in the field

Please Pass the Machete: The Quest for the Harpy Eagle

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

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.

canoe pic 1.jpg

 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.

We found the harpy eagle.jpg

 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.

traversing flooded waters.jpg

 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.

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.

 - - -

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

The Challenge in the Joy of Learning: Batumi 2018

By Paulina Camarena, 2016 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

I still remember the time at Hawk Mountain, when one of my now best friends and colleagues in raptor conservation, Aneesha Pokharel, was slightly worried about identifying North American raptor species as she is from Nepal and those birds would be completely new to her.  Now it was my turn.

As a field biologist focused on bird monitoring, particularly raptors, I have monitored migrating raptors in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in México, my home country, in addition to being an intern at Hawk Mountain in the spring of 2016. However, the time to jump into unknown species to me appeared recently.  I found out that the Batumi Raptor Count (BRC) was seeking volunteers to monitor the migration from August to November in Batumi, Georgia. Despite knowing it was going to be a challenge to count and identify species I have never seen before, I decided to apply, and I cannot be happier about having taken that chance.

View of Batumi and the Black Sea from Station 1 - Sahalvasho

View of Batumi and the Black Sea from Station 1 - Sahalvasho

My first day was August 12, 2018, and my journey to Batumi has been the longest I have ever taken to reach a place. As I was in England, I took a flight from London to Amsterdam, then to Istanbul, and finally, being the most affordable option at the moment, I took a bus to Batumi. I spent 24 hrs in that bus! Despite the long hours and stressful moments—absolutely no one spoke English nor Spanish in the bus—I gratefully remember how some people helped me in many ways. Finally I was there, in my new home for the following two months: Sahalvasho in Batumi.

Pallid Harrier soars by Batumi. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen.

Pallid Harrier soars by Batumi. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen.

Honey buzzards, steppe buzzards, black kites, marsh harriers, Montagu’s and pallid harriers… among many others. They looked so similar to the new, unskilled eyes. The first days felt absolutely slow, with quiet early mornings and long hours with not many birds yet decorating the sky, plus the pressure of learning to ID the species. There were two observation points: Sahalvasho and Shuamta. Station 2, Shuamta was my favorite since the beginning, as the height was just a pleasure in addition to the landscape, and for the ones who have been there, we know the hike up is not precisely easy at all times but certainly rewarding. Step by step, day after day, and thanks to the people I was surrounded by, I started to pick up the species I was watching. However, I have to admit it took me a while to feel confident enough to say “Palmtop” and register the species I was seeing cross the transect line. While watching a bird through the binoculars and thinking “that’s a marsh harrier" to then hear  “marsh harrier!” by someone else, I knew that I was successfully learning  and in those moments I felt such joy. The days started to go faster, and the number of birds counted day after day increased.  To watch and be able to discern between Montagu's and pallid harriers was a rewarding experience but definitely not an easy one, among many others, and was the result of the everyday practice.

Imperial eagle flies overhead. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen

Imperial eagle flies overhead. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen

 During my stay at Hawk Mountain, I learned significantly about vultures and their critical conservation status, and they became among my favorite group of birds. I will never forget the moment at Batumi, when a griffon vulture circled among an enormous kettle of steppe buzzards just in front of us, and another memory made by a moment when, after some light rain around Station 2, raptors flew by so close to us that we felt we could almost touch them. In no place before I have seen raptors flying by so close. The time of the eagles also arrived, and watching hundreds of them flying above us was also memorable; these are the things that make you feel you are a lucky person.

Over a million raptors were counted this season, however Batumi was not only the birds. The BRC is the people from many countries and a variety of backgrounds, reunited to contribute in raptor conservation; it is the charming Georgian families who hosted us and the delicious food that was on our table on every dinner time. It is the sharing of knowledge and experience, for sure an amazing learning opportunity for everyone.                

Part of the team of international counters at the BRC 2018.

Part of the team of international counters at the BRC 2018.

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.  

searching along the creek.jpg

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.

surveying.jpg

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!