproportionately higher rates, as they often fly low and slow during migration. The counters at both locations track both migrating raptor populations as well as gunshots.  There is some good news in that the recent awareness at the local level, of how special and significant the migration is on a global scale, and that has encouraged some locals to reconsider this illegal tradition. 

 

Captains Log: September 6, 2018

All week the more ambitious members of our group have joined Johannes for an early morning flight of harriers. Interestingly, the harriers do not follow the stereotype of many other raptors; being buoyant and long-winged, they are not afraid to power over open water and are up before the thermals have had a chance to form in the early morning sun. One of the best places to catch these early morning flights is along the coast of the Black Sea, and the Oasis Hotel rooftop seems the best place to settle in and watch.


Banding the green warbler.

Banding the green warbler.

Captains Log: September 7, 2018

Today we went out for a special treat to observe some “Ringing,” as our British host explains. He retired from being a special unit drug enforcement officer and now pursues a life dedicated to bird banding and hawk watching. In typical Georgian fashion, we were served Turkish coffee, thick enough to stand up a spoon in, to enjoy while we observed the bander process a green warbler. There is a significant opportunity to more formally study passerines in the region, as little work has been done on this front.

The falconer and his set up.

The falconer and his set up.

My attention was diverted from the banding as a local falconer stops by on his way to a hide where he hopes to trap his quarry, the prized Eurasian sparrowhawk. He carries a traditional setup that includes a net stretched between two poles to capture the hawk and a bait pole with a red-backed shrike that is tethered in place and kept calm with eye patches to avoid seeing the approaching sparrow hawks. The shrikes reward is a small amount of ground meat tied in place. These traditional methods date back more than 15 centuries, as falconry is one of the oldest traditions in Georgia. The falconers are a proud group of hunters, and they typically capture a bird in September, train the bird, and then release it back to the wild following the end of the falconry season in November.


Captains Log: September 8, 2018

Eagle was the word of the day with three species seen, including the short-toed, the lesser-spotted, and the booted eagle. The combined day’s total was 96 eagles with the booted eagle making up the majority of the flight. 

Sean with Batumi Raptor Count founder and former HMS trainee Johannes Jansen.

Sean with Batumi Raptor Count founder and former HMS trainee Johannes Jansen.

Batumi boasts the largest and most diverse raptor migration corridor in Eurasia.  Ten years after its scientific discovery, the count is going strong.  The crews that heads up the count are young, dedicated, and have razor sharp identification skills.  It’s nice to know that Hawk Mountain has helped play a role in cross-pollinating raptor conservation skills globally.  In my discussion with several of the founders and key players at the Batumi Raptor Count, it becomes apparent that we are all there for the same reasons: the love of and emotional connection to wild raptors everywhere! 

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!

Sharing Experiences in Conservation

By Christine Whitehair, Autumn 2017 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Christine and a fellow trainee identify passing raptors for visitors at South Lookout

Christine and a fellow trainee identify passing raptors for visitors at South Lookout

Audible gasps could be heard from the hardy group of hawk watchers, both seasoned and beginners, as the third golden eagle of the day passed in front of a vibrant rainbow on its way south. It was a windy and cloudy day in late October at the Sanctuary, with northwest winds creating perfect conditions for a memorable eagle flight. 

This day was the best kind of day for me at North Lookout, with a steady stream of birds and people; hardly a minute went by without someone calling out a passing raptor or migrating shorebird. In that moment, I remembered describing Hawk Mountain to people before I left Massachusetts, gushing about how excited I was to see the raptors streaming down the ridge (some even at eye-level!), quoting migration statistics from the website and describing the different species I would see. It turned out to be everything I hoped it would be and more, because the knowledge I had gained during my time as a Conservation Science Trainee had forever changed the way I perceived raptors and the world around me. 

Even before I arrived at Hawk Mountain, I had been learning about raptors and conservation science, but it all intensified as soon as I arrived on the Mountain. Rather than spending my senior year of high school taking the only three classes remaining after my 60+ credit junior year, I had decided to follow my passion for conservation to a place where I could actually learn how to contribute to it.

As soon as we arrived, that goal was met. The next four months were filled with books, papers, seminars about different research techniques and statistical analysis software, and a lecture series with speakers from all around the world. 

At first, I was intimidated by all I had to learn, but then I figured out one of the biggest advantages to the interpretation aspect of the traineeship: being asked to answer questions about any and every facet of what I was learning. This allowed me to think critically about all of the information I was learning and ultimately to understand it better. I had heard before that the best way to learn something was to teach it, but this experience really made that lesson take on a life of its own for me. Guests would ask me questions that were more in depth than I had considered, and this often made me think about things from a different perspective. I would end my days on the Lookout by rushing down the Mountain to immediately look up some fact that I had not considered before. 

I could not have hoped for a more comprehensive learning experience, or an experience that would truly show me the importance of education in conservation. 

Due to the lessons I learned at Hawk Mountain, I now know from first-hand experience how crucial it is not only to get local people involved in your conservation effort, but to get them invested. If people do not care about what you are doing or why, they will not continue to help you. Being able to education people on the importance of raptors and help them to see what people who spent their lives trying to conserve them were seeing, was an experience I feel very grateful to have had. 

Christine looks out over the ridge from her post at North Lookout

Christine looks out over the ridge from her post at North Lookout

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.

Percy the victorious vulture Cover.jpg

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!