kestrels

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

Home Among the Hills

By Karissa Elser, Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Karissa at South Lookout as a child.

Karissa at South Lookout as a child.

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

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

Karissa holding a recently tagged American kestrel chick.

Karissa holding a recently tagged American kestrel chick.

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

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

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

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

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

karissa at slo.jpg

Cape Coral Kestrels

By Kirsten Fuller, Spring 2018 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Kirsten with a recently banded male American kestrel.

Kirsten with a recently banded male American kestrel.

Over the last year I transitioned from my familiar world of science education and immersed myself in the exciting field of raptor research!  In January, I was lucky to have the opportunity to travel to Cape Coral, Florida to learn about American kestrels with Hawk Mountain research biologist Laurie Goodrich, and long-term kestrel researcher Sue Robertson. 

Sue and her husband Bob first noticed the abundance of American kestrels wintering in Cape Coral in the late 1980’s.  They began trapping and banding the birds, and nearly 30 years later the data is still being collected.

These small falcons prefer open fields with low grass, which makes it easier for them to spot their prey.  In the winter, these birds have plenty of insects to eat in Florida, but they also find small rodents appealing.  This was our bait of choice. We searched for kestrels as we drove around the northern part of the peninsula, which is less developed than the southern part.  When a bird was spotted, we would toss the trap out the door of the car, taking care to do this quickly and stealthily.  It was then a waiting game for the bird to abandon its perch and land on the trap.

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 9.04.19 AM.png

Once we had a bird trapped, we moved quickly to release it and begin the banding process, during which Sue taught me how to measure the length of the tail feathers and the wing chord.  The majority of birds we trapped were male, which was interesting because 30 years ago Sue found that the majority of the small falcons in the same area of Cape Coral were female.  In the past, this may have been attributed to females migrating earlier than males and therefore staking a claim on the available optimal habitat.  A more equal distribution of male and female kestrels in the optimal habitat in Cape Coral, as we observed, may be a reflection of the declining trend in American kestrels that scientists are seeing nationwide.

Over the past 30 years, the available kestrel habitat of Cape Coral has changed quite a bit.  What was once a habitat perfectly maintained for kestrels, with mowed plots of land and plenty of telephone wires for perching (foreshadowing the impending land development), there are now rows of homes and less undisturbed open habitat. 

Sue teaches Kirsten how to measure and band a recently trapped kestrel.

Sue teaches Kirsten how to measure and band a recently trapped kestrel.

It was an invaluable experience to learn from knowledgeable and passionate conservation researchers, Laurie and Sue.  Plus, it wasn’t so bad to hang out in Florida for a few days in January, and I got to catch a glimpse at a Burrowing Owl! I am back at Hawk Mountain now, and I am so thrilled to see American kestrels buzzing around farmlands near the Mountain, preparing for nesting season.  Check out the Hawk Mountain kestrel nestbox cam at www.hawkmountain.org/kestrelcam, and learn more about our farmland raptor conservation efforts at www.hawkmountain.org/farmlandraptors.

A beautiful male American Kestrel, trapped and tagged in Northern Florida. 

A beautiful male American Kestrel, trapped and tagged in Northern Florida. 

Research Serendipity

By JF Therrien, Senior Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain has a rich research and monitoring history. For several decades now, on-staff researchers have been carrying the torch, keeping numerous inestimable monitoring projects going. The migration counts conducted at Hawk Mountain indeed represents the longest running raptor monitoring project in the world.

JF reviews American kestrel nest box data with summer intern Jenna Schlener. Photo by Gigi Romano. 

JF reviews American kestrel nest box data with summer intern Jenna Schlener. Photo by Gigi Romano. 

Starting some 80+ years ago, the counts were first designed to assess the usefulness of the protection offered by the newly created Sanctuary. Not long after, Hawk Mountain's curator Maurice Broun and others realized the invaluable long-term dataset that those counts represent and they could be used to study population trends of 16 North American raptor species. Then in the mid 1950s, Alex Nagy, then Hawk Mountain's assistant curator, installed a few bird boxes on his farm to see if he could get American kestrels to use them. What most likely started as a humble backyard experiment resulted in what is now the American Kestrel Nest Box Program, which will proudly celebrate its 65th anniversary next spring.

Research and monitoring projects sometimes begin after a carefully designed approach. However, in reality, many such projects simply start serendipitously, as in the previous examples. Traveling around Hawk Mountain to visit the 125 man-made nest boxes of the American Kestrel Nest Box Program during summer 2017, we noticed odd and conspicuous behaviors of bigger, darker birds. Indeed on distinct occasions, black vultures would suddenly appear flying low overhead or even flying out a window from the very barns our kestrel nest boxes are attached to. At that point, we had little doubt; those vultures are likely using the building to nest.

JF holds a newly tagged black vulture named Versace. Photo by Rebekah Smith. 

JF holds a newly tagged black vulture named Versace. Photo by Rebekah Smith. 

From a research point of view, having access to nest sites is highly valuable. In addition to being able to handle adults and chicks to assess their life history traits (body condition, growth rate, disease prevalence, etc.), monitoring nesting activities allows us to assess breeding success and breeding rate, age at first breeding, and nest site fidelity on the population level over time. Those aspects are all immensely important to understand the complete cycle of individuals that compose populations.

Finding this access to several nests for any raptor species is challenging, because individuals are often territorial. Their nests occur at low density and are usually concealed. Therefore, monitoring nesting raptors often becomes an unrealistic task, given the time required and the area that would need to be covered to locate a fair number of them. A good breeding monitoring project requires a relatively easy way to access several nests across a relatively small area to allow researchers to visit them periodically.

Black vulture chick found in a local barn. Photo by J. Dallas. 

Black vulture chick found in a local barn. Photo by J. Dallas. 

During summer 2017, our team found just this. We were able to successfully monitor 3 black vulture nests that we found without even searching while checking our kestrel nest boxes. Those birds were using Pennsylvanian barns just like giant man-made nest boxes, and thankfully they were all in a relatively small radius around Hawk Mountain.

This project has just begun, and we are now looking to double or triple the number of monitored nests in the coming years. So if you notice black or Turkey vultures flying out of abandoned buildings or barns, please let us know. We would be thrilled to add new nest locations to our newly-born monitoring program.

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

By using individual markers (such as wing-tags and telemetry transmitters), we will be following the where and wherefore of those individual birds through their lifetime. Anytime you see a vulture, keep an eye out for wing-tags (a brightly colored tag showing a distinct number). Any sighting of a tagged individual represents important information for locating roost sites, feeding hot spots, survival rates, and dispersal behavior. Help and support these studies by reporting any sightings at this link.

Monitoring programs such as these are an essential part of conservation science: they form the backbone of long-term population assessments. They allow researchers to keep track of historical population size and productivity in order to identify declines in a timely fashion and become aware of problems that otherwise could have gone undetected.

To learn more about our work with North American vultures or any other species of raptors, or if you wish to support our monitoring efforts financially, contact me at therrien@hawkmountain.org.

Keep Farmland Raptors Soaring

Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier

By Katie Andrews, PA Farmland Raptors Volunteer
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

Female American Kestrel

Female American Kestrel

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

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

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

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

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

For more information: www.hawkmountain.org/farmlandraptors

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

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