hawk care

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.

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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!

Annual Raptor Care & Wellness

By Susan Pello, VMD, MS
Small & Exotic Animal Veterinarian

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary currently has 4 education ambassadors. Each bird is carefully monitored and cared for by the education staff as well as trained volunteers at Hawk Mountain. Our avian education ambassadors are trained to work with the staff to educate the public, and they represent their wild counterparts as they travel near and far. However, every bird requires daily care and yearly examinations. I enjoy travelling out to Hawk Mountain every spring to see the birds. At times, the birds will travel out to me for any issues concerning to the raptor care staff.

So, how do wild raptors become education ambassadors? Due to injury, amputation, blindness or imprinting, raptors that come into a rehabilitation facility are determined to be unfit for release and in turn become captive raptors for education. The federal government mandates specific guidelines and criteria which must be met prior to releasing a bird of prey back into the wild.  In raptors 6 weeks or younger, we worry about imprinting on humans. If this occurs the animal becomes non-releasable. We see imprinting commonly in baby cranes, vultures and other avian species.

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A captive raptor requires yearly exams and wellness blood work just as our companion animals. Raptors are considered wild animals, even in captivity and their care is much different from that of a dog. Birds hide illness and therefore require a physical exam and blood work yearly.  The day to day care, includes monitoring their appetite, weight and activity. When a bird is transferred to a facility, an initial physical exam, x-rays and blood work are performed. During physical examination, I will evaluate the eyes, mouth, ears, listen to the heart and respiratory system and perform a full orthopedic examination. Feather and skin condition is also evaluated.

When housed in a captive setting, especially birds with orthopedic limitations or previous fractures, raptors are prone to feather damage and foot injuries. Together with the raptor care team, I will review options to help improve feather quality, foot care and cage enrichment. At Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a physical examination is performed, blood is drawn and xrays are recommended. It is also recommended that all captive raptors be vaccinated for West Nile Virus (WNV).  The WNV vaccine is administered once a year prior to mosquito season. This is the only recommended vaccination.

At the time of intake, all of the birds are DNA sexed and this is because our female birds require higher levels of calcium and monitoring for egg laying behavior. The birds can produce an unfertilized egg, without a male present. Currently, all of the education birds at Hawk Mountain are female, except the newest member, a red-morph eastern screech owl.

The red-morph eastern screech owl was recently adopted by Hawk Mountain for education purposes. He has a right wing injury that limits his flight, therefore he has been determined unfit for release into the wild. He received his intake examination in January 2017.  The small owl was found to be dehydrated with multiple broken tail feathers and contracture to his right wing. Despite his severe right wing damage, he is still able to fly a little. During his examination we administered his WNV vaccination and took some blood to evaluate him for any illness.

During my visit, I also had the luxury of examining my favorite great-horned owl. GHOW is at least a 17 year old female who recently started laying eggs. She also has developed some abnormal wear to her beak and receives occasional coping (beak shaping).  

I look forward to my spring visit this year when I will have the opportunity to vaccinate and examine the entire flock of avian ambassadors at Hawk Mountain.