raptor migration

Soaring to Panama

Panama Eco-Tour Blog Part 1
Read Part 2 by Jamie Dawson
here.

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

Panama.  I am finally here.  Since I was a university student I have longed to visit here, enticed by reading the landmark tropical ecology studies that occurred here at sites such as Panama Canal Zone, Pipeline Road, and Canopy Tower.  Later on, as a hawkwatcher, I read of Ancon Hill and the clouds of Swainson’s hawks and turkey vultures swirling above Panama City, and a new “bucket list” place was born.

On October 19, five of the Hawk Mountain 2018 Panama eco-tour members arrived at night to await the start of the Hawk Mountain tour to Panama the following day, with Raptours and raptor expert/former Hawk Mountain trainee Sergio Seipke.  Arriving in the dark, my first impression of Panama City was, ”…Wow, this is larger than I imagined.”  The city lights illuminated towering skyscrapers, boldly lit casinos, and bustling streets.

Bird-watching by the pool, photo by Laurie Goodrich.

Bird-watching by the pool, photo by Laurie Goodrich.

We gathered near the pool for bird-watching and breakfast the next morning.  Sergio pointed out a three-toed sloth sleeping in the tree next to the porch, and soon small flocks of crimson-backed tanagers, thick-billed euphonia, and other tropical birds flitted around us.  By 7:30 am, hundreds of broad-winged hawks rose up over the hotel, circling low and streaming to the northeast.  Swainson’s hawks, Mississippi kites, and black and turkey vultures, joined the flow along with short-tailed hawk and hook-billed kite.  Hundreds of common nighthawks glided overhead along with clouds of barn and cliff swallows as well, all possibly having passed over Pennsylvania in weeks past. 

Kettling broadwings and other raptors, photo by Diane Allison.

Kettling broadwings and other raptors, photo by Diane Allison.

During the late morning, continued streams of broad-winged hawks and turkey vultures sailed overhead.  Patty, a female Broad-winged Hawk from northwest Pennsylvania that we had satellite-tagged in 2016, had roosted just 11 km west of our location on the night before. I was sure she soared above us that morning amid the 50 thousand broadwings we tallied over our hotel, and her satellite-tracked pathway confirmed my suspicion!

The following morning the full 14 member group met up with our Panama bird guide for the tour, Domi, Domiciano Alveo, who along with Sergio of Raptours made sure we saw every bird. After a morning of watching tropical kingbirds, chachalacas, and other new birds, we spent the morning hawk-watching within view of the Panama Canal and the famed Ancon Hill. We watched streams of birds rising off the hills west of town and flying towards us. Contrary to our North American bias, south-bound raptors fly northeast to traverse Panama City and avoid crossing water.

Aplomado falcon perched in tree, photo by Brian Moroney.

Aplomado falcon perched in tree, photo by Brian Moroney.

The next day  we explored the impressive Miraflores Locks- Panama Canal museum.  We stood on a fourth floor deck overlooking massive freighters inching their way through the locks. From the deck, we spotted a king vulture soaring and a bat falcon hunting from the Canal Zone light fixtures.

For the next few nights we stayed at the Canopy Lodge, an amazing eco-lodge immersed in forest aside a fast-flowing stream with fruit feeder trays and hummingbird feeders adjacent to large open deck.  Experienced guides lingered to point out birds and a comfortable sitting area welcomed us to never leave.  During our days we explored the surrounding region and visited the Pacific Ocean.  Small clouds of raptors were seen nearly everywhere in the central mountains.  On the Pacific slope, we had one incredible view of an aplomado falcon perched alongside the road and savannah hawks hunting with egrets in wet meadows.  Other birds included a roadside hawk, crane hawk, and white-tailed kite. 

We then moved to another famed eco-lodge, the Canopy Tower.  Here we were greeted by well-known nature and bird guide, Carlos Bethancourt, who along with the staff treated our group as kings and queens.  The Canopy Tower was built in 1960s as part of the radar defense system for the Panama Canal and was also used to detect drug-carrying planes in the 1980s. In the 1990s it was transferred to visionary Raul Arias de Para who renovated it into a center for neotropical-rainforest ecotourism.  Today the Tower has a hawk-watching deck and hosts bird-watchers in overnight rooms set into the sides of the circular tower.  Rain was a daily companion for us and dampened some of our hawkwatching, however side trips were amazing and included a visit to the famed Pipeline Road, Rainforest Discovery Center and a boat trip on the Canal. 

I gained a new appreciation for the trials of migration through Central America as each day rain blocked flights or kept flocks of hawks fighting for lift. After a cloud burst rain amid the forested hills, we watched an immature broad-winged hawk plummet into the treetops to perch, drenched and wet and looking thoroughly dejected.  As sun tried to emerge, it spent 40 minutes trying to preen its feathers before it finally circled up to try to migrate again.

Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkey, photo by Brian Moroney.

Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkey, photo by Brian Moroney.

Tropical Mammals were a treat to see. At the Tower, Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkeys lingered near the upper deck staring at people, hoping for banana gifts, while white-nosed coati and howler monkeys occasionally passed by. White-faced capuchin troops were seen occasionally and three-toed sloths were spotted nearly every day. 

Each morning an optional pre-dawn gathering occurred outside the Tower, complete with fresh-brewed coffee and tea. Sergio and Domi stood quietly in the dark attempting to call in one of the elusive forest falcons. Mostly the forest was quiet until dawn wakened the hummingbirds to hover at nearby feeders.  On the last morning we met at 5:30 am hoping for the best.  After about 20 minutes, suddenly Sergio leaped to his feet and motioned us off the deck to the driveway below. Soon, not one but all three forest falcon species were heard-- collared, slaty-backed and barred forest-falcons!  For me hearing those rare species was the icing on the cake for a wonderful trip.  For the main tour we tallied 39 raptor species and 253 total birds, despite enduring torrential downpours on part of every day.  We enjoyed amazing views of broad-winged and Swainson’s hawks kettling over the rugged hills of Panama, and, I checked off a lifetime bucket list place.

Group shot taken in the Canopy Tower.

Group shot taken in the Canopy Tower.


This blog is dedicated to Hawk Mountain volunteer, Karen Davidheiser, who accompanied us on several eco-tours in recent  years.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will tell the dramatic tale of the extension portion of this eco-tour!

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/

Trainee to International Conservation Pioneer

By Alfonso Godino, Research Associate
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

The cinereous vulture was extinct in Portugal as a breeding species at the end of the 20th century, but in 2010 a new colony was established in Tejo Internacional National Park, in the eastern limit of the country and close to the border with Spain.

This colony now hosts 18 breeding pairs, and no studies were done before out of the annual breeding monitoring implemented by the Natural Park’s staff. Due to this lack of information, and being the main population in Portugal, our goal is to get information about the dynamic of this colony. Thus, the first step is to study the juvenile dispersion and the potential causes of mortality of this population.

Alfonso+Cinereous vulture.jpeg

During the summer of 2018, eight nestlings were tagged with GPS-GSM transmitters, supported by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and the Spanish electric company ENDESA. This support will continue during 2019, with the goal to increase the number of birds in this study and to get more accurate and representative information.

All this information will be shared with the Natural Park’s managers, with the objective to facilitate them the conservation and management of the colony, since all the nests of this colony are in private estates inside the protected area.

Alfonso with a tagged vulture outside of the HMS Acopian Center for Conservation Learning

Alfonso with a tagged vulture outside of the HMS Acopian Center for Conservation Learning

But how did HMS reach Portugal? During 2009, I was at Hawk Mountain as a trainee. I was an enthusiast in vultures’ conservation, and HMS offered to me the amazing opportunity to trap turkey vultures and to use wing tags for the first time in my life. But for me, the most impressive was to get access, for the first time in my life, to the huge amount of information about raptors in the Sanctuary library. I spent many days reading papers and copying a lot of info to bring with me after my traineeship. From that time, I was interested in vultures’ juvenile dispersion but never had the opportunity to be involved in a project with this objective.

And again, after almost a decade, a causality joints me one more time to HMS, but this time in Portugal, not in Pennsylvania.

In this new cinereous vulture’s project, HMS is more than a sponsor offering GPS devices. From the beginning of the proposal to HMS, its permanent support and fast reply have encouraged me to work in this project, especially during the hard times of preparations, authorizations, organization, etc. I am sure that the presence of HMS in the project has been a motivation to other bodies to participate and be part of it. The result has been the creation of a task force, where raptor conservation and research organizations such as HMS, a private company such as the Spanish electric company ENDESA, and the government of Portugal, are in a narrow collaboration to study and protect the cinereous vulture in this colony.

Now, with the vultures sending throughout the transmitters lots of daily data, it is time to enjoy learning how these vultures move around the Iberian Peninsula and, who knows, maybe one of them cross the Gibraltar strait toward Africa and offer us new and unexpected information about the movements of this species to sub-Sahara regions!

Check out this video of Alfonso and his team tagging and releasing a cinereous vulture!

Heroes of Hawk Mountain: Warner Berthoff

Warner witnessed Hawk Mountain’s Miracle Day on September 14, 1978, when counters tallied a record 21,448 broad-winged hawks. Here he proudly displays his “I was here” t-shirt.

Warner witnessed Hawk Mountain’s Miracle Day on September 14, 1978, when counters tallied a record 21,448 broad-winged hawks. Here he proudly displays his “I was here” t-shirt.

Some people simply embody the spirit of Hawk Mountain, and such was the case with Warner Berthoff. Warner first visited the Sanctuary in the 1960’s, and returned, year after year, to soak in the view from North Lookout, chat with his Mountain friends, and enjoy the flight, which with any luck included good kettles of broadwings.

It was in the late 60’s that he met “Broadwing Charlie” Gant, who would become a life-long friend. “In 45 minutes, my dad learned more about broadwings than he could have read in a year of book learning,” laughs his daughter Rachel. The two hit it off and, going forward, always met at Hawk Mountain each September.

Dr. Laurie Goodrich, who coordinates the count and spends much time at the lookouts, recalls that Warner would coordinate by phone to make sure the two arrived on the same day, which may have been the only time they saw one another all year long.

“Warner would always arrive first and ask, 'where is he?' and 'did anybody see him yet?'” Laurie laughs. “Then all of a sudden Charlie would show up, and all would be right in the world. They’d settle in on the north side under the trees and talk non-stop, even when the birds started to move. They’d look up at the birds, and then go back to talking,” she says.

And so the years passed, with Warner making the 340-mile ride to Hawk Mountain to climb the North Lookout. He made his last hike in 2016 at age 89 with his son and daughter at his side.

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“He easily could have watched broadwings from Massachusetts, but he always came back here,” says Laurie, who looked forward to his annual arrival as much as anyone.

Warner died on August 28, 2018, but he lived a full and beautiful life. He was a professor emeritus at Harvard University, where he taught English and American literature for more than 20 years. He was a brilliant thinker and sought-after academic whose visiting professorships took him from Sicily to Berkeley to Poland and beyond. He enjoyed his friends and family, along with many other hobbies and interests. Hawk-watching was but a small slice of his life, but it’s the one we knew and loved.

Like others, Warner demonstrates that Hawk Mountain isn’t just a place on a map, but a community of friends brought together by a love for this place, the birds overhead, and the work we do. He reminds us that Hawk Mountain is truly a sanctuary, not just for wildlife, but also for the soul.

We thank Warner for sharing more than 50 years of friendship, and his family for sharing him.

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.

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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

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.

The Best Kept Secret at Hawk Mountain

By Sean Grace, President
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain and the Kittatinny Ridge are part of a global super-highway for bird migration. If you've been to the Sanctuary during fall, you have probably witnessed the grandeur of diurnal raptors migrating south. Hawk Mountain was the first in the fight to protect these apex aerial predators that are such an important part of a healthy ecosystem, but where does their ecosystem start and stop?

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On May 13, I slipped into the woods behind my home which lies at the base of the Kittatinny. I’ve been a naturalist my entire life, and connecting with the land, especially where I live, is vitally important to me. It’s these adventures that help satisfy my desire to understand and immerse myself within my local surroundings. My goal was simple: connect with the land where I live and hike to the top of the ridge. What I discovered along that hike was amazing. 

Our woods are under pressure from both man-made and natural disturbance. New homes and other development fragments the forest, and in recent years, the tress here have suffered from repeated assaults by gypsy moths, leaf rollers, and periods of sustained drought. The result is a die-back in some areas of 60% of the chestnut oaks, which provide food in the form of caterpillars for migrating and nesting birds in the spring and act as an important mast crop for many of our resident wildlife populations during colder months.

As I ascended a series of escarpments that were strewn by boulder rubble, I realized that while the boulders make for difficult hiking, they also create a barrier to dissuade development. I also noted many areas where the overstory trees had died back, and beneath the looming skeleton trees, the new regeneration on the ground was the greatest. With death comes life. It was in such an area where I stumbled across what I can only describe as a super-cell of Neo-tropical migrating birds.

In a pocket where the overstory had died back and the understory was almost too dense to walk, I came upon a spot of auditory overload. Never in my life have I heard so many birds call simultaneously. A raptor flew overhead, causing hundreds of birds to drop into the forest surrounding me, in an effort to find refuge.

Photo by Bill Moses. 

Photo by Bill Moses. 

Hawk Mountain by location is connected to the Canadian Arctic and Alaska down through Central and South America by birds that breed here in North America and over-winter in the southern United States, Central America, and South America. Every moment and every day is different for those birds, and each year they survive the changes, man-made or otherwise, that are created across the landscape where they live.

Our annual raptor migration counts, the longest such record in the world, are just part of our story. We find and collaborate with the best and the brightest young minds in raptor conservation around the globe and invite them to Hawk Mountain to hone their skills as raptor conservation scientists. To date we have worked with 409 trainees from 80 different countries on six continents. These are the people that are shaping global raptor conservation. We continue to collaborate with others and work with all of the significant raptor migration corridors around the globe. In recent months our scientists have been from the Canadian Arctic to South Africa, from Taiwan to the straits of Gibraltar, and our education team has collaborated with colleagues from Zimbabwe, Ghana, and the United Kingdom.

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Our main goals include working to keep common raptors common and to prevent rare raptors from becoming extinct. By shining the conservation spotlight on raptors, we help to protect raptors and the ecosystems where they live.  Raptors in turn act as an umbrella, protecting other birds and wildlife that live within the same regions where these vital predators live, breed, migrate, and overwinter. Birds, like the hundreds I encountered during my walk, benefit.

This year is being coined the “Year of the Bird,” and Hawk Mountain, by the very nature of the work that we do, is perhaps the most cost-effective organization leading the charge in conservation science.  If you share my passion for raptors and other wildlife, I encourage you to become a member, act as a volunteer, or donate in support of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and our mission.  And of course, stop by for a visit! I hope to see you out on that global super-highway of life.  

Yours in conservation,
Sean Grace

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.

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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. 

Springtime in Montana

By Dr. Jean-Francois Therrien, Senior Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Spring sunrise in Montana, over the Mission Mountains.

Spring sunrise in Montana, over the Mission Mountains.

It’s spring time in Montana. Well, at least according to the birds. Not that the weather has been any better than in the East lately, but birds are showing definite signs of a change in seasons. Following Hawk Mountain's global and inclusive mission geared toward collaborating with like-minded colleagues and organizations to lead lasting raptor conservation programs, I was recently invited by long-time researcher, collaborator, and friend, Denver Holt, from the Owl Research Institute, to get a feel of the pre-breeding season in his study area in scenic Mission Valley, Montana.

Holt, founder and leader of the Owl Research Institute, has been conducting field-based owl surveys for over 30 years now, including long-term monitoring of snowy owls in Alaska. Thus, there is an amazing opportunity to combine and compare results from our ongoing long-term research project in snowy owl breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, and to learn about the population status of this charismatic species across North America.

In addition, spending a few days in the field in Montana allowed us to identify potential projects for future collaborative work. Among them, assessing the pre-breeding condition of individual owls and how it is affected by the previous winter conditions, and then how it relates to upcoming nesting success, is on top of the list. The fact that we know very little of the basic ecology for most of those species is not a surprise for any owl biologist. However, according to any source of available information, several North American owl species are facing an uncertain future. Indeed, population trends of long-eared and short-eared owls are both showing alarming decline on a continental scale. In light of the threats impending on these species, such collaborative research projects have to happen now.

Numerous accounts have recently suggested that to understand the reproductive ecology of any species in order to better protect them, we need to have a holistic view and turn our attention to the non-breeding season. With that in mind, there is an amazing opportunity for collaboration with the Owl Research Institute and their extensive field-based experience.

Dr. JF Therrien (senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain) and Denver Holt (founder and president of the Owl Research Institute) just before releasing a long-eared owl.

Dr. JF Therrien (senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain) and Denver Holt (founder and president of the Owl Research Institute) just before releasing a long-eared owl.

Those few days in Montana confirmed for me that they sure know the ropes of studying owls in the field: before lunch on the very first day, we had already captured and released 5 long-eared owls to assess their pre-breeding condition. We then proceeded to observe a phenomenal amount of great-horned owls (most of them sitting tightly on their nest), as well as short-eared owls flying and displaying territorial behaviors over the grasslands at dusk, among other things.

Research collaborations are an essential part of conservation science. Individuals alone can go a certain way, but with colleagues, we make real change. That is why at Hawk Mountain, we put much value in cooperation, team work, and network building. To learn more about our work with North American owls or any other species of raptors, or if you wish to financially support our research efforts, contact me at therrien@hawkmountain.org.

A Back-to-Back Snowy Owl Adventure

By Rebecca McCabe,  PhD Student, McGill University
Hawk Mountain Research Assistant

The view on Amherst Island

The view on Amherst Island

It was 6:15 a.m., and the sun had not yet come up as we stepped from our cars onto the ferry deck on the ice-covered waters of Lake Ontario. We were on our way to Amherst Island, a 70 square-kilometer island off the coast of Kingston, Ontario, which is a known hotspot for wintering snowy owls and the reason why we were there.

Myself, Jean-François Therrien (Hawk Mountain), Tom McDonald (Rochester, NY), and Dave Okines (Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory) arrived on the island with the hopes of deploying transmitters on snowy owls as part of the collaborative research of Project SNOWstorm (www.projectsnowstorm.org).

The sun rises over the frozen Lake Ontario.

The sun rises over the frozen Lake Ontario.

As the sun finally rose, we were already driving the main roads searching for white silhouettes in the distance. Luckily for us, Amherst had plenty of snowy owls! We estimated over 25 owls on the island, and now all we had to do was trap a few. We came up short in the morning and afternoon, but as soon as the sun started to set, our luck changed. Within 20 minutes both Dave and Tom had trapped an owl.

Snowy owl Stella, a female trapped and tagged by Project SNOWstorm in Amherst

Snowy owl Stella, a female trapped and tagged by Project SNOWstorm in Amherst

We were fortunate to have a wonderful host, Janet, who allowed us to bring the owls back to her place so we could process them out of the cold. The two immature females, later named Emerald and Stella, were in good condition and each weighed over 2 kg making them eligible to receive a transmitter before being released back into the night.

In just a short amount of time we have learned that the neighboring birds  established territories approximately 3 km from one another on the island, and Emerald has spent more time inland whereas Stella has been going offshore onto the ice during the day. I look forward to following these two individuals as they make their way north in the upcoming months.

One week and 2,370+ km later, I am scanning for snowy owls from the passenger seat again, but this time I am looking out on the prairies of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. My co-supervisor Karen Wiebe (University of Saskatchewan) and I follow behind raptor bander Marten Stoffel in our pickup truck as we search the tops of telephone poles and fence posts. We spent six hours that day driving the survey route and had easily seen over 30 snowy owls. We were also very fortunate to trap and band six, a record day of trapping snowy owls on the prairies for Marten!

Male snowy owl trapped and tagged in Saskatchewan. 

Male snowy owl trapped and tagged in Saskatchewan. 

The next day we decided to go out again to see if luck was still on our side, this time driving about 150 km northeast of where we were the day before. I was shocked at the stark difference between locations and by the lack of owls we encountered on our second day. The habitat appeared similar but we only saw one adult male that afternoon. Marten decided to try trapping it, even though it was a more difficult catch with blustery winds and the male sitting high atop a transmission tower. Moments before calling it quits, I watched intently (and completely mesmerized) as the owl leapt from its perch and with a few strong flaps, came streaming in towards the bal-chatri before getting trapped.

Spending just a few days on Amherst Island and in Saskatoon and getting to see where these owls spend their winter was not only exciting but informative. I was able to observe them on their territories, take note of their favorite perches, and see first-hand the conditions they were in. As I move forward with my PhD at McGill University and analyze the movements of our GPS tagged snowy owls, my time spent in the field has allowed me to gain a better understanding of how these magnificent birds move throughout the landscape, the habitats they occupy, and the threats they face.

Becca with a recently trapped and tagged snowy owl right before release.

Becca with a recently trapped and tagged snowy owl right before release.

To learn more about these efforts or to support the project, visit hawkmountain.org/snowyowls.