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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.  

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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

Experiencing Your Moment

By Madi Wachsmuth, Spring 2018 Conservation Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Stop and Look

When I first set foot on the mountain top as Hawk Mountain’s new spring education intern, I wanted to explore and embrace the land that would become my home for the coming months.  I arrived in the early morning on a cold February day, and at that time, the mountain was engulfed within a cloud. The world around me was shrouded in fog and shadows. As I wandered the trails around the sanctuary, I discovered statues and gardens that seemed to sleep under a blanket of snow in the grey pale morning. The amphitheatre, though empty, held a promise of spring days to come when it would be filled with visitors, eager to learn and see all that the mountain top has to offer.

I then decided to venture up towards the South Lookout. As I wandered up the path, I saw in the distance two posts at the trailhead.  The posts stood erect with a single word written on each, ‘Stop’ and ‘Look’. The words themselves halted me in my path. I was impressed with the precise power of those two simple words. I began to reflect on those columns, their wise mantra filling me with excitement, curiosity and wonder.  What laid in wait before me? What would I bear witness to on the misty mountain top? In that moment, I made a promise to myself that I would live and experience as much as I could in the coming months.

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I wrote ‘Stop and Look’ 3 months ago, at the start of my internship.  You can imagine my surprise and slight embarrassment when I realized that the posts in the story were actually just for a pedestrian road crossing. But in that moment those words held a higher meaning to me in both heart and mind.  When I see them, they still hold that same meaning that they did on that misty morning. To me, they will forever be moving words of guidance for the wandering traveler.

Now summer is just around the corner.  That cold breath of winter is a distant memory. This internship has truly gone by in a flash, and it was filled with plenty of twists and surprises.  In the beginning, I promised myself that I would take it one step at a time because all too often we think only in terms of destinations and deadlines, missing the experience of the journey.  In the blink of an eye the moment has past, and we are onto the next. This is why I believe that taking the opportunity to not only experience but document the finite and fleeting moments in life is so important.   

Some people may let landscapes inspire them to create art in forms of poetry, drawings, photography. One person's art can even become a muse for others seeking inspiration.  Others prefer to chronicle sightings or the changes that they notice in the world around them. Birders in particular keep detailed lists of sightings in hopes of tracking the seasonal movements of animals or the growth of plants.  I recently met a 3 year old with his very own life list and was very impressed to see him identifying songbirds at our bird feeders with his grandmother. This boy would grow up with an appreciation and understanding of the world around him that many of his peers would not.  These catalogs help us to see the beautifully intricate patterns that surround us as the years go by.

Whether you find yourself on the mountain top for reasons of inspiration, enrichment, or investigation, there’s bound to be something amazing for all to find. So bring your camera, or a notepad and try some new form of expression.  Let the world around inspire you, and experience your moment for what it is: one of a kind.

Madi with summer education interns Zoe and Karissa. 

Madi with summer education interns Zoe and Karissa. 

Eyes Up and Open

By Abigail DeVizia, 2017 Hawk Mountain Artist in Residence

In April of 2017, I was preparing to graduate from Kutztown University. With only one month left, all of my remaining energy was focused on soaking up any knowledge and practice I could get out of my last few weeks of classes. My professors often encouraged us to find new languages and meanings for our artwork, but I was always focused on the question of how I was going to start an art career after school.  Luckily for me, I had helpful advisers that suggested the first step: apply for the Hawk Mountain Artist Residency.

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By August, I had moved into the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning alongside a few education interns and trainees. In the beginning of my two month stay, most of my time was spent driving and taking pictures.  I photographed gas stations, overgrown backyards, and some quiet factories for reference. I was accustomed to painting in my familiar language—tattered, small town landscape—despite being surrounded by a grand new landscape full of life.  But, as expected, plans change. I considered painting the sociopolitical exchange between Berks and Schuylkill inhabitants, but after a couple weeks, I realized that this was neither compelling nor could it be explained well without painting the people themselves. I was, however, still interested in the image of the two counties dividing the mountain in half, and how differently they appear.  One was comforting and folksy with wide farm fields, and the other was commercial with numerous strip malls, restaurants and supermarkets.  But something still felt missing.

Day by day, I did a mixture of drawing, hiking, painting, and photographing.  Being a part of this environment, where every day the interns were discussing migration, the daily bird sightings, and the importance of conservation, I was noticing the small glimpses of life.  I hiked the mountain on my own and observed that everyone, from the experienced birder to the novice visitor, was interested in learning about the raptors.  All of this was new to me because, prior to my stay, wildlife painting was not as meaningful to me; yet now, I wanted to talk about it.  I wanted to learn how raptors travelled, how they hunted, when I could see them.  I knew that my paintings would have to focus on the migration. 

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When the interns returned to the residence, I would often ask them about the birds they saw that day.  They told me what was travelling through the area and how to identify raptors, and I would look for them when I photographed.  Unsurprisingly, certain birds would make their way into my paintings.  Every new painting made me think about what bird was active at that time, or what kind of raptor would be common in the scene I was forming.  For example, I labored for weeks on one watercolor that was filled with branches, flora and tall grass, but in this scene, I was drawn to a white fence that felt like a perfect place for something to be perched.  I asked many of the resident scientists what would be seen sitting so obviously in the open, and was the right size for the fence.  All of them agreed that a Coopers Hawk would be the perfect fit, so I painted a Cooper’s Hawk looming over its prey.  It was finally concrete in my mind that all of my work was a spotlight on the raptors and the unique places they inhabit.  

I decided to take advantage of my location and began painting on site.  I painted at North Lookout a few times to make a rather simple but warm depiction of the rising sun.  This inspired me to start painting the other lookouts and expand the flow of this series to include sites from the Mountain. 

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Each lookout, such as North Lookout, the Kettle View, the River of Rocks, and the Lookout Trail, offered insight into the geographic layout of the land.  These sights from Hawk Mountain's own trails bind together the paintings from off the Mountain and showcase that raptors have traveled hundreds of miles to make a temporary home with us in our wildly varying landscape.  This is the idea that countries, states, and counties are all sharing the opportunity to look up and experience the birds during migration, and now I have the opportunity to share those glimpses in visually compelling ways.  

What the Sanctuary offered to me was an invested look into how birds are counted, identified, and studied every day. It taught me to be open-minded with my plans, and never closed off to changing my inspiration.  I always felt that I painted subjects that were underappreciated, and now I know to keep my eyes up to the things that I myself have ignored.  Thanks to the work of many, I can share what should be adored in the quiet Pennsylvania landscape of Hawk Mountain, and a new love of wildlife and narrative.  Hawk Mountain Sanctuary brings joy to visitors on a daily basis, and I am proud to say that now, I can bring this joy wherever I go.

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Come and experience the incredible series of work that Abby created during her time at the Sanctuary at her art show entitled "Sharing the Birds," which will be on display in the Hawk Mountain Visitor Center Gallery from August 19 to September 15, 2018. It will be free and open to the public.

All photos and art by Abigail DeVizia. 

All photos and art by Abigail DeVizia. 

On the Vulture Chronicles: Vulture Detectives Pt 2

A black vulture tagged by Hawk Mountain named Versace, perched on a barn in the Kempton Valley. Notice her wing tag and antennae of the telemetry unit.

A black vulture tagged by Hawk Mountain named Versace, perched on a barn in the Kempton Valley. Notice her wing tag and antennae of the telemetry unit.

By Adehl Schwaderer, former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

As a Hawk Mountain Conservation Science Trainee, you have the opportunity to be a part of many influential experiences, including counting migrants as they pass North Lookout and educating visitors about the importance of raptor conservation. But the experience that I have learned the most from this autumn was working with my fellow trainee Zoey Greenberg on our black vulture movement ecology project. This blog is part two of our vulture series so be sure to check out part one to gain a complete understanding of our project.

The plan was to locate three black vultures, Versace, Gifford, and Hillary, based on their recent GPS locations and observe what the birds were doing at these locations. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was excited to get started and gain new field experience, but no one had ever attempted groundtruthing with this species before, and it is still a new concept. We accepted this challenge with enthusiasm but were anxious about getting results. In the end we knew that no data would still be valuable information, however who doesn’t want groundbreaking results from their first ever field study?

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Click here to continue reading this blog on The Vulture Chronicles

Click here to read Part 1!

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. 

Cyprus: An Island of Birds

Looking at the grifon vulture nest in the cliffs at Limassol

Looking at the grifon vulture nest in the cliffs at Limassol

By Rebekah Smith, Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Driving up a dusty incline through an ancient olive tree grove, we watched as construction workers altered one of the few remaining undeveloped areas on the island of Cyprus in order to build a new road. In Cyprus, old farmlands and wild areas are scarce; however, they serve as havens for the wildlife there, including many species of passerines and raptors.

On a hot day in mid-June, we were scanning the landscape for a flash of blue amongst the green-brown leaves of the stout olive trees. The European roller (Coracias garrulous) population within Cyprus experienced a recent decline, so BirdLife Cyprus has been monitoring the population at historical nesting sites across the island. This historical nesting site was becoming a highway. In Cyprus, the farmland is actually valuable to the wildlife, because human settlement and agriculture has existed there since approximately 8,200 BC. When farmland is lost to tourism and development, it’s a loss for the wildlife, specifically for the nesting bird species of Cyprus.

Leaving the newly forming roadway and heading toward a more narrow, unofficial path, I saw my first European roller sitting on a telephone wire. The vibrant turquoise bird made our day trip across the island well worth our time. This is just one of the many projects BirdLife Cyprus has taken on to protect, study, and educate people about the wild birds of Cyprus. From the start of the decade, BirdLife Cyprus researchers conducted surveys and searched desperately for proof of the successful nesting of griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) on the island. They finally determined that there were only six to eight individuals left.

In an attempt to prevent the disappearance of the only species of vulture from the island, BirdLife Cyprus coordinated a program with Crete, Greece, in which they captured and transported 25 vultures and brought them to Cyprus to be released in hopes that the species might regain its hold on the island. Since then, they’ve been observing the griffons closely. One pair in particular has captured the attention of BirdLife Cyprus’s head research scientist Christina Ieronymidou. Nestled in the cliffs of Limassol, we watched the pair of vultures—one huddled over their clutch while the other perched close by, scanning the cliff lined shore.

Christina mentioned under her breath that the other vultures in the colony must have headed towards the center of the island for the day in search of carrion, which is not a frequently available resource on the island, as there are only seven known species of mammals nationwide. In contrast, nearly 400 species of birds have been recorded on the island of Cyprus.

The disregard for the ecological importance of birds on the island is a cultural remnant that’s been passed down through generations. In the past, the passerines that migrate through Cyprus along with those that are natives, were a valuable source of protein when no other food was available to the inhabitants. Generations later, they are no longer a necessity for survival but rather a delicacy. During the spring and fall migrations, poachers set up mist nets and lime sticks to capture thousands of unsuspecting birds, even using call recordings to attract them. If the bird species caught is not of culinary interest, they are still killed and discarded.

This 15 million Euro, illegal operation is the source of BirdLife Cyprus’s biggest struggles. Their part in the scheme is mostly lobbying for the passing of bills that would protect the animals, although new legislations could call for decreased fines for poachers and the ability to bring already cooked birds to restaurants, making the illegal birds harder to identify. Pictures leaked of a politician partaking in a passerine dish suggest that authorities may also be involved in support of bird poaching. BirdLife Cyprus is one of the only voices on the island moving against these new legislations and attempting to protect the 150 million migrating birds that pass through the country during each round of migration.

BirdLife Cyprus claims the role of wildlife advocate for the entire island. BirdLife Cyprus works to educate the community, lobby for legislations in favor of wildlife, work closely with the Game and Fauna service on the island, and even sometimes rescue abandoned chicks.

Although BirdLife Cyprus is not a rehabilitation facility, they constantly receive phone calls about abandoned and injured birds. In most cases the birds have to be euthanized by a small animal veterinarian, as there are no exotic veterinarians that know how to treat injured birds on the island. In some cases though, such as the common swift chick (Apus apus) that was delivered to their doorstep, the birds are lucky enough to get a second chance.

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Before leaving the office of BirdLife Cyprus, I watched their Development Officer,Elena Markitani, crush the heads of some fresh mealworms and beetles purchased at a local pet store by myself and the assistant researcher Yiannis Christodoulides on the way back from the roller surveys. She gathered them in a pair of tweezers and used her thumb to open the fragile beak of the baby swift. She was trying to force-feed the chick who had suddenly decided it wanted to refuse food—a sign of being ready to leave the nest, despite the fact that it was largely underweight and could not yet fly. I later learned that the baby swift survived it’s last few days of shoebox rehab and was released, hopefully with a brighter future, thanks to BirdLife Cyprus and all they are doing to help the island birds.

As I return to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for the remainder of my summer education internship, I feel encouraged by the enthusiasm we share with BirdLife Cyprus concerning the protection of wildlife, though the ecosystems in Pennsylvania and Cyprus are in stark contrast. Looking back at the history of Hawk Mountain, I see that BirdLife Cyprus is in a similar position to our founders. Humans are driven to hunt birds all over the world, however it is also our responsibility to make sure that there remains a balance in the populations that we impact. It will take a group effort to reduce the negative impacts that humans have had on wildlife, and it’s good to know that we have allies, even on the other side of the world.

From Here, I Will Soar

Merlyn at Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

Merlyn at Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

By Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo, Spring 2017 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

I was born in the golden, warm and thorny savanna plains of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe; where the grass is soet veld (sweet fields/grassland) and elephants, kudus, impala are at home and the lion is their “king." The savanna is born of fire. Successive periods of fires resulted in this beautiful ecosystem from forest to open plains; she is golden as though purified by the fire and all the life from her is tough, resilient and rough around the edges. It is beautiful to watch her at dawn when the sun comes up over her while the birds sing, when the sun goes back to her at sunset, and her sky line becomes the towering giraffes and the acacias, and when the constellations above her smile on everything as it sleeps.

Pennsylvania is certainly the opposite of home, the beautiful mountains covered in dense forests of old tall hemlock and oak trees. The valleys have perennial rivers winding around the beautiful landscape as though every scene is from a painter’s brush. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is nested in this beautiful state and is by far the best way to experience America for the first time if you are an African that loves the wilderness.

It is beautiful here, seeing the changes from just the view of your window and more so from lofty heights of North lookout as you sit on the humongous boulders and try to take it all in. Much has changed on the mountain since I first got here, and it truly has been to my joy and delight. The freezing snow I experienced for the very first time in my life when we arrived had engulfed everything in a blanket of white, even the surroundings of the mountain were in a cloud of fog and not much could be seen. However, as the days went by, the weather became more forgiving and the snow melted away. The grass was green and everything began to bloom. The sun came out and my shivers ceased and now, well now I cannot wait to go out in my shorts and hike.

I am an avid bird watcher and am so excited to be in the middle of a brand new world of birds here. Hiking was not really my thing, and, in my defense, the savannah is fairly flat grasslands, but if I have to hike up and down to see the birds here, I will.

As a bird lover, it has been such a joy, a dream come true even, to be around others like me, to talk all day about birds, oh what a joy! Others may not relate with this, but when you love raptors and birds the way I do and get the chance to talk about them in all kinds of conversations like whether it's serious talk (“sciencey talk”), casual talk, experiences talk, and even when you are making jokes, you are in bird lovers’ heaven with the saints.

I sit on the lookouts and face to the east, my mind tells me that far in the distant horizon past the ocean is my home, but my heart tells me this is my home away from home. This place so different from everything I know, but also so parallel to all that is familiar, so filled with opportunities to learn with each passing moment. This place, though not golden, is colourful beyond what I could ever have imagined. It’s ironic that one can find that his home, his place of utmost peace self discovery and growth, is a place that is the total opposite of what he/she has always identified with and has always called home. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is that home away from home for me, and I am sure many like me have come here and felt the same; this is a special place, the school in the clouds as they call it. 

Red-spotted Newt photo taken by Merlyn

Red-spotted Newt photo taken by Merlyn

Hawk Mountain has been my place of a lot of firsts. This is so exciting for me, knowing every single day is certainly going to be different from the previous, knowing I will probably see or do something I haven’t done before. This is what being alive is. In any living thing, when growth ceases, decay begins; I am fortunate to have this experience and be conscious of it. I was in snow for the first time, shaking like a leaf but loving every moment of it. I saw and held salamanders, newts, and bears for the first time in my life, wildlife that you could never find in Sub-Saharan Africa. I also rode a bicycle for the first time since I was 5 years old on those bikes with side wheels.

It is definitely the place you go to and don’t stay the same; it is one of those very few places in the world where you can truly feel and see yourself change and grow. Hawk Mountain has certainly made me realise that I can be better than I was a day ago, that, if I work on it, whatever it can be, I can be better at it, that curiosity is good and asking questions, however silly you think they are is important for learning, and most importantly, listening to others from all over the world talk about their experiences, is a great way to learn about the world.

Who knew, in the 1930s when all those birds were being shot out of the air, that this small rural corner of America tucked away behind the mountains in dense forest would become the launching pad of hundreds like me? Young scientists who love conservation, some who have at some point second-guessed their abilities and felt hopeless when faced with the challenge of their local situations. Like Rosalie Edge and the Brouns' believed they could bring to an end the culture of shooting in their day, just by counting the hawks, I believe too that I can be part of the force that will stop the poisoning of vultures among other ills in Africa. 

Any challenge in conservation can be overcome, perceptions, attitudes, and wrongs people do can be changed, and it is up to us to be part of the force that brings the change.

Thermal of Conservation

Turkey Vulture  (Cathartes aura)

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

By Zoey Greenberg, Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

When I tell people what I like to study, most smile and nod or change the subject. Others don’t beat around the bush and grimace with an “Eww, why?” The simple fact is that many people do not view vultures as glamorous subject matter. However, to me and many folks here at Hawk Mountain, they possess a plethora of attributes worth respecting.

My intrigue with these birds began three years ago when I moved from my home in Washington State to Pennsylvania. I come from a coastal community in which the common ‘big bird’ to point out in the sky is the Bald Eagle, feasting on salmon runs and other fish in Puget Sound. When I arrived here, I was charmed to see that a new silhouette graced the sky in similar abundance – a large raptor that rocked back and forth as if indecisive about which way to fly. At the time, I could relate.

I quickly cultivated a sense of joy in the turkey vulture’s passing shadow, and before long they became a nostalgic symbol of my time on the East coast. I was given an opportunity to expand on my appreciation for vultures as an educator at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, in central PA. In this role I often faced an audience partial to raptors with a cuter disposition, such as the owls, hawks, eagles, falcons, osprey…well essentially, everyone else. I took this disparity to heart, considering that the center housed two vultures; a turkey vulture who had been hit by a car and could no longer fly, as well as a black vulture who had recovered from lead poisoning but was still injured from a vehicle collision. I opted to try training the unreleasable vultures for use in educational programs during my time at Shaver’s Creek, in large part because my interactions with the public made it clear that they were unappreciated at best and villainized at worst.

California Condor  (  Gymnogyps californianus)

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)

There is, however, one species of vulture in the United States that has achieved genuine fame. Of our three vultures, the California condor lives the most treacherous existence; after a brush with extinction in the 1980’s, a vigorous reintroduction program has kept the miraculous bird in the Southwestern skies. I spent three months researching this bird’s story, and it became clear to me that the condor’s rarity was a catalyst in sparking its public approval. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Rosalie Edge and her wise statement that “the time to save a species is while it’s still common,” and after learning how expensive and heartbreaking the condors’ story has been, I am convinced that it is in everyone’s best interest to avoid a similar situation with our turkey vultures and black vultures.

As a spastically nomadic twenty-four-year-old, I am often asked “what do you want to do?” a question that I follow with a sigh. The truth is, I have flirted with many career paths, and those which have impassioned me most also present a seemingly lifelong battle. Conservation science and education, my most consistent choice, is a field filled with optimism and pessimism in varied amounts. I have seen biologists deliver programs with an emphasis on the sheer beauty of a species, and then end with a long list of threats that may snuff them out entirely. There is nothing easy about that. I have seen conservationists elbow deep in advocacy and education, striving to keep a species from toppling off the edge of existence. There is nothing easy about that.

These reflections have led me to seek out organizations that approach conservation with an interdisciplinary approach, working at an issue from multiple angles, and maintaining an attitude of innovation that targets a problem from the ground up. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is such a place.

Black Vulture  (Coragyps atratus)

Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)

I am here because the Sanctuary has opened its arms to vultures and made their acknowledgment a priority within local, national, and global communities. The Sanctuary reminds young professionals to listen to Rosalie Edge's words of caution, and I believe she would be very proud of Hawk Mountain’s work with common and ecologically significant vultures. I am writing curriculum about black vultures for our education department, with the hope of making vulture studies a convenient and desirable addition to classroom agendas in surrounding schools. Through this work I am becoming more inclined to see the glass half full, and have realized that conservation does not have to be defined by immediate success. Each project is colored with hardship, and in the end, that strife adds to our collective tool box as a conservation community. Even if we don’t save a species now, we can contribute some relief and security to some species.

I am ready to do my part, and one day perhaps my rocky flight will level out to a persistent soar as I join the thermal of conservation that is traveling upward, exactly as it should.  

* Zoey's recently developed black vulture curricula with another on the broad-winged hawk was created with support from the Pennsylvania Wild Resources Conservation Program and other donors.