international trainee

Irruptions and Innovation

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Coordinator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Stella, a snowy owl tagged by Project SNOWstorm earlier this year.

Stella, a snowy owl tagged by Project SNOWstorm earlier this year.

In 2007, Dr. JF Therrien deployed 12 transmitters on snowy owls on Bylot island in the Canadian Arctic. Snowy owls, like other raptors, can be difficult to monitor due to their territoriality and low densities. Arctic-breeding raptors typically establish nesting sites in remote locations, adding to the logistical dilemma of gaining insight into their life history traits, and the role they play within the Arctic ecosystem.

Satellite transmitters, citizen science, and long-term life history studies are extremely valuable tools that allow researchers to examine the movement ecology of birds, including snowy owls. Mixing and matching these tools can open doors to compelling scientific questions, and in the case of Therrien’s snowy owls, has resulted in papers covering a range of topics. New information on survival, reproduction rate, dispersal of adults, irruptions and winter movements are among recent Hawk Mountain publications that were made possible through this type of innovation. 

Two such papers were led by former conservation science trainees, in collaboration with others, including Dr. JF Therrien. These papers delved into the mystery of snowy owl irruptions, defined as the “massive movement of individuals over large distances, associated with large fluctuations in food supply.” Some of us have been lucky enough to see a snowy owl in Pennsylvania, on those rare winters when the birds venture further south than usual. I myself drove two hours to catch a glimpse, and I will never forget the sight of that owl hunkered down in the middle of a field, glittering in evening light. As I drove away, I couldn’t help but wonder; what brings them here?

Two primary hypotheses have been proposed to explain irruptions; the “lack-of-food” hypothesis suggests that snowy owls leave their normal wintering grounds because of food shortage in certain years. This implies that the snowy owls we see in Pennsylvania should be in poor shape, and likely close to starving. The alternative “breeding success” hypothesis instead links irruptive movements to a surplus of food on the breeding grounds.

A snowy owl that was spotted in a local PA field last year.

A snowy owl that was spotted in a local PA field last year.

Snowy owls specialize in lemmings, a prey resource that occurs in pulses, due to their population dynamics. One year there may be a plethora of lemmings scurrying around the tundra, the next year very few, due to high predation and other factors. Lots of lemmings means lots of chicks, which means lots more owls. The breeding success hypothesis implies that the reason we see snowies in Pennsylvania is because following a high lemming year, there are so many owls dispersing at the end of the summer that some young birds push south.

To add depth to our knowledge of irruptions, Teja Curk, a conservation trainee from 2016, assessed the body condition (mass relative to size) of snowy owls during both irruptive and “regular” years. Teja assessed body condition of snowies on both regular (Great Plains) and irregular (Northeaster North America) wintering grounds, to see whether the birds we see during irruptive years are, in fact, starving. She found that most owls (male, female, juvenile and adult) were in good shape during irruptive years and even discovered that body condition was better on the bird’s irregular wintering grounds. “Good shape” in this context varies depending on sex and age of the bird, however less than 2% of the owls approached the weight threshold that would deem them a starving bird. Her results provide support for the breeding success hypothesis.

Pablo Santonja and Irene Mestre, trainees from 2015, looked specifically at the age of the birds found south during irruptive years. Their results supported the same hypothesis, showing that the majority of owls (up to 90%) seen in eastern North America are juvenile birds, meaning they are less than 1 year of age. As with some other migratory species, the more dominant birds within a population don’t move as far. Adult snowy owls often out-compete young birds, so it makes sense that in a year where adults are laying up to 11 eggs, some of those young owls will need to leave to avoid competition from more successful, experienced adults.

Bylot Island, where the Hawk Mountain team tagged and tracked several snowy owls.

Bylot Island, where the Hawk Mountain team tagged and tracked several snowy owls.

This leads to an interesting point: perhaps these two competing hypotheses are not, as Teja notes in her paper, mutually exclusive. After a highly productive lemming year, many lemmings will be eaten due to a surge in predator numbers, and therefore the next year could produce low lemming numbers. If this happens, snowy owls could be forced to look elsewhere for food. So, it turns out, that both a surplus of food and a lack of food seem to play a role in the patterns of movement among snowy owl populations.

If you ask me, these papers are a beautiful example of the scientific method at work; formulating ideas, testing those ideas, and polishing the conclusions in pursuit of certainty. Hats off to our trainees and their collaborators for hard work and intriguing findings. Teja is currently at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany pursuing a PhD. Pablo is living in Spain, and Irene is now returning from three years in Australia.

Both of these papers utilized a data set resulting from a 25 year-long study in which live snowy owls were weighed, sexed, and aged. Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was also a valuable asset in both studies. For those of you unfamiliar with CBC, every winter thousands of volunteers gather together on the same day, collecting bird records within a territory and submitting them to a database that provides an impressive summary of which birds were seen, where, and how many. These papers demonstrate the utility of both citizen science and long-term studies, and in a rapidly changing world, this cross-pollination of resources is critical. We are very proud of our trainees for their hard work, and grateful to citizen scientists around the globe who give their time to participate in the expansion of our raptor knowledge.

Gaining a holistic understanding of an ecosystem requires acknowledgment of moving parts within, not separate from, the whole. Hawk Mountain’s research is part of several collaborative efforts to better understand the role of snowy owls within the big picture, including Project SNOWstorm and the Bylot Island Ecological Studies and Environmental Monitoring.  

Future projects will include building a model that combines reproductive and mortality rates to assess population trends of snowy owls. This past August, three transmitters were deployed on chicks before they left their breeding grounds. Investigating the movement patterns of these birds will hopefully allow for a comparative look at owls throughout the Eastern tundra, Western tundra, and those in between.

Check out Project SNOWstorm’s website (including a blog written by J.F Therrien on the most recently tagged snowy owls in Barrow, Alaska, as well as interactive maps): projectsnowstorm.org/posts/tracking-young-snowies-in-the-arctic/

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.

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!

Sharing Experiences in Conservation

By Christine Whitehair, Autumn 2017 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Christine and a fellow trainee identify passing raptors for visitors at South Lookout

Christine and a fellow trainee identify passing raptors for visitors at South Lookout

Audible gasps could be heard from the hardy group of hawk watchers, both seasoned and beginners, as the third golden eagle of the day passed in front of a vibrant rainbow on its way south. It was a windy and cloudy day in late October at the Sanctuary, with northwest winds creating perfect conditions for a memorable eagle flight. 

This day was the best kind of day for me at North Lookout, with a steady stream of birds and people; hardly a minute went by without someone calling out a passing raptor or migrating shorebird. In that moment, I remembered describing Hawk Mountain to people before I left Massachusetts, gushing about how excited I was to see the raptors streaming down the ridge (some even at eye-level!), quoting migration statistics from the website and describing the different species I would see. It turned out to be everything I hoped it would be and more, because the knowledge I had gained during my time as a Conservation Science Trainee had forever changed the way I perceived raptors and the world around me. 

Even before I arrived at Hawk Mountain, I had been learning about raptors and conservation science, but it all intensified as soon as I arrived on the Mountain. Rather than spending my senior year of high school taking the only three classes remaining after my 60+ credit junior year, I had decided to follow my passion for conservation to a place where I could actually learn how to contribute to it.

As soon as we arrived, that goal was met. The next four months were filled with books, papers, seminars about different research techniques and statistical analysis software, and a lecture series with speakers from all around the world. 

At first, I was intimidated by all I had to learn, but then I figured out one of the biggest advantages to the interpretation aspect of the traineeship: being asked to answer questions about any and every facet of what I was learning. This allowed me to think critically about all of the information I was learning and ultimately to understand it better. I had heard before that the best way to learn something was to teach it, but this experience really made that lesson take on a life of its own for me. Guests would ask me questions that were more in depth than I had considered, and this often made me think about things from a different perspective. I would end my days on the Lookout by rushing down the Mountain to immediately look up some fact that I had not considered before. 

I could not have hoped for a more comprehensive learning experience, or an experience that would truly show me the importance of education in conservation. 

Due to the lessons I learned at Hawk Mountain, I now know from first-hand experience how crucial it is not only to get local people involved in your conservation effort, but to get them invested. If people do not care about what you are doing or why, they will not continue to help you. Being able to education people on the importance of raptors and help them to see what people who spent their lives trying to conserve them were seeing, was an experience I feel very grateful to have had. 

Christine looks out over the ridge from her post at North Lookout

Christine looks out over the ridge from her post at North Lookout

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!

On the Vulture Chronicles: Vulture Detectives Pt 1

Female black vulture named Donald over a quarry during September of 2016 near Palmyra, PA.

Female black vulture named Donald over a quarry during September of 2016 near Palmyra, PA.

By Zoey Greenberg, former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

he tires crunched on gravel, and I shut the engine off. We had entered vulture country. With scope, data sheets, and binoculars in hand my project partner, trainee Adehl Shwaderer and I walked carefully up the gravel road as we scanned the tree tops for hunched silhouettes or soaring shadows. This was our first foray into the Kempton Valley, east of Hawk Mountain, in search of black vultures (Coragyps atratus). Our expectations were not high. However, we had innovation on our side: we were testing a method called “groundtruthing” to better understand the movement ecology of several vultures that had been tagged with satellite transmitters by Hawk Mountain scientists. After investigating their movements in Google Earth, we had discovered interesting patterns including an individual who spent time near quarries, and another that seemed to prefer cities. The problem was, we didn’t know why.

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Click here to continue reading this blog on The Vulture Chronicles

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.

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.