hawk

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.  

Soaring to Panama

Panama Eco-Tour Blog Part 1
Read Part 2 by Jamie Dawson
here.

By Dr. Laurie Goodrich, Director of Long-term Monitoring
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Panama.  I am finally here.  Since I was a university student I have longed to visit here, enticed by reading the landmark tropical ecology studies that occurred here at sites such as Panama Canal Zone, Pipeline Road, and Canopy Tower.  Later on, as a hawkwatcher, I read of Ancon Hill and the clouds of Swainson’s hawks and turkey vultures swirling above Panama City, and a new “bucket list” place was born.

On October 19, five of the Hawk Mountain 2018 Panama eco-tour members arrived at night to await the start of the Hawk Mountain tour to Panama the following day, with Raptours and raptor expert/former Hawk Mountain trainee Sergio Seipke.  Arriving in the dark, my first impression of Panama City was, ”…Wow, this is larger than I imagined.”  The city lights illuminated towering skyscrapers, boldly lit casinos, and bustling streets.

Bird-watching by the pool, photo by Laurie Goodrich.

Bird-watching by the pool, photo by Laurie Goodrich.

We gathered near the pool for bird-watching and breakfast the next morning.  Sergio pointed out a three-toed sloth sleeping in the tree next to the porch, and soon small flocks of crimson-backed tanagers, thick-billed euphonia, and other tropical birds flitted around us.  By 7:30 am, hundreds of broad-winged hawks rose up over the hotel, circling low and streaming to the northeast.  Swainson’s hawks, Mississippi kites, and black and turkey vultures, joined the flow along with short-tailed hawk and hook-billed kite.  Hundreds of common nighthawks glided overhead along with clouds of barn and cliff swallows as well, all possibly having passed over Pennsylvania in weeks past. 

Kettling broadwings and other raptors, photo by Diane Allison.

Kettling broadwings and other raptors, photo by Diane Allison.

During the late morning, continued streams of broad-winged hawks and turkey vultures sailed overhead.  Patty, a female Broad-winged Hawk from northwest Pennsylvania that we had satellite-tagged in 2016, had roosted just 11 km west of our location on the night before. I was sure she soared above us that morning amid the 50 thousand broadwings we tallied over our hotel, and her satellite-tracked pathway confirmed my suspicion!

The following morning the full 14 member group met up with our Panama bird guide for the tour, Domi, Domiciano Alveo, who along with Sergio of Raptours made sure we saw every bird. After a morning of watching tropical kingbirds, chachalacas, and other new birds, we spent the morning hawk-watching within view of the Panama Canal and the famed Ancon Hill. We watched streams of birds rising off the hills west of town and flying towards us. Contrary to our North American bias, south-bound raptors fly northeast to traverse Panama City and avoid crossing water.

Aplomado falcon perched in tree, photo by Brian Moroney.

Aplomado falcon perched in tree, photo by Brian Moroney.

The next day  we explored the impressive Miraflores Locks- Panama Canal museum.  We stood on a fourth floor deck overlooking massive freighters inching their way through the locks. From the deck, we spotted a king vulture soaring and a bat falcon hunting from the Canal Zone light fixtures.

For the next few nights we stayed at the Canopy Lodge, an amazing eco-lodge immersed in forest aside a fast-flowing stream with fruit feeder trays and hummingbird feeders adjacent to large open deck.  Experienced guides lingered to point out birds and a comfortable sitting area welcomed us to never leave.  During our days we explored the surrounding region and visited the Pacific Ocean.  Small clouds of raptors were seen nearly everywhere in the central mountains.  On the Pacific slope, we had one incredible view of an aplomado falcon perched alongside the road and savannah hawks hunting with egrets in wet meadows.  Other birds included a roadside hawk, crane hawk, and white-tailed kite. 

We then moved to another famed eco-lodge, the Canopy Tower.  Here we were greeted by well-known nature and bird guide, Carlos Bethancourt, who along with the staff treated our group as kings and queens.  The Canopy Tower was built in 1960s as part of the radar defense system for the Panama Canal and was also used to detect drug-carrying planes in the 1980s. In the 1990s it was transferred to visionary Raul Arias de Para who renovated it into a center for neotropical-rainforest ecotourism.  Today the Tower has a hawk-watching deck and hosts bird-watchers in overnight rooms set into the sides of the circular tower.  Rain was a daily companion for us and dampened some of our hawkwatching, however side trips were amazing and included a visit to the famed Pipeline Road, Rainforest Discovery Center and a boat trip on the Canal. 

I gained a new appreciation for the trials of migration through Central America as each day rain blocked flights or kept flocks of hawks fighting for lift. After a cloud burst rain amid the forested hills, we watched an immature broad-winged hawk plummet into the treetops to perch, drenched and wet and looking thoroughly dejected.  As sun tried to emerge, it spent 40 minutes trying to preen its feathers before it finally circled up to try to migrate again.

Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkey, photo by Brian Moroney.

Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkey, photo by Brian Moroney.

Tropical Mammals were a treat to see. At the Tower, Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkeys lingered near the upper deck staring at people, hoping for banana gifts, while white-nosed coati and howler monkeys occasionally passed by. White-faced capuchin troops were seen occasionally and three-toed sloths were spotted nearly every day. 

Each morning an optional pre-dawn gathering occurred outside the Tower, complete with fresh-brewed coffee and tea. Sergio and Domi stood quietly in the dark attempting to call in one of the elusive forest falcons. Mostly the forest was quiet until dawn wakened the hummingbirds to hover at nearby feeders.  On the last morning we met at 5:30 am hoping for the best.  After about 20 minutes, suddenly Sergio leaped to his feet and motioned us off the deck to the driveway below. Soon, not one but all three forest falcon species were heard-- collared, slaty-backed and barred forest-falcons!  For me hearing those rare species was the icing on the cake for a wonderful trip.  For the main tour we tallied 39 raptor species and 253 total birds, despite enduring torrential downpours on part of every day.  We enjoyed amazing views of broad-winged and Swainson’s hawks kettling over the rugged hills of Panama, and, I checked off a lifetime bucket list place.

Group shot taken in the Canopy Tower.

Group shot taken in the Canopy Tower.


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

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will tell the dramatic tale of the extension portion of this eco-tour!

Tips for Conference Confidence

By Zoe Bonerbo, Summer 2018 Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

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

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



1)      Ways to attend

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

2)      Confirm and double-check all reservations

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

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

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

3)      Do a bit of background research

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

4)      Start small

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

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

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

5)      Don’t be afraid to start conversations! 

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

6)      Let yourself rest

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

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

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

Home Among the Hills

By Karissa Elser, Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Karissa at South Lookout as a child.

Karissa at South Lookout as a child.

Hiking up to North Lookout on my first day, as a summer education intern, wasn’t the first time I made that journey. It probably wasn’t even the 10th time. I have been able to make the journey countless times because I am lucky enough to call Hawk Mountain Sanctuary my backyard. Since I live in the small town of New Ringgold that you can see from North Lookout, Hawk Mountain is no stranger to me.

Yet, this summer, I got to make the drive up Hawk Mountain Road everyday to experience this place from a whole new perspective. Being the “local” intern this summer, I was already aware of the River of Rocks bolder fields and the incredible views from the lookouts. However, I wasn’t aware of the world-class research that goes on at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. From the Farmland Raptor Project to working globally with other scientists to butterfly migration to educating kids, this special place that I have grown up going to my whole life is the leader in all the techniques and practices I have been studying while at West Virginia University.

Karissa holding a recently tagged American kestrel chick.

Karissa holding a recently tagged American kestrel chick.

Even though I was technically an education intern, I was always being invited to help tag black vultures or band American kestrels with the conservation scientist and trainees. There are some things that can’t be taught in a classroom, and getting to work along biologists at Hawk Mountain, such as J.F. Therrien, Laurie Goodrich, and David Barber, were some of those experiences. Since all the biologists and researchers at the Sanctuary have expertise in different fields of study, I felt lucky to have been able to have conversations with each of them about what they are accomplishing.

Karissa assisting a young visitor during a Wee One’s program.

Karissa assisting a young visitor during a Wee One’s program.

As an education intern, I spent most of my time working on the top of the mountain, leading excursions with groups of all ages and from all different backgrounds. Being able to share your knowledge and passion for conservation with children and adults, who may live in cities or might not know about the power of preservation of raptors, other wildlife, and ecosystems found in the Appalachian area, is the greatest feeling. You can learn a lot from mistakes you make. Watching the way that educators Erin Brown, Rachel Taras, Andrea Ambrose, and Jamie Dawson work with kids and through kids taught me about how I aspire to be as an educator.

Hawk Mountain has taught me how to work with a community of scientists and educators from various backgrounds. This notable place has provided me with an immense amount of hands-on research and fieldwork, and it reminds me every day why I study and strive to be a better scientist and educator. I have been so fortunate to work at a place that my 10-year-old self would visit on those fall days to watch the migrating birds with my school group. I never would have anticipated that I would have a chance to work at a place that I have always considered my home among the hills.

karissa at slo.jpg

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.

Adventures and Advancements in Captive Raptor Management

By Rachel Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Rachel and TRC’s Education Program Manager Gail Buhl work through passing off and handling a bald eagle.

Rachel and TRC’s Education Program Manager Gail Buhl work through passing off and handling a bald eagle.

Earlier this season, I had the incredible opportunity to attend The University of Minnesota’s 2017 Care and Management of Captive Raptors four-day comprehensive workshop from October 13-20, funded by a Philadelphia Foundation grant. With over 20 years of “talons-on” experience working with raptors in captivity, I have returned to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary from The Raptor Center (TRC) with a renewed sense of empowerment and motivation to propel our captive management practices to a world class status.

Prior to handling and training birds at the TRC, I successfully completed hands-on medical exams and necropsy under the direction of expert clinic staff. Although far from being Dr. Dolittle, after learning the best practices in diets, nutrition, equipment, and raptor housing, I am eager to implement modifications to provide the highest quality of life for my feathered coworkers.

Rachel assists Hawk Mountain's veterinarian, Dr. Pello, during a routine check up of our red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Rachel assists Hawk Mountain's veterinarian, Dr. Pello, during a routine check up of our red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Education Department is responsible for a collection of birds that require care and maintenance 365 days a year. In my role as senior educator and lead raptor care manager, I schedule, train, and supervise volunteers ensuring best practices and the safety of volunteers and birds. With the support of my education teammates Erin Brown and Adam Carter, I created a vetting process for volunteers to ensure consistency and high standards of care. Unable to send a text message or call staff when they are ill, we are responsible for feeding, cleaning, conducting routine health checks for the birds year-round. We take this responsibility seriously 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, monitoring bird welfare through polar vortex temperatures, mosquito-breeding season, and beyond. Attending the TRC workshop fostered my deeper appreciation for the role of avian educators as ambassadors for raptor conservation.

We also manage on-going training and enrichment for both the birds and volunteers throughout their tenure, aiming to provide a stress-free environment for our avian educators throughout their lifespan. Although young at heart, several members of our avian education team are entering their “golden years” and have geriatric needs. The HMS avian educators have individual special needs in addition to the natural history requirements of each species.  

Rachel hones her raptor training skills with TRC’s resident red-tailed hawk.

Rachel hones her raptor training skills with TRC’s resident red-tailed hawk.

In recent years, I developed a Raptor Care Advisory Committee consisting of an avian veterinarian, raptor rehabilitator, and professional bird trainer who share their unique knowledge, specialized skills, and experience to meet the needs of our captive raptor management plan. With the guidance of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE), I’ve created a collection plan, training and enrichment plans, and a retirement position statement to ensure consistency and adherence to our mission of serving as a model facility.

Although the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service require annual audits of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s collection of captive birds, we also undergo a yearly voluntary audit by an outside source. Most recently, my ultimate raptor conservation hero, (after Rosalie Edge, Maurice and Irma Broun, of course), Director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey, Jemima Parry-Jones conducted a thorough exam of all birds and an audit of our enclosures and indoor raptor care facilities.  

I owe a debt of gratitude to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s team of volunteers, advisors, staff, and mentors who continue to support me.  When you visit the Sanctuary and enjoy a live raptor program, ‘Raptors Up Close’ or meet one of our ambassadors at a festival or large event, please know that your support makes a positive impact!

Culture in Conservation

By Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo, Former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

During my time at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I realized that conservation was a science and has to be regarded so. Before then, I thought it was a love for the environment, turning off lights around the house or turning the tap off when I brushed my teeth. All these acts are important, and if everyone did them they could make a difference.

However, as raptor biologists and conservationists, Dr. Keith Bildstein taught us that conservation is so much more. Conservation is not just an explosion of emotions, because emotions are personal and no one approach is a panacea.

In Africa today, various ‘cultural’ practices have had a negative impact on raptors, particularly vultures. It seems as though culture is playing a part in the demise and extinction of our vultures. This is odd as culture has always been the driving force to safe guarding and conserving wildlife and forests for centuries. Going into this year’s vulture awareness month, I had the question of how culture has evolved so much in southern Africa into a monster that is wiping out vultures in their hundreds.

In my culture, there is no fairy godmothers or tooth fairies, so when my teeth fell as a child, my mother took me outside and taught me a song. The song is to the Yellow-billed Kite Milvus aegyptius, an Intra-African migrant. What you do as a child, if you want your tooth to grow back is to sing the song that goes Mzwazwa! Mzwazwa! Thathi’zinyo lami ungiphe’lakho elihle! This directly translates to: "Yellow-billed Kite! Yellow-billed Kite! Take my tooth and give me your beautiful one!" This is weird since birds have no teeth, and this bird’s tooth is a yellow, curved, and razor sharp bill, which nobody would like growing on them. After singing the song, you are then supposed to throw the tooth over the roof for the Yellow-billed Kite to collect as it flies over your house. This small tradition in my corner of the world makes the bird so important, because children everywhere want the safety of the bird as it brings their adult teeth, and parents everywhere want that moment my mother shared with me so many years ago, passing along the tradition.

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

My second annual International Vulture Awareness Day seminar at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe for this year was themed Vulture Conservation and Culture in Zimbabwe. My intention was for scientists, the general public, and culture experts to talk about vulture conservation issues and what needs to change in Zimbabwe for their protection. I invited the BirdLife Zimbabwe Conservation officer for Special Species Ms. Fadzai Matsvimbo, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) senior ecologist Ms. Lovelater Sebele, and renowned author, historian, and culture expert Mr. Pathisa Nyathi. We had a great turn out of people from all over the city that knew close to nothing about vultures but were intrigued and interested in getting to know about them.

The two speakers from BirdLife Zimbabwe and ZimParks illustrated the current status of vultures in Zimbabwe and what conservation efforts are happening on the ground. BirdLife Zimbabwe works closely with ZimParks in Hwange National Park and has reported on various vulture poisonings around Zimbabwe. In Hwange Park, cyanide poisoning on salt leaks in elephant poaching is the main cause of mass deaths of vultures and many other scavenging animals; however, in other parks like Gonarezhou on the boarder of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Aldicarb a carbamate insecticide is the most common, along with the harvesting of body parts for muti (traditional medicine).

The major problems faced by organizations like these two are the lack of understanding of the value of vultures and inconsistencies in the litigation process. The judiciary system is failing our vultures, delivered sentences are inconsistent, and often vultures are not included as part of the cases. There is a lack of awareness in game rangers working in the parks, where vulture losses are not properly documented. For these and many other reasons, the two organizations have partnered in educating rangers on identification, data collection on poaching crime scenes, and conservation status.

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

Our historian and culture expert explained the African philosophy on conservation, and he reminded us that African communities were the best conservationists of natural resources whilst being utilitarian at the same time. African conservation is linked to cosmology and African spirituality, the belief that the earth is our mother and provider—that all matter has life in it, and in order for there to be life there has to be death. This spiritual approach to nature and the world, compared to the scientific, modern approach instills in all Africans a reverence to nature that inspires conservationists.

Due to the philosophy that all matter possesses life, all the parts of an animal carry spiritual characteristics of the animal, and for this reason, vulture bones, beaks, feathers, talons, and even meat are used as muti. Originally, because of the ability of vultures to ‘miraculously’ tell where carcasses are, it was only used by traditional healers for divination as part of their wardrobe. The use of vulture body parts for muti has only recently spiraled out of control due to increased possibilities for foretelling with sports betting, gambling,business successes, and investment results among others.

The biggest take home for all that night, especially for the conservation scientists, was that no external policing is more effective than internal conviction. This means that African children today need to be taught about African philosophy and spirituality to regain that awareness of wildlife. Along with western, scientific, material/physical education, African spirituality also needs to be taught to younger generations as it is being lost in current generations. The scientists were also urged to educate the public of the world view and wildlife understanding through indigenous African knowledge systems and to remain respectful of local people’s beliefs; perceptions are real, just as their consequences are.

In the end, I learned the value of my culture in conservation and how to be a holistic and effective advocate for conservation in my country. Most importantly, I realized the value of one day teaching my children the Yellow-billed Kite song and sharing with them the folklore that made me love and respect nature in my life and my career.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.

Red-Letter Days

Broadwing kettle photos by Bill Moses

Broadwing kettle photos by Bill Moses

By David Barber, Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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Maurice Broun, the Sanctuary's first curator, described "red-letter days" as "those days when hawks flood the Sanctuary skyways, as in fulfillment of a hawk-lover's hopes and dreams."  And the great thing about red-letter days is that they are often unexpected.  Such is the case with the peak of our broad-winged hawk flight this year.  Sunday, September 17th had an inauspicious start, the ridge was completely socked in with low clouds and the front of the lookout was barely visible.  It was the type of day where you wonder if the clouds will ever lift or will you sit in the clouds all day.  It was a great chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones as there wasn't much to see except for the fog.

Finally, around 11:15 the clouds started to break up and we could see patches of blue.  I looked up at a patch of blue over the Kempton valley and could see broadwings coming out of a dark gray clouds appearing briefly before quickly disappearing into another dark cloud.   Two questions immediately popped into my head, how could they be up so high already and how many have we missed.   We all started scanning the blue and would occasionally see small groups of broadwings streaming though.  At the end of the hour counters tallied 157 broadwings.

Everyone's spirits were boosted and thoughts turned to the possibility that today could be the big flight of the season.  Was the previous day's count of 1,589 broadwings just the beginning?  We know that there had some big flights in New England earlier in the week, but those birds should have already passed through Pennsylvania. 

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Counts started to build over the next few hours, with 247 broadwings one hour, 527 the next, it was turning out to be a good day with just over 1,000 broadwings.  Around 3:15 someone called out "there's a big kettle over #4."  They weren't kidding,  I put my binoculars on #4 where birds were streaming in and started moving up, the kettle stretched from just over #4 to three to four glasses high.  The size of the kettle immediately brought me back to the time I visited the Veracruz  River of Raptors watchsite in Mexico, where daily counts can exceed 100,000 in a day. "They're streaming out the top" one of the counter yelled and soon the only sound you heard was the sound of clickers as the counters tried to keep up with "flood" of broadwings.  This clicking continued almost non-stop for the rest of the hour as new kettles formed and birds streamed past the lookout.  At the end of the hour we all looked at each other in awe having just witnessed 2,908 broadwings pass by in 45 minutes.    

Just as quickly the "flood" of broadwings slowed to a trickle and by day's end 4,019 broad-winged hawks were counted, a "red-letter day" that I, and I'm sure many others will remember for the rest of our lives.

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Soaring Opportunities

Kirsten birdwatching in Maricao State Forest

Kirsten birdwatching in Maricao State Forest

By Kirsten Fuller, former education intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

What a whirlwind the past six months of my life have been!  When I arrived at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary back in March, I never expected that my four-month internship would end up being cut in half for what proved to be an amazing adventure.   

View of the Toro Negro mountain range, where the majority of the sharp-shinned hawk nests were located. 

View of the Toro Negro mountain range, where the majority of the sharp-shinned hawk nests were located. 

Last November, I had applied to work for the Peregrine Fund, an organization dedicated to the conservation of birds of prey.  Slated to begin in January, the project had already been in progress when I was approached with an opportunity: there was suddenly a need to hire a field technician for a study of the endangered Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawk in the central mountain region of Puerto Rico.  I could not believe this opportunity was available to me, and I was incredibly excited to pursue it. 

Finishing up my project at Hawk Mountain, I arrived in Puerto Rico at the end of April.  We jumped right into learning about the project and catching me up on what had been going on for the first four months of the study.

Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawks are an endangered species of forest raptor.  They perform mating displays above the forest canopy in late winter and begin building their nests and laying eggs in spring.  By the time I arrived on site, 18 nests had been located.  The original field crew on the project had put in all of the legwork of searching for pairs – including using a machete to chop through the thick Puerto Rican jungle – so by the time I got there my role was mainly observing the nests. 

Let me set the scene for a “routine” day in our lives:

Wake up and eat breakfast.  Get dressed in pants and long sleeved shirt.  Gather equipment: binoculars, notepad and pen, wristwatch, and GPS.  Hop in the jeep.  Mentally prepare for the mayhem and pandemonium of Puerto Rican drivers.  Avoid crater-sized potholes that could swallow the jeep whole.  Search through the radio stations until we heard “Despacito.”  Arrive at the parking site for a specific nest and then breathe a sigh of relief for arriving unscathed.  Upon arriving, my task was usually to hike from the jeep to one of the nests on a footpath created by one of the members of our team. 

Kirsten climbing a coconut tree.

Kirsten climbing a coconut tree.

Ah, the hikes!  Most of the hikes took about 20 minutes to reach the nest site.  Along the way, I would focus almost entirely on not falling down.  The Puerto Rican jungle was friendly, but there were a lot of things to slip on; palm fronds are like Puerto Rican skis. 

These hikes were always such an adventure, and at times they were so surreal that I felt like I was living someone else’s life.  The first hike I joined, our group got stuck in a sudden torrential downpour.  The creek we were hiking along started rapidly filling up with water, the rocks became incredibly slippery, and the spiky tree ferns were tearing my hands apart as I accidentally reached for them to maintain balance.  Yet all the while I could not stop laughing!  Although not every day would prove to be as much fun or exciting, and admittedly the thrill of the jungle would eventually wear off a bit, my first trek was an unforgettable experience.

A female Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawk enjoying a bananaquit.

A female Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawk enjoying a bananaquit.

Once at the nest site, our task was simple: first, identify if the female was present.  If so, examine if she was still incubating her eggs and note any unusual behaviors.  As time went on the challenge became identifying the hatch date for the eggs, and then observing the growth and development of the nestlings from afar.  I always enjoyed spending the time at the nest sites listening to the sounds of the jungle, hoping to hear a male call to signal that he had prey to deliver, and then watching the interaction between the female and the male around the nest site.  We were lucky enough to watch the nestlings grow into fledglings.  While we had nests predated by pearly-eyed thrashers and nests fail due to unknown reasons, there were still some pairs that fledged young. 

A digiscoped photo of a young sharp-shinned hawk beside the nest is Toro Negro state forest. This nest was almost entirely made out of pine needles!

A digiscoped photo of a young sharp-shinned hawk beside the nest is Toro Negro state forest. This nest was almost entirely made out of pine needles!

There was one nest that looked structurally pathetic.  It was made almost entirely out of pine needles, and we were certain it would not last long enough for the young to leave the nest.  However, to our surprise, the pair ended up fledging two young!  These kinds of triumphs were so exciting to witness.

I am certainly happy to be home after such an adventure and to resume my normal schedule, but there is still a part of me that would love to be back in Puerto Rico climbing a coconut tree, struggling to order a burrito with my poor Spanish skills, and hiking to a serene and secluded spot to enjoy what beautiful nature the jungle has to offer.  This experience reinforced my interest in studying birds of prey and has left me anxious to start my next, and hopefully just as exciting, adventure. 

Keep Farmland Raptors Soaring

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

By Katie Andrews, PA Farmland Raptors Volunteer
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Since 2012 Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has been reaching out to Pennsylvania landowners and farmers to help us conserve four species of grassland raptors in decline across the state: American Kestrel, Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier.

Female American Kestrel

Female American Kestrel

Participants can report sightings of the four species to the Hawk Mountain Farmland Raptor Database, install nest boxes for Kestrels and Barn Owls, improve habitat for ground-nesting Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls (e.g., leaving unmown, overgrown pastures), and encourage others to participate by distributing brochures and posters. Because farmland raptors benefit farmers by consuming rodents and insects, many farmers are happy to help and enjoy seeing raptors flying above their fields. To date we have almost 200 landowners signed up and more than 200 volunteers who report sightings of the four birds to us.

In our first two years we were supported by a DCNR PA Wild Resource Conservation Program grant, but in recent years we have sustained our efforts with the help of volunteers and donations from individuals, area businesses, and other birding and conservation organizations.

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

Anyone with an interest in this project can get involved! Report your sightings or help us man a table at local fairs and public events. We would like to expand our outreach to farming communities across the state, so help with distributing brochures and nest box plans or posting posters, installing nest boxes or attending agricultural fairs in your county with a table on farmland raptors is always welcome.

To read more on the project visit the Farmland Raptor Website. You can read descriptions of all four species, download copies of the brochure and newsletters and access the online sighting report form.

For more information: www.hawkmountain.org/farmlandraptors

Contacts: Farmland Raptor Volunteer Katie Andrews at farmlandraptors@gmail.com

 Dr. Laurie Goodrich: 570-943-3411 x106 or Goodrich@hawkmountain.org