pennsylvania

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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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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Late Migration Mountain Musings

By Dr. Laurie Goodrich, Director of Long-term Monitoring
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

“… break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”  - John Muir

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Migration flow slows in late November and December, with some days seeing barely a trickle.  But, nearly half the birds we count can be eagles, bald and golden.  Because thermals are rare, the eagles hug the ridge so close that they seem to barely clear the treetops. And, late season days are the only time I have ever seen a northern goshawk or northern harrier strafe the decoy owl.  December is often the best time to see rough-legged hawk, an arctic nesting species that rarely visits Pennsylvania, and one of the rarest raptor migrants. And, northern nesting songbirds such as red and white-winged crossbills are often only seen on these late season days.  Despite these exciting possible sightings, the visitor numbers diminish drastically at this time and counters are often found alone on the rocks.

Laurie scans the sky for migrants from atop North Lookout.

Laurie scans the sky for migrants from atop North Lookout.

Thanksgiving Day, November 23 2017: My sister calls me 9 am.  She asks “where are you having thanksgiving dinner?” I tell her I am going to count hawks in afternoon, though a volunteer is working there this morning.  She is audibly horrified, “they make you count on a holiday? “

“Well…” I say, “ I cannot ask a volunteer to be there, although one is there for the morning. And, other staff have covered other years so it is my turn….” She is quiet and I can tell she is feeling sorry for me, so I say, “and the birds still fly south even on holidays.”  

Secretly, I don’t tell her I am looking forward to my afternoon “on the rocks”.  Later that day I count nine red-tailed hawks and an adult bald eagle gliding south and greet nearly 100 visiting hikers on a sunny Mountain day, sharing my Thanksgiving pumpkin bread. 

Since the 1980s, Hawk Mountain staff and volunteers have manned the North Lookout daily from mid-August through mid-December for the annual autumn migration count.  However, in the early years the season began September 1st and ended November 30th. As we learned more about raptor migration timing, we realized a longer season was needed to fully sample the raptors, particularly eagles and buteos, so we extended the hawk count. 

An immature bald eagle soars past the lookout. 

An immature bald eagle soars past the lookout. 

Bald Eagles have a bi-modal migration with two peaks, one in late August or early September and one in November.  The early eagles are the southern nesting race, that begins nesting in late fall in southern states, while the later birds are the northern bald eagles that nest in New England, Mid-Atlantic and northward.  The northern birds often do not move south in large number until waterways start to freeze up north.  If we have mild autumn weather, we often can have double-digit daily counts of bald eagles into mid-December, which for a species where we record 300 to 500 annually can make a large difference in annual totals.  Golden eagles also can be observed into December with the golden-tinged adults more likely at this time.  Add in an adult goshawk or rough-legged hawk and you have the makings of a great day.

Late season counting is also a great time to ‘wash the spirit clean’ as John Muir states.  The forest is often quiet save for the occasional common raven or pileated woodpecker call.   The skies can be still, save for the occasional raptor or skein of snow geese or tundra swan passing by.  When the sun hits the rocks, sometimes frosted with snow, the peace and beauty of the Mountain can recharge.  Though I hesitate to share this secret of Hawk Mountain, these late season days are worth a few hours time, whether there are migrating raptors or not.    

On that note, happy holidays everyone, and be sure to join us in the Spring!

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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: 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