Heroes of Hawk Mountain: Cyrus Klingsberg

Cyrus at Hawk Mountain's South Lookout, which is ADA-accessible via the Silhouette Trail.

Cyrus at Hawk Mountain's South Lookout, which is ADA-accessible via the Silhouette Trail.

Today we're honored to introduce Hawk Mountain Hero Dr. Cyrus Klingsberg, whose generosity of spirit and financial resources made the vision of an accessible trail go from concept to reality.

A retired senior scientist at the Department of Energy, Cyrus has published dozens of articles and lectured abroad, but during his downtime, he and his late wife Vera enjoyed nature and the movement of birds. The two were long-time Hawk Mountain members.

“Vera was the ‘real’ birder,” he laughs, and while her favorite species may have been the tiny chickadee, she also loved to monitor the southbound movement of raptors. That is, until mobility issues held her back and left her sitting inside the Visitor Center.

“That’s when I became her eyes,” says Cyrus.

“I would visit the Lookout, make observations, and then report back to her what I’d seen and heard. I always wished she could have joined me.”

After her death, Cyrus learned about the idea of an accessible trail that connected visitors to the South Lookout and wished that such a trail had been available for his wife.

“Accessibility is such an obvious need,” he said at the time. “An accessible trail would open the Sanctuary to a whole group of people,” he added. People like Vera.

A year later, Hawk Mountain opened its first accessible pathway since its founding in 1934. The grand opening was held July 26, 2015, on the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Joining Cyrus in funding this project were the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Berks County Commissioners through the Community Development Block Grant Program, the Schuylkill County Commissioners, and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. Alfred A. Douglass III and Family also provided funds to upgrade the Laurelwood Niche as an accessible outdoor learning space.

But it was Cyrus who launched the campaign, put plans on the fast-track, and essentially sealed the deal.

The 900-foot-long trail is wide enough to allow for two wheelchairs to pass one another and bends in a wide, graceful arc through the forest at a grade that does not exceed 8.3%, keeping the slope below the federal guidelines for national parks. Other enhancements include benches for rest every 100 feet, accessible trail-side restrooms, upgrades to the Laurelwood Niche outdoor classroom, and improvements at the South Lookout viewing platform.

In 2016, the trail was renamed the Silhouette Trail to match the trail-side gallery of life-size, in-flight raptor silhouettes. A brochure describing each is available at the trail entrance, and the exhibit changes twice a year. 

The following year, the Sanctuary received the International Trail Accessibility Award during the annual International Trails Symposium held every other May. The award recognizes a trail project that successfully integrates accessibly into its design and construction.

Accolades aside, there’s no doubt that the trail has connected more people than ever before with nature, which was always the overarching goal. For Cyrus, though, it was always about Vera.

“I’m glad that I am able to support the work of Hawk Mountain in a way that lets me honor the memory of my wife at the same time,” he says.

Night Wanderers

By Zoe Bonerbo, Conservation Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Very few people get to experience the Mountain at night. Trekking through the rocky understory in near pitch black was one of the coolest experiences I had while interning at Hawk Mountain. I had never before experienced the outdoors like I did that night.

I was born and raised in New York City—the furthest you could get from the rugged outdoors of the mountain. Nonetheless, I grew up loving the outdoors and was fascinated by animals and nature. When the opportunity arose to help organize an exclusive night hiking event, I jumped on it.


The special guest we arranged to come speak before the hike was Charles Adams, author of Ghost Stories of Berks County. He spoke about the paranormal activity and “spirals of energy” that exist on Mountain. It was a fantastic way for me to learn about the history of the place that I called home for three months. That night, as stories were being divulged, it started drizzling right above our group of guests in the Laurelwood Niche, but nowhere else on the Mountain. On all four sides, you could see the lining of where the raincloud stopped and the civil twilight sky stretched beyond. Intriguingly, the rain only lasted as long as the stories did. Once the hike started, the clouds broke way to stars.


At night, your senses come to life. Madi, a former Hawk Mountain education intern, challenged us to focus on our senses other than sight to help guide us on the walk up to North Lookout. While headlamps were allowed, guests only used them on a red light setting to help enhance night vision. However, since we were short one headlamp, I gave mine to one of the other hikers, and that’s when the adventure really began. The trails I thought I knew well became a puzzle with no light. I had never been challenged in this way before. Climbing and scrambling over rocks in the pitch black had my blood rushing. I found myself having to rely primarily on my sense of touch, feeling out the next step I would take, steadying myself on the rocks and trees beside me, and shifting my center of gravity to retain my balance.

The dusk view from the South Lookout, before they headed up to North Lookout..

The dusk view from the South Lookout, before they headed up to North Lookout..

The adrenaline of the hike was calmed when we reached the lookouts. With so little light pollution and our eyes well-adjusted to the darkness, we could see hundreds of stars dotting the sky. Everyone remained quiet, taking in the stillness of the night. We didn’t arrive back to the parking lot until past 11pm. By 9am the next morning, I was back up the Mountain leading a school group up to the Lookout.

A few weeks after the excitement, I noticed a quote sitting on my supervisor's desk, “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” After spending three months on the Mountain, I don’t think John Muir couldn’t have said it any better.

Zoe hosting an outdoor portion of the July Wee Ones Walk for children ages 3-5. 

Zoe hosting an outdoor portion of the July Wee Ones Walk for children ages 3-5. 



The Circumference of Home

By Maren Cole, Conservation Corps Member
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Forty-five miles, ninety-five degrees, twenty-five to forty lbs. packs on our backs. Can we do it? Can we brave the heat and circumnavigate the place we call home?


The ten member HMCC team (six teenagers and four adults) left the Education Building on Hawk Mountain at 5:00 AM Saturday morning and began the four-mile hike to the Little Schuylkill River. The hike was wet, due to the dew that still held on to the blades of grass, but aside from that, it was relatively pleasant. The sun hadn’t risen yet, so the air was still fresh and cool.

We reached the river in an hour and a half and inflated our packrafts, tied down our packs, and by 6:45 AM we were afloat and on our way to the train station in Port Clinton. The paddle was peaceful. Other than a few fawns and a bald eagle, we had the river all to ourselves. We then finished our three miles on the Little Schuylkill, packed our rafts back up, and headed to the train station.

The train rolled into the station at 9:30 AM, and we were there with time to spare. A highlight for all the members was seeing the shocked faces of the train crew as they saw us—wet clothes, muddy legs, and big packs. The train ride to Jim Thorpe was relaxing, and many of us tried to nap, knowing that we had a full day of boating and hiking ahead of us.

packrafting down the river, pic by wendy white.JPG

After the train ride, the team grabbed a bite at the Subway. The heat was definitely overpowering! Everyone could not wait to get onto the Lehigh river, where there would be an opportunity to cool off.

We walked down to the river, and our team leader Todd Bauman went 75 yards ahead to set up a drone for overhead footage. Once that was ready, we set off, ready to conquer the eleven miles of rafting ahead of us. A little over three hours later our team got off the river, exhausted from the paddle.

After the river we all relaxed, made dinner, and recuperated for the next few hours, trying to avoid the intense heat.

When dark arrived, we got ready to set out again, hoping to make it up the mountain and onto the Appalachian Trail before setting up camp. The hike was steep and rocky, and we got increasingly tired as the hours went by—our steps began to slow, and our breaths quickened. We made it onto the trail and up about a mile and a half, but due to blistered feet and fast-fading energy, we finally decided to turn in for the night at the nearest available space around 1 AM.

That night we all fell asleep after a twenty-one hour long day, exhausted, but content with our day’s progress.

The next morning we set off again, and continued to hike all morning until we reached Bake Oven Knob, and had lunch brought to us. We then were shuttled to the Blue Mountain Summit Restaurant, where we all slept the afternoon away before eating dinner, bandaging blisters, and setting off rested and ready for that night's miles. We traveled eight more miles that held a variety of breathless singing of “Country Road” (with adapted lyrics that fit our trip), and speed walking before pitching camp.

Our last morning, we woke up early and prepared to head out for our final stretch. We hiked a few miles before reaching the Hawk Mountain Skyline trail. After getting more drone footage as we hiked up to North Lookout, we finished our hike looking out over where we had traveled, a satisfied feeling knowing that we were almost finished. Although, the trip really finished with a bang when Todd went bounding from rock to rock to catch the drone that had snagged a tree but thankfully came tumbling down to his arms unharmed. A loud cheer went up from the team when he caught it!

Forty-five miles, ninety-five degrees, twenty-five to forty lbs. packs on our backs. Can we do it? Can we brave the heat and circumnavigate the place we call home?

Yes. Yes we can.

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.


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. 

Adventures and Advancements in Captive Raptor Management

By Rachel Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Rachel and TRC’s Education Program Manager Gail Buhl work through passing off and handling a bald eagle.

Rachel and TRC’s Education Program Manager Gail Buhl work through passing off and handling a bald eagle.

Earlier this season, I had the incredible opportunity to attend The University of Minnesota’s 2017 Care and Management of Captive Raptors four-day comprehensive workshop from October 13-20, funded by a Philadelphia Foundation grant. With over 20 years of “talons-on” experience working with raptors in captivity, I have returned to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary from The Raptor Center (TRC) with a renewed sense of empowerment and motivation to propel our captive management practices to a world class status.

Prior to handling and training birds at the TRC, I successfully completed hands-on medical exams and necropsy under the direction of expert clinic staff. Although far from being Dr. Dolittle, after learning the best practices in diets, nutrition, equipment, and raptor housing, I am eager to implement modifications to provide the highest quality of life for my feathered coworkers.

Rachel assists Hawk Mountain's veterinarian, Dr. Pello, during a routine check up of our red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Rachel assists Hawk Mountain's veterinarian, Dr. Pello, during a routine check up of our red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Education Department is responsible for a collection of birds that require care and maintenance 365 days a year. In my role as senior educator and lead raptor care manager, I schedule, train, and supervise volunteers ensuring best practices and the safety of volunteers and birds. With the support of my education teammates Erin Brown and Adam Carter, I created a vetting process for volunteers to ensure consistency and high standards of care. Unable to send a text message or call staff when they are ill, we are responsible for feeding, cleaning, conducting routine health checks for the birds year-round. We take this responsibility seriously 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, monitoring bird welfare through polar vortex temperatures, mosquito-breeding season, and beyond. Attending the TRC workshop fostered my deeper appreciation for the role of avian educators as ambassadors for raptor conservation.

We also manage on-going training and enrichment for both the birds and volunteers throughout their tenure, aiming to provide a stress-free environment for our avian educators throughout their lifespan. Although young at heart, several members of our avian education team are entering their “golden years” and have geriatric needs. The HMS avian educators have individual special needs in addition to the natural history requirements of each species.  

Rachel hones her raptor training skills with TRC’s resident red-tailed hawk.

Rachel hones her raptor training skills with TRC’s resident red-tailed hawk.

In recent years, I developed a Raptor Care Advisory Committee consisting of an avian veterinarian, raptor rehabilitator, and professional bird trainer who share their unique knowledge, specialized skills, and experience to meet the needs of our captive raptor management plan. With the guidance of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE), I’ve created a collection plan, training and enrichment plans, and a retirement position statement to ensure consistency and adherence to our mission of serving as a model facility.

Although the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service require annual audits of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s collection of captive birds, we also undergo a yearly voluntary audit by an outside source. Most recently, my ultimate raptor conservation hero, (after Rosalie Edge, Maurice and Irma Broun, of course), Director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey, Jemima Parry-Jones conducted a thorough exam of all birds and an audit of our enclosures and indoor raptor care facilities.  

I owe a debt of gratitude to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s team of volunteers, advisors, staff, and mentors who continue to support me.  When you visit the Sanctuary and enjoy a live raptor program, ‘Raptors Up Close’ or meet one of our ambassadors at a festival or large event, please know that your support makes a positive impact!

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.

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

Nature's Reverberations

By Rachel Iola Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

What would a perfect day at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary look like to you? Like a page out of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” the outside temperature on the ridgetop was not too hot and not too cold. The humidity was not too high, not too low, the breeze was not too strong, not too weak. You know the story –the conditions for an educational adventure were just right.

Prior to the arrival of my group, I took a sound survey by simply closing my eyes and listening to the environment. Shortly after hearing the sound of a vehicle engine approaching, I welcomed a group of folks from the Vision Resource Center of Berks County, who were accompanied by a handsome and well-trained guide dog named Winston.

We took a seat on the carpeted benches next to the bird feeder station just a few footsteps through the Visitor Center’s front doors. I gazed at the larger-than-life mural of our founder, Mrs. Rosalie Edge, as I introduced Hawk Mountain as a Sanctuary, a protected place for all animals, plants, rocks, sticks, and even spiders. I aimed to provide an extra safe place for my group, many who were visiting Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for the very first time, and some who had permanent vision loss.

To complement our discussion on raptors and help visualize the amazing animal diversity found in the Appalachian Forest, I passed around feathers, snake skins, turtle shells, and the tail of a gray squirrel, while I introduced my avian coworker to the group. Although we do not allow or encourage touching raptors, as the live bird stood on my gloved hand, I passed around a life-size plastic replica of an eastern screech owl (Megascops asio). We also felt real raptor talons and compared a feathered foot of a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) in contrast to the smooth, scaly toes of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). With the aid of real raptor wings, we listened to the noisy wing of a diurnal hawk and felt a gust of air against our cheeks.  In contrast, we struggled to hear the near silent flap of an owl’s wing and agreed that these amazing nocturnal adaptations allow owls hunt with the element of surprise.


In addition to the owls’ adaptation of being silent flyers, we discussed the art of camouflage and how this adaptation helps many animals blend into an environment.  Our group embraced our inner facial disk by listening to several songs of common birds like the eastern towhee and black-capped chickadee with the aid of Audubon bird toys and my very own rendition of a “miniature horse and trill” of an eastern screech owl, which seemed to evoke a soft whimper from the otherwise silent guide dog Winston. I even revealed one of Hollywood’s secrets: bald eagles are actually lip synching to the impressive screams of Red-tailed Hawks when filmed in movies and television. Several folks recognized this familiar call.

Walking outdoors, we encountered a pollinator party—bees buzzing and hummingbirds humming. Okay, they don’t actually hum. The sound of those tiny wings beating is what generates the humming noise that we could hear from the thick patches of bee balm located just in front of the Visitor Center. In the Native Plant Garden, many folks commented on the warmth of the sun and fragrant aroma of blooming swamp rose. I also couldn’t pass up an opportunity to highlight Turkey Vultures as raptors who sniff out their meals with their incredible olfactory sense. We agreed to leave the smell of fresh baked bread and cookies to us and let the Turkey Vultures remain nature’s garbage collectors, cleaning up road kill.


As we explored the pond from the deck, we listened for frogs calling and heard turtles leaving their exposed log perches for the safety of thick patches of water lilies. We enjoyed birds singing from all layers of the forest—delicate warblers hopping after insects in the canopy, catbirds curiously watching us from nearby branches, and the familiar sounds of robins foraging through the leaf litter.

Crossing Hawk Mountain Road was also a new experience for most of these folks. We navigated the crosswalk by listening for on-coming traffic, and I provided a grateful thumbs up and smile to those drivers who slowed down.  We took the Silhouette Trail one step at a time, taking advantage of the opportunity to rest at the benches before reaching our destination at South Lookout. As Winston led the way, he sniffed his way past Mountain Laurels and Rhododendroa to the flat, open area looking down toward the Kempton Valley. Once again my star students could tell they were in an open area since the sun warmed our faces and the soft, gentle breeze rocked the nearby trees. 

Although not everyone could see the view, we all felt the magic of this very special place, the birthplace of raptor conservation.

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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:

Contacts: Farmland Raptor Volunteer Katie Andrews at

 Dr. Laurie Goodrich: 570-943-3411 x106 or