trainee

Irruptions and Innovation

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Coordinator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for Two Secretive Forest-Raptors

By Lauren Sarnese, Goshawk and Broadwing Project Field Assistant 2018
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Working on the Pennsylvania Goshawk and Broad-winged Hawk projects has given me a whole new set of experiences and has opened my eyes to a different sector of field work. My degree is in biology with a personal focus in entomology from East Stroudsburg University (Spring 2016). Coming into this, I had no experience with raptors, but I did come with enthusiasm, passion, and a general love for ecology.

It began with sifting through gear lent to me by Hawk Mountain—a plethora of technical resources mixed with lists of places and names I had never heard before. Dr. Laurie Goodrich and Rebecca McCabe helped prepare us for the upcoming field season with a training session at the Sanctuary. I took notes and wrote down names and dates in preparation to make calls and schedule site visits for the upcoming weeks. As the end of March approached, I was eager to get out in the field and start searching for these raptors.  

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The field season began with nest-searching for northern goshawks. Being inexperienced, I was pointing out squirrels’ nests, insignificant stick clusters, and nests that I now know would crumble under the weight of a goshawk. Over time, I developed an eye for large nests, large birds, and an ear for raptors (and maybe a few passerines). The work always gave me more energy than it took from me, which is how I classify a passion. It became increasingly more exciting with each new thing I saw; I became hyper-focused when looking for nests and listening for raptors.

The first day conducting goshawk broadcast surveys was wonderful and challenging! As to be expected for the northern part of the Pocono Mountains, the terrain was rough. The surveys were interesting in a way that they challenged you to pay attention to all visual and aural details of your surroundings in a fixed period of time. The anticipation was much like fishing: you don’t know if you’ll catch anything, but if you do, it’s a stellar day! This mindset persisted and carried us through the rough terrain, and there was only a minor mishap of accidentally spraying my former professor with bear spray.

However, at the fourth broadcast point (a total of 19 were done at each historical site), we got a response. That initial callback gave us all an electric amount of energy; this was what being in the field was about! We continued forward in hopes of crossing paths with this elusive creature that I had yet to see. We played more calls but those few responses were all we were fortunate enough to hear that day. The excitement was still overflowing as we finished the survey and walked to the car anxious to call Laurie. She, being equally as excited, immediately reached out to Chelsea, a Penn State graduate student overseeing goshawk surveys statewide, who instructed us to schedule another day of searching at that site.

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During the time of Goshawk broadcast surveys, I also began searching for broad- winged hawk nests in the Delaware State Forest. This was definitely a learning curve for me. Spotting a broad-winged hawk female on the nest was more difficult than I anticipated. She would hunker down only looking at me with one eye. If you were lucky, her tail might have been sticking out of the nest too. The broad-winged hawks were equally as exciting and easier to find than the goshawks. I found myself attempting to anticipate their movements, so I could track them back to their nests in hopes of finding a female incubating.  

 Working on both projects, I gained so many unique skills that will carry me through my career as a biologist. I developed relationships with foresters, private landowners, and, of course, the wonderful team at Hawk Mountain. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such a fantastic organization and team. I look forward to seeing all of the ecological advancements they make in the future.

Lauren with a banded red-tailed hawk. 

Lauren with a banded red-tailed hawk. 

Click to learn more about Hawk Mountain's PA Goshawk Project and Broad-winged Hawk Project, and how you can support these efforts

Monitoring Migration in Eilat, Israel

By Ana De Osma Vargas-Machuca, Autumn 2016 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

A month ago I came back home from my Israeli adventure, where I have been monitoring the spring raptor migration in Eilat, a dream came true.

This all began in 2011, when I met Re'a Shaish while volunteering in the Migres Program in Tarifa, Spain. He is an Israeli guy who was extremely passionate about birds, and at only 19 years old was able to identify every single species of raptors flying over us. He told us about Eilat and the migration there, and since that moment Eilat had been always on my mind.

Last year we met again in Extremadura for a couple of days, where he was assisting Yoav Perlman with his field work, and both of them told me again about the spring migration in Eilat. I was working as a biologist in Spain, but it wasn't anything related to conservation biology. I greatly missed being in the field, so at the end of the year I arranged to be off from work in the spring and contacted Noam Weiss (the director of the IBRCE) to apply for a position as a counter in the raptor team. When I got his reply telling me that I was accepted, I was elated.

So there I was at the end of January, flying to Eilat, watching through the window the beautiful Negev desert, getting goosebumps and feeling excited for all of the experiences to come.

Counter station in the Eilat Mountains. 

Counter station in the Eilat Mountains. 

We were two teams of volunteers: the raptor counters, working mainly at the stations in the mountains, and the ringers and guides, working at the sanctuary.

The first of February was the first day of the count. The count was conducted by four of us (Daniel, from UK; Gaidis from Latvia, Ragnar from Denmark, and myself), divided in two stations, Low Mt. and High Mt. Station, both of them in the Eilat mountains, close to the Egypt border.

Ana in the "office."

Ana in the "office."

At the beginning of the season, the migration was still very low, so those not counting would have the chance to go to the sanctuary to assist with other work or to just bird around. I remember the first day being at High Mt., and even if I had no birds migrating, I felt so grateful for just having the chance of being there, in such a beautiful office, with Jordan on the east, the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia in the south and Egypt in the west.

Some brown-necked ravens, Tristam's starlings, two dessert larks, a hooded wheatear, and a very nice juvenile white crowned wheatear were our regular visitors who sat at the station and kept us company. On those days of counting steppe eagles in February, there were some amazing days with birds flying overhead, very close to us. Such incredible creatures in that stunning landscape... I was happy no matter what weather I had, how many eagles were migrating or how many people visiting; being there was just amazing.

Ana with the rest of her team at Eilat. 

Ana with the rest of her team at Eilat. 

In February we would finish work before sunset and still have time to go to the beach for some snorkeling before the light was gone. We lived in the Field School, right in front of the beach near the Taba border with Egypt, so coming back home from the mountains and walking to the beach with the guys for some snorkeling was our daily afternoon routine. We found some spots with well-protected coral reef and snorkeling there with all of those beautiful fish was delightful.

Ana in the Arava Valley near Hatzeva during the Arabian warbler survey.

Ana in the Arava Valley near Hatzeva during the Arabian warbler survey.

First week of March, I was selected together with Anton (a Danish ringer) and Ohad (Israeli birdwatcher) to be part of the Arabian warbler survey taking part in the Arava Valley, close to Hatzeva (2 hours north to Eilat). This survey was very important, as there is very little information about the species, and the first and last survey was on the 1980, conducted by the SPNI. We walked around 10-15 km everyday in the desert, looking for Arabian warbler territories but also recording every bird species around, but this incredible opportunity of going where few have had the chance to go felt like a holiday. It was really special to be surrounded by that nature, and at the same time to know that we were making an impact for the species.  We actually found more new territories than they were expecting, and I feel very thankful to Noam, Inbar, and Eli for letting me be part of this.

Ana during a day off on Shlomo Mt, the Sinai peninsula in the background.

Ana during a day off on Shlomo Mt, the Sinai peninsula in the background.

The rest of March flew by, and the migration came to peak time. Steppe buzzards, black kites, black storks together with other species started to pack the skies. Days became longer, counting from sunrise to sunset. It was exciting and exhausting at the same time, but we were happy no matter how tired we were; having those numbers of raptors migrating in front of you gives the energy you need to keep clicking and counting. And that's what we did until the 10th of April when we completed the count.  From the 12th -14th of April we were part of the Raptor breeding survey, and we finished work the 15th.

After that I went traveling around the country, spending most of the time enjoying the north (Hermon mountain, Golan Heights, Hula Valley), and it was so different from the desert I had worked in. I returned to Spain at the end of April.  

Ana with Re'a in front of the Field House on her last day in Eilat. 

Ana with Re'a in front of the Field House on her last day in Eilat. 

It's difficult to summarize in a post a 3-month experience, so I hope at least I gave you a brief feeling of how it was. Not everything was just work, there were also days off, and I spent most of them going hiking in the Eilat mountains, where there was much to explore and see.

Israel is a beautiful country with very warm and welcoming people, and felt at home from the start. Thanks to everyone who made this experience so amazing for me: my teammates, all of the special people that stop by High Mt. station, Frank and his lovely company, Libi and Tdazok, but specially Noam and my good friend Re'a; without them none of this would have happened. 

Shalom!

For those who want to check the numbers of birds recorded this 2018 season, check this out: http://trektellen.org/search?q=Eilat

For anyone interested in migration, follow the Eilat Birding Center - IBRCE on Facebook!

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.

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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. 

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. 

Sharing Experiences in Conservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eyes Up and Open

By Abigail DeVizia, 2017 Hawk Mountain Artist in Residence

In April of 2017, I was preparing to graduate from Kutztown University. With only one month left, all of my remaining energy was focused on soaking up any knowledge and practice I could get out of my last few weeks of classes. My professors often encouraged us to find new languages and meanings for our artwork, but I was always focused on the question of how I was going to start an art career after school.  Luckily for me, I had helpful advisers that suggested the first step: apply for the Hawk Mountain Artist Residency.

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By August, I had moved into the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning alongside a few education interns and trainees. In the beginning of my two month stay, most of my time was spent driving and taking pictures.  I photographed gas stations, overgrown backyards, and some quiet factories for reference. I was accustomed to painting in my familiar language—tattered, small town landscape—despite being surrounded by a grand new landscape full of life.  But, as expected, plans change. I considered painting the sociopolitical exchange between Berks and Schuylkill inhabitants, but after a couple weeks, I realized that this was neither compelling nor could it be explained well without painting the people themselves. I was, however, still interested in the image of the two counties dividing the mountain in half, and how differently they appear.  One was comforting and folksy with wide farm fields, and the other was commercial with numerous strip malls, restaurants and supermarkets.  But something still felt missing.

Day by day, I did a mixture of drawing, hiking, painting, and photographing.  Being a part of this environment, where every day the interns were discussing migration, the daily bird sightings, and the importance of conservation, I was noticing the small glimpses of life.  I hiked the mountain on my own and observed that everyone, from the experienced birder to the novice visitor, was interested in learning about the raptors.  All of this was new to me because, prior to my stay, wildlife painting was not as meaningful to me; yet now, I wanted to talk about it.  I wanted to learn how raptors travelled, how they hunted, when I could see them.  I knew that my paintings would have to focus on the migration. 

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When the interns returned to the residence, I would often ask them about the birds they saw that day.  They told me what was travelling through the area and how to identify raptors, and I would look for them when I photographed.  Unsurprisingly, certain birds would make their way into my paintings.  Every new painting made me think about what bird was active at that time, or what kind of raptor would be common in the scene I was forming.  For example, I labored for weeks on one watercolor that was filled with branches, flora and tall grass, but in this scene, I was drawn to a white fence that felt like a perfect place for something to be perched.  I asked many of the resident scientists what would be seen sitting so obviously in the open, and was the right size for the fence.  All of them agreed that a Coopers Hawk would be the perfect fit, so I painted a Cooper’s Hawk looming over its prey.  It was finally concrete in my mind that all of my work was a spotlight on the raptors and the unique places they inhabit.  

I decided to take advantage of my location and began painting on site.  I painted at North Lookout a few times to make a rather simple but warm depiction of the rising sun.  This inspired me to start painting the other lookouts and expand the flow of this series to include sites from the Mountain. 

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Each lookout, such as North Lookout, the Kettle View, the River of Rocks, and the Lookout Trail, offered insight into the geographic layout of the land.  These sights from Hawk Mountain's own trails bind together the paintings from off the Mountain and showcase that raptors have traveled hundreds of miles to make a temporary home with us in our wildly varying landscape.  This is the idea that countries, states, and counties are all sharing the opportunity to look up and experience the birds during migration, and now I have the opportunity to share those glimpses in visually compelling ways.  

What the Sanctuary offered to me was an invested look into how birds are counted, identified, and studied every day. It taught me to be open-minded with my plans, and never closed off to changing my inspiration.  I always felt that I painted subjects that were underappreciated, and now I know to keep my eyes up to the things that I myself have ignored.  Thanks to the work of many, I can share what should be adored in the quiet Pennsylvania landscape of Hawk Mountain, and a new love of wildlife and narrative.  Hawk Mountain Sanctuary brings joy to visitors on a daily basis, and I am proud to say that now, I can bring this joy wherever I go.

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Come and experience the incredible series of work that Abby created during her time at the Sanctuary at her art show entitled "Sharing the Birds," which will be on display in the Hawk Mountain Visitor Center Gallery from August 19 to September 15, 2018. It will be free and open to the public.

All photos and art by Abigail DeVizia. 

All photos and art by Abigail DeVizia. 

Percy the Victorious Vulture: A Hit in Zimbabwe

By Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo, Former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Black vulture perched on a boulder. Photo buy Nina Duggan.

Black vulture perched on a boulder. Photo buy Nina Duggan.

Vultures are generally not people’s favorite animal, especially with kids. They see them only in movies and story books that do no justice to the story of vultures, but only portray them as loathsome beasts. It cannot continue like this in our time; we cannot afford to let children go on being ignorant about issues of the state of their planet or the important role every organism plays in the ecosystem around them. If we let it happen, the world is going to be handed over to a more disastrous people than we have been, people that will not appreciate the life in it.

I personally did not think anything of vultures before my year-long internship at VulPro in South Africa. I did not love or hate them, but I knew they were not my preferred choice for birds to work with. I certainly thought I was going to be bored to death with them. My childhood had only just exposed me to the cute and grand side of wildlife: the lion prides filmed on television and the fluffy, little animals I would see at the wildlife orphanage from time to time. However, I always felt drawn to the weird animals, the strange ones that were not as easy to love, like painted wild dogs instead of cheetahs and lions. After seeing a lot of species of vultures, all affected by human actions, helplessly ceasing from poisonings, paralyzed from lead, and sometimes reduced to being flightless and confused from power line collisions, my passion for championing their cause was ignited. All birds should fly free, and it is up to us, the humans of today to make the right decisions to make it possible.

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The children’s book Percy the Victorious Vulture was published in April 2017 while I was a trainee at Hawk Mountain. This book features the message of the importance of education birds and birds that are survivors of the hazards they face in the world today. The text in the book is very simple and precise, and it teaches kids about the importance of vultures, scientific techniques of tracking and trapping, monitoring, migration, and interactions of wildlife with humans in human-dominated landscapes.

With just this one small book, I am certain that Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has changed people’s perceptions on black vultures and vultures as a whole, and has opened a window through which readers can look into the everyday lives of the species.

I was very excited when I got my own copy of the book, as it gave me the idea of writing similar books on African raptors, since such education material is much needed in my region, and encouraged me to spread this story in my community. After talking to librarians in my city, they agreed to let me use their library space for education programs. This was wonderful, as the space is central for most people and is a hub for students and adults in the city. All the education and awareness work I had been doing before at the Natural History Museum had been a little exclusive because of time and location. A book reading was a perfect program to begin with, being at the library, and it justified my conservation education effort.

Merlyn prepares to begin the reading of  Percy the Victorious Vulture .

Merlyn prepares to begin the reading of Percy the Victorious Vulture.

The turnout was amazing, kids with their parents and friends, and even some young adults who came to just ‘check it out’, all had never been to a book reading before, nevermind one about vultures. I myself had never been to a book reading and had no idea what happens at one other than reading it aloud to the audience. I was nervous, but eventually the day arrived, and kids filled the hall. Anybody that has presented in an educative capacity knows that kids are not the easiest crowd, and that they are sharp and can spring questions on you that take you back to the roots of a concept. It can be very intimidating. You also need to be entertaining and engaging, or else you’ll lose their attention, and they’ll be bored.

I talked to my friends at the museum, and they helped me put together my makeshift raptor education trunk. Unfortunately they had lost their vulture mount to an infection and only had a martial eagle and another raptor’s head that I could use. I put it in the box together with a cattle ear tag labelled 43 (Percy’s wing tag number) and made my way to the library. At the library, I set it up on a table and used the specimen mounts to define what raptors are and to compare adaptations of raptors to their different lifestyles, especially focusing on eagles and vultures which I had pictures of on a slideshow. Almost all of the kids in the room had never seen an eagle or vulture, and it was clearly exciting to be that close and able to touch them. The time came to read the book, and everyone was eagerly waiting to hear the story of Percy. To prevent stuttering and calm the nerves, I started off with introducing African vultures and their distribution using beautiful posters loaned to me by a friend, I know this information so well it is like telling a story I have told a thousand times but still get excited over; this made it easier to move on to the ‘book reading’ that I had no idea how to do.

Attendees' hands shoot up to answer Merlyn's raptor questions. 

Attendees' hands shoot up to answer Merlyn's raptor questions. 

I only had one copy of the book, and this presented the challenge of how to read and showcase the lovely illustrations while maintaining that excitement and enthusiasm readers must have with kids. Fortunately the kids were attentive and patient with me, and the contents of my raptor box kept them awake. At the end of the reading, I invited questions expecting a dozen questions to be fired my way but nothing came. I decided to then fire questions their way, and the response was amazing. These kids remembered all of the complex scientific terms I had read and explained plus some I had defined in passing. They seemed to have been absorbing everything I was reading. To be honest, just one question was asked, “Where can we buy or get copies of this book?” Unfortunately, I did not have the answer to this question.

This book reading I had planned to teach kids about vultures ended up teaching me a lot more. It reaffirmed the value of conservation education and awareness, especially at grass root level where perceptions are being sewn and grown in the minds of our future. I will endeavor this year to continue seeking opportunities to educate more youth and most importantly developing raptor education material for children in my region, for there is truly so much diversity in species, ecosystems, and cultures regarding raptor conservation. I’m afraid this counts as a publicized new year’s resolution!

Merlyn (right) poses with some of the children who attended the education program.

Merlyn (right) poses with some of the children who attended the education program.

On the Vulture Chronicles: Vulture Detectives Pt 2

A black vulture tagged by Hawk Mountain named Versace, perched on a barn in the Kempton Valley. Notice her wing tag and antennae of the telemetry unit.

A black vulture tagged by Hawk Mountain named Versace, perched on a barn in the Kempton Valley. Notice her wing tag and antennae of the telemetry unit.

By Adehl Schwaderer, former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

As a Hawk Mountain Conservation Science Trainee, you have the opportunity to be a part of many influential experiences, including counting migrants as they pass North Lookout and educating visitors about the importance of raptor conservation. But the experience that I have learned the most from this autumn was working with my fellow trainee Zoey Greenberg on our black vulture movement ecology project. This blog is part two of our vulture series so be sure to check out part one to gain a complete understanding of our project.

The plan was to locate three black vultures, Versace, Gifford, and Hillary, based on their recent GPS locations and observe what the birds were doing at these locations. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was excited to get started and gain new field experience, but no one had ever attempted groundtruthing with this species before, and it is still a new concept. We accepted this challenge with enthusiasm but were anxious about getting results. In the end we knew that no data would still be valuable information, however who doesn’t want groundbreaking results from their first ever field study?

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Click here to continue reading this blog on The Vulture Chronicles

Click here to read Part 1!