Please Pass the Machete: The Quest for the Harpy Eagle

Panama Eco-Tour Blog Part 2
Read Part 1 by Dr. Laurie Goodrich

By Jamie Dawson, Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

It was dark in the thick Panamanian jungle, well before dawn. Before the howling monkeys rustled the vine-choked trees, the magical blue morpho butterflies flitted between flowers, and long before the creatures of the rainforest awoke to begin their daily balance of finding food without becoming food, gringos were stirring deep in the Darien, where the wild has not yet been tamed by man. They were a venturing on this mysterious Central American journey and forever bound in fellowship forged by the quest for the elusive harpy eagle.

 We loaded into our trusted van and excitedly sunk into our familiar seats, clutching dirty daypacks laden with our gear, water, and most importantly, copious amounts of dove chocolate. Fueled by strong coffee and the anticipation of fulfilling lifelong harpy dreams, we silently drove through the darkness.

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 Eventually our vehicle turned onto an unpaved dirt road, where two hardcore pickup trucks, seemingly straight out of Jurassic Park and decked out for off-roading safaris, were waiting to transport us to the next leg of our journey…the Chucunaque River. After rousing bumps and jolts, we arrived at the rural riverbank port cloaked in light rain, just as sun began to rise. There in the brown river floated our awaiting riverboat queens: two long, dugout canoes. After cautiously boarding, our canoe captains launched us down the longest river in Panama towards secluded harpy nesting grounds on the outskirts of the remote Sinai village.

 It was raining. We sat completely exposed to the elements without reprieve, as the water pelted us relentlessly for the entire three hour boat ride. I never expected to be cold in Panama. Furtive glances downstream revealed large flocks of disgruntled ibis dispersing in unison to escape the annoyance of our approaching vessels. Only one thought kept my chilled, rain-drenched despair at bay—chocolate. I watched the misty trees pass by and imagined the pleasure of gorging myself with the dove chocolates, tucked safely in my pack, upon reaching our destination.

Never has such an indomitable concentration of raptor enthusiasm been captured in quite delightful Argentinian form as our fearless leader, Sergio Seipke of Raptours. We left our canoes and followed Sergio through the thick banana fields, down the narrow trail carved out of the encroaching jungle. We had been given firm orders to strictly adhere to the trail and remain focused on the pursuit, as we were on a time-sensitive mission. Like a kid in a candy store, it took all of my willpower to resist the temptation to stop and explore the cornucopia of tropical life engulfing the trail.

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 With adept grace, our machete-wielding guides escorted us through deep, swiftly flowing streams as we pushed further into the lush heart of the forest. Finally, after mud, sweat, toil, and water-filled “water-proof” boots, we emerged victoriously to a small clearing hidden beneath the thick canopy. Draped in low-hanging, camouflaged netting and dappled with light and shadow, our eyes fell in awe on a majestic ceiba tree, prominently the highest point in the green expanse of the forest. Boasting superior views, the ceiba presents prime realty for nesting harpies, as few predators can summit the smooth, immense trunk.

 There it was at last, the harpy nest! Thick layers of strategically intertwined sticks lay nestled high in the ceiba canopy. With necks craned towards the clearing sky, we eagerly scanned the nest area for signs of the raptor residents. As the tense moments melted into minutes, our hopeful anticipation transformed into awkward disappointment; the harpies were nowhere to be seen. Despite our valiant efforts, we knew this unwanted outcome was always a possibility.

The female harpy eagle preening her feathers.

The female harpy eagle preening her feathers.

 But then, a large feather-crested head slowly emerged above the nest. To our astonished delight, the female harpy leisurely perched on an open branch, carefully preening and drying her feathers in the sun. The harpy’s mystical, whistle-like calls pierced the still, humid forest air, and her powerful wings shook rhythmically from the effort. Our guides quietly explained to us that she was calling for her mate to bring food. Mesmerized and elated by this privileged glimpse, we realized that the morning rain was truly a blessing. If the harpy hadn’t been wet from the early rain, she may not have left the security of her nest to dry off in the open sun.

 I could have watched the harpy forever, but the time had come to depart. We didn’t want our presence to deter the male harpy from returning to the nest with food, and we had a long journey back to our lodge, best made in daylight. I indulged myself with one last look through my binoculars and reluctantly pulled away from the blind to follow our group back to the canoes.

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 I’m no navigational genius, but somehow the trail looked different on the way back. I was sure we must have made a wrong turn, as our jungle trail was nowhere to be seen, and instead we carefully trudged through turbulent, waist-high water swiftly coursing its way through the understory. A flash flood had overtaken the region, and the water level of the river had risen over twelve feet in two hours. With this realization, a new heightened urgency hustled us to our canoes to depart while we still could.

 I stared incredulously at the swollen river. The canoes had been carried far inland by the rising water and were nowhere near where we had left them. Sediment, logs, and thick debris choked the fast moving current. We bravely boarded our canoes and braced ourselves for the perilous homeward journey. The air was tinged with electric excitement, as we straddled the thin line between adventure and real potential danger. The furrowed brows and distressed faces of our captains revealed the seriousness of our circumstances. Our reflexes were tested as we instinctively leaned into turns and quickly ducked under rapidly approaching riparian branches, hanging just inches above our canoe seats.

 At one point, we lost control as our canoe motors became tangled and clogged with debris. “Please pass the machete!” said one of the captain’s assistants who, against our protests, proceeded to jump out of the moving boat and scramble across the swirling, floating logs to cut away the debris from the motor. Entire unearthed trees swept past us ominously in the floods. I began to look around at my companions and silently assess their swimming abilities. Who would be able to survive and fend for themselves if we were to capsize?

 Finally, the motor was freed and we were moving again! But, wait - what was happening now? Our boat was moving backwards, and we were slowly reversing upstream, dodging collisions with oncoming hazards carried by the current. Utterly confused and equally concerned, I asked the captain in Spanish what was going on. Apparently, the captain’s jacket that contained the cash payments for the entire crew must have been snagged and caught on a branch, as it was now missing. So the captain logically informed me that we were now going back upstream in attempt to locate his lost jacket with the money. The group exchanged worried glances, and the HMS passengers called an emergency team meeting. We decided to pool our collective cash to replace the captain’s lost wages to avoid the unnecessary risk of traveling upstream. However, just as we were about to reveal our mutiny to the captain, against all odds, the missing jacket was spotted in the water. There it was, barely visible, caught on a branch submerged beneath the surface. The captain reached into the water, fervently pulled the soaking jacket until it snapped off the branch, unzipped a drenched pocket and triumphantly clutched a fat wad of dripping cash.

After an exhilarating trek back down the river, the HMS passengers are back on land.

After an exhilarating trek back down the river, the HMS passengers are back on land.

 Relieved to safely return to our port of origin, we disembarked our canoes in high spirits, cohesively bonded by the intense shared experience. The adventure continued as we mounted the open backs of the safari trucks for a bumpy bird-watching sunset ride. Delirious with fatigue and soaring on natural highs, Karen and I enthusiastically waved and yelled friendly “hellos” from the back of the truck as we passed by groups of children, and chickens, from the village. It had been, by far, one of the most amazing days of my life, made even more special by the humorous camaraderie and cherished friendships. It was truly unforgettable.

This blog is dedicated to Hawk Mountain volunteer, Karen Davidheiser, who accompanied us on several eco-tours in recent  years.

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.

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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!

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.

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.