field biology

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

Searching for Two Secretive Forest-Raptors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lauren with a banded red-tailed hawk. 

Lauren with a banded red-tailed hawk. 

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

Monitoring Migration in Eilat, Israel

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

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

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

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

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

Counter station in the Eilat Mountains. 

Counter station in the Eilat Mountains. 

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

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

Ana in the "office."

Ana in the "office."

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

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

Ana with the rest of her team at Eilat. 

Ana with the rest of her team at Eilat. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shalom!

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

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

Cape Coral Kestrels

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

Kirsten with a recently banded male American kestrel.

Kirsten with a recently banded male American kestrel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Springtime in Montana

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

Spring sunrise in Montana, over the Mission Mountains.

Spring sunrise in Montana, over the Mission Mountains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.