vultures

Thar She Soars!

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Leadership Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Many people associate the term “birder,” with images of a khaki-clad, hat-wearing, field-guide holding, binocular-wielding, mud-splattered nature enthusiast carrying a massive camera and an intense look on their face that says “SHHH…did you hear that?” Of course, there are many types of birders (I myself bird, and wear exactly one of these items), but to those unfamiliar with the lifestyle, a birder should be dawning the appropriate materials to claim the term. Imagine then, trying to explain to a police officer that the reason you are pulled over in someone’s lawn staring at their house with binoculars is because you are, in fact, birding. You are not wearing khaki, there is no mud on your pants, but you do have a camera. He does not believe you. The camera does not help your case. This is what we call a predicament.

Zoey scans the skies from the roof of her car.

Zoey scans the skies from the roof of her car.

Such a circumstance is one of the amusing side effects of conducting road surveys to monitor vulture populations. Hawk Mountain has been doing this over the last 12 years, gradually collecting baseline data on both turkey and black vulture populations throughout the Western Hemisphere. Our protocol involves following roads that are least likely to induce rage from other drivers (we drive 40 miles per hour, and frequently swerve to hop out and count birds on cell towers, sometimes climbing the car for optimal vantage points). We need at least two people, a reliable vehicle, and enough time to accurately gather data. Ideally we conduct these surveys every 10 years in both summer and winter, for each site. Compared to other research projects, road surveys are a good bang for the buck because they are relatively cheap to conduct but provide us with critical baseline data on a group of animals that are crucial to the health of our environment. In total, Hawk Mountain has conducted over 50 vulture surveys in 9 countries.

Many of you may be aware of the vulture crisis that has occurred in the Old World over the last two decades, but I’ll offer a reminder by first reviewing the numbers: out of the world’s 22 species of vultures, 16 are spread among Africa, Asia and Europe. 11 of these have recently become at risk for extinction in our lifetime. Some species have experienced a 99% decline since the late 1990’s.

Courtesy of BirdLife International

Courtesy of BirdLife International

With the combined effects of persecution, poisoning, drug-induced kidney failure, and harvesting for parts, the Old World has faced a fast-acting recipe for vulture disaster.

In Asia the primary cause of these mass die offs is a pain killer for cattle called Diclofenac that is ingested by vultures feeding on livestock carcasses.

In Africa the main threat is poisoning. In Europe, Diclofenac is still legal, and declines are anticipated if policy-makers don’t act quickly. There is a less harmful alternate drug available that offers the same therapeutic effects for a similar price, but so far, new legislation has not been passed.

Griffon vultures live on all three continents. Photo by Emmanuel Keller

Griffon vultures live on all three continents. Photo by Emmanuel Keller

Prior to the declines recorded in Asia and Africa there was no reliable baseline knowledge on the population size of affected species, meaning estimates of loss are likely conservative. Consequences from loss of vultures have included an increase in rabies cases due to a higher prevalence of wild dogs, as well as the spreading of diseases that were previously processed in the gut of these under-appreciated scavengers.

This is a perfectly heart breaking example of how human bias towards the most lovable species can sometimes harm those that float under the radar. To make this mistake once is somewhat forgivable. To make it twice is not.

This is why I believe Hawk Mountain’s vulture surveys are crucial. Vultures have been misunderstood and ignored, and while there have been commendable efforts to remedy this issue in Asia, Africa and Europe, we still have work to do in the Americas. We need to be proactive in deciphering how many vultures there are, fully understanding their role within our shared ecosystems, and proving their value to the public. Science alone cannot prepare us. The integrity of our future environment requires that we establish a culture of appreciation around vultures that will allow them a seat at the ecological table.  

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Okay, that’s the heavy part. Now, let’s focus on the fact that in the U.S., our vulture glass is half full. Our last survey resulted in a count of 979 vultures, between five routes in Georgia and Florida. Ten years ago, this same survey produced similar numbers, proving stability exists within that region. We continue to witness healthy numbers of black and turkey vultures throughout Pennsylvania and much of the eastern United States. This may not be the case in Central and South America, though our upcoming surveys in Costa Rica, Panama, and Argentina will hopefully add to our body of knowledge on population size and trends.   

On one of our final days in Florida, we spotted a group of vultures circling something yellow and indistinguishable. A scout landed and tore into whatever “it” was. After scanning with binoculars, exchanging excited hypotheses, and crossing a treacherous road, we discovered that the mysterious yellow “entrails” were no more than the sad remnants of a Happy Meal. This not only confirmed my suspicion that vultures are closet vegetable lovers but also reminded me that scavengers are adaptive problem-solvers. Black vultures in Central America drag coconuts into the middle of the road and wait for cars to pulverize them into a meal. We hear of crows and ravens using tools, eagles stealing fish from other birds, and raccoons breaking into, well…everything. Scavengers are scrappy, and vultures are no exception. This gives me hope that with support, they will adapt to our ever-changing human dominated environments.

As we watched the sun set behind the french fry frenzy, I felt optimistic that with continued monitoring my innovative feathered friends would have many more happy meals.  

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!

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!

Informally Influential

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Coordinator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Zoey presenting during the PAMLE 2018 Conference

Zoey presenting during the PAMLE 2018 Conference

This October, HMS Director of Education Erin Brown and I presented at the 2nd annual conference for PAMLE, the Pennsylvania Association for Middle Level Education. The keynote speaker, Dave F. Brown, co-author of the book What Every Middle-School Teacher Should Know, started the day off with a potent analysis of how the average preteen views the world. Incorporating neuroscience, he made a compelling case for increased compassion towards adolescents and the importance of cultivating supportive learning environments in middle school classrooms.

Adolescent Brain.jpg

Dr. Brown also highlighted the importance of identity development, reminding us that middle school students are discovering who they want to be and what they value. This point stuck with me for the remainder of the day. I tried to remember what it felt like to be a seventh grader and found myself in agreement: the first memories that resurfaced were of social belonging, and attempts to carve space for myself in an ocean of others.

Towards the end of my own presentation at the conference, I received a comment from a teacher that drove my contemplations deeper. He told me he has many female science students who begin with enthusiasm but almost always fade away from science because they claim it’s associated with boys and technology. This got me thinking about ways in which informal education has a role in the presentation of science, not just as a career, but as an exploration of identity.

Many of us would agree that science is largely defined by the scientific process, which includes inquisition and curiosity. Some, including myself, would say that passion is often an important catalyst for scientific discovery. Schools work hard to prepare students for their future, as they should. However, teachers face a plethora of challenges and deadlines that can sometimes limit their creative methodology when introducing an entire field of study. Science and technology have quickly become buzz words of the future; however, I would argue that the definition of science in this context is related heavily to human progress and less to other important avenues such as environmental protection or the classically termed “dying breeds” of natural history and zoology.

Zoey working with students from the Swain School in Allentown, PA on the newly developed HMS Black Vulture curriculum.

Zoey working with students from the Swain School in Allentown, PA on the newly developed HMS Black Vulture curriculum.

It is within this gap that I feel that Hawk Mountain plays a huge role. We create educational materials for the classroom that give teachers options for how to design their own framework of science. We align these lesson plans with standards, include the most up-to-date raptor science, and offer training to teachers whenever possible. In this way, I believe that we are paving a beautiful path towards an inclusive definition of the word “science” that can be offered to young students who may simply identify as lovers of wildlife but aren’t sure how to weave this piece of themselves into their academics.     

If Hawk Mountain staff had come into my 7th grade classroom and told me that there were real live adults that studied birds of prey for a living, my jaw would have hit the floor. Part of the reason I feel such pride in this organization is because we expose the young and the old to a breathtaking dimension of the natural world, and we put effort into reaching those that cannot make it to our site. I regretfully shied away from science in middle school, and I want to acknowledge the role that informal education can have in welcoming adolescents to a rewarding and impactful field. Raptors provide an intriguing route into the realm of science and Hawk Mountain is well equipped to assist teachers on the road to creative instruction. 

A vulture roost in Reading, PA, that Zoey observed during her time as an HMS conservation science trainee.

A vulture roost in Reading, PA, that Zoey observed during her time as an HMS conservation science trainee.

Erin and I were the only non-formal presenters at this conference, and I was heartened to see that our presence was valued. I have immense respect for the consideration that attendees at this year’s PAMLE conference showed for their student’s well being, by assessing ways to enhance how we, as a community invested in youth, can encourage student growth. Our world is brimming with amazing teachers, and I feel optimistic that through partnership between informal and formal educators, innovative education has no limits. Trust me, even a turkey vulture roost can become a world of discovery with the right attitude and freedom to set the stage.

On the Vulture Chronicles: Vulture Detectives Pt 2

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

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

By Adehl Schwaderer, former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

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

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On the Vulture Chronicles: Vulture Detectives Pt 1

Female black vulture named Donald over a quarry during September of 2016 near Palmyra, PA.

Female black vulture named Donald over a quarry during September of 2016 near Palmyra, PA.

By Zoey Greenberg, former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

he tires crunched on gravel, and I shut the engine off. We had entered vulture country. With scope, data sheets, and binoculars in hand my project partner, trainee Adehl Shwaderer and I walked carefully up the gravel road as we scanned the tree tops for hunched silhouettes or soaring shadows. This was our first foray into the Kempton Valley, east of Hawk Mountain, in search of black vultures (Coragyps atratus). Our expectations were not high. However, we had innovation on our side: we were testing a method called “groundtruthing” to better understand the movement ecology of several vultures that had been tagged with satellite transmitters by Hawk Mountain scientists. After investigating their movements in Google Earth, we had discovered interesting patterns including an individual who spent time near quarries, and another that seemed to prefer cities. The problem was, we didn’t know why.

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Culture in Conservation

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

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

During my time at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I realized that conservation was a science and has to be regarded so. Before then, I thought it was a love for the environment, turning off lights around the house or turning the tap off when I brushed my teeth. All these acts are important, and if everyone did them they could make a difference.

However, as raptor biologists and conservationists, Dr. Keith Bildstein taught us that conservation is so much more. Conservation is not just an explosion of emotions, because emotions are personal and no one approach is a panacea.

In Africa today, various ‘cultural’ practices have had a negative impact on raptors, particularly vultures. It seems as though culture is playing a part in the demise and extinction of our vultures. This is odd as culture has always been the driving force to safe guarding and conserving wildlife and forests for centuries. Going into this year’s vulture awareness month, I had the question of how culture has evolved so much in southern Africa into a monster that is wiping out vultures in their hundreds.

In my culture, there is no fairy godmothers or tooth fairies, so when my teeth fell as a child, my mother took me outside and taught me a song. The song is to the Yellow-billed Kite Milvus aegyptius, an Intra-African migrant. What you do as a child, if you want your tooth to grow back is to sing the song that goes Mzwazwa! Mzwazwa! Thathi’zinyo lami ungiphe’lakho elihle! This directly translates to: "Yellow-billed Kite! Yellow-billed Kite! Take my tooth and give me your beautiful one!" This is weird since birds have no teeth, and this bird’s tooth is a yellow, curved, and razor sharp bill, which nobody would like growing on them. After singing the song, you are then supposed to throw the tooth over the roof for the Yellow-billed Kite to collect as it flies over your house. This small tradition in my corner of the world makes the bird so important, because children everywhere want the safety of the bird as it brings their adult teeth, and parents everywhere want that moment my mother shared with me so many years ago, passing along the tradition.

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

My second annual International Vulture Awareness Day seminar at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe for this year was themed Vulture Conservation and Culture in Zimbabwe. My intention was for scientists, the general public, and culture experts to talk about vulture conservation issues and what needs to change in Zimbabwe for their protection. I invited the BirdLife Zimbabwe Conservation officer for Special Species Ms. Fadzai Matsvimbo, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) senior ecologist Ms. Lovelater Sebele, and renowned author, historian, and culture expert Mr. Pathisa Nyathi. We had a great turn out of people from all over the city that knew close to nothing about vultures but were intrigued and interested in getting to know about them.

The two speakers from BirdLife Zimbabwe and ZimParks illustrated the current status of vultures in Zimbabwe and what conservation efforts are happening on the ground. BirdLife Zimbabwe works closely with ZimParks in Hwange National Park and has reported on various vulture poisonings around Zimbabwe. In Hwange Park, cyanide poisoning on salt leaks in elephant poaching is the main cause of mass deaths of vultures and many other scavenging animals; however, in other parks like Gonarezhou on the boarder of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Aldicarb a carbamate insecticide is the most common, along with the harvesting of body parts for muti (traditional medicine).

The major problems faced by organizations like these two are the lack of understanding of the value of vultures and inconsistencies in the litigation process. The judiciary system is failing our vultures, delivered sentences are inconsistent, and often vultures are not included as part of the cases. There is a lack of awareness in game rangers working in the parks, where vulture losses are not properly documented. For these and many other reasons, the two organizations have partnered in educating rangers on identification, data collection on poaching crime scenes, and conservation status.

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

Our historian and culture expert explained the African philosophy on conservation, and he reminded us that African communities were the best conservationists of natural resources whilst being utilitarian at the same time. African conservation is linked to cosmology and African spirituality, the belief that the earth is our mother and provider—that all matter has life in it, and in order for there to be life there has to be death. This spiritual approach to nature and the world, compared to the scientific, modern approach instills in all Africans a reverence to nature that inspires conservationists.

Due to the philosophy that all matter possesses life, all the parts of an animal carry spiritual characteristics of the animal, and for this reason, vulture bones, beaks, feathers, talons, and even meat are used as muti. Originally, because of the ability of vultures to ‘miraculously’ tell where carcasses are, it was only used by traditional healers for divination as part of their wardrobe. The use of vulture body parts for muti has only recently spiraled out of control due to increased possibilities for foretelling with sports betting, gambling,business successes, and investment results among others.

The biggest take home for all that night, especially for the conservation scientists, was that no external policing is more effective than internal conviction. This means that African children today need to be taught about African philosophy and spirituality to regain that awareness of wildlife. Along with western, scientific, material/physical education, African spirituality also needs to be taught to younger generations as it is being lost in current generations. The scientists were also urged to educate the public of the world view and wildlife understanding through indigenous African knowledge systems and to remain respectful of local people’s beliefs; perceptions are real, just as their consequences are.

In the end, I learned the value of my culture in conservation and how to be a holistic and effective advocate for conservation in my country. Most importantly, I realized the value of one day teaching my children the Yellow-billed Kite song and sharing with them the folklore that made me love and respect nature in my life and my career.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.

One-Health on the Horizon

By Rebekah Smith, Former Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain educator Adam Carter presenting a live raptor program at the Pottstown Public Library, featuring a red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain educator Adam Carter presenting a live raptor program at the Pottstown Public Library, featuring a red-morph eastern screech owl. 

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, known worldwide for its revolutionary work on raptor conservation, also uses living education raptors to help inspire and teach others about birds of prey. If you’ve ever wondered how important the jobs of the birds that live at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary are, the answer is as easy as watching the countenance of a young audience when one of our educators introduce our “feathered co-workers.” The majestic animals captivate pupils of all ages and provide that essential connection between the wilderness of the outdoors and our own humanity. This connection is sometimes grievously missing from the current discussions surrounding climate change and public health, and the world is in need of people who can restore it.

The education raptors at Hawk Mountain were once wild birds that were severely injured and rehabilitated at a wildlife rehab center – given a second chance at life. In most cases, wildlife rehab centers are able to release the birds after they are sufficiently functional, however, there are some cases where raptors are deemed unreleasable. This is how education raptors come to be.

The question is, who is responsible for diagnosing, treating, and prescribing medicine to the injured animals both while they are in rehabilitation or while they remain in captivity to be used for education animals? I don’t think many people realize that veterinarians specializing in exotics and wildlife are needed to help care for animals like these and others in captivity all over the world.

The truth is, veterinarians specializing in treating animals other than the traditionally domesticated are vital to conservation efforts worldwide. Not only do wildlife veterinarians work to conserve global biodiversity through the lenses of medicine and animal health, but they also help contribute positively to the one health initiative that many conservation scientists have taken. This initiative usually is defined by understanding the inextricable connection between human health and animal health which hangs in a delicate balance. The spread of disease, environmental toxicity, and even natural disasters are some examples of this connection.

Dr. Susan Pello of Mt Laurel Animal Hospital gives Hawk Mountain's red-tailed hawk a yearly checkup.

Dr. Susan Pello of Mt Laurel Animal Hospital gives Hawk Mountain's red-tailed hawk a yearly checkup.

During my time as an education intern at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I was able to achieve a clear vision of my future as a wildlife and exotic veterinarian. Hawk Mountain provided me with the chance to watch this career in action, and I made connections with professionals in the field that I will be able to continually draw from for the rest of my career. I had the opportunity to watch a wildlife veterinarian examine and vaccinate all four of the sanctuary’s education raptors. Hawk Mountain’s veterinarian, Dr. Susan Pello, welcomed me to her clinic again soon afterwards where I watched her diagnose and treat an eastern screech owl with a severe eye infection.

Dr. Pello and many other wildlife veterinarians work both at a traditional veterinary clinic and with potential wildlife cases. The future prospects of this career pathway is broadening as we enter an age in which humans are having increasing impact on the general environment and global biodiversity. As people realize that protecting wildlife is a social responsibility both locally and globally, veterinarians will need to step up and offer their specific medical expertise.

When I attended the Jemima Parry-Jones vulture conservation lecture in early September, I found that veterinarians with experience in raptor medicine, nutrition, and captive breeding are desperately needed globally. In Southeast Asia, vultures are commonly poisoned by diclofenac-NSAIDS given to cattle, and their populations are declining rapidly. Electrocution and collision with poerlines are other causes of injury. The ecological role of vultures in such an environment is imperatively bound to the health and wellbeing of the humans that share the land. Vultures are a natural management system for carcasses that can become vectors for disease, bacteria, and other harmful or even deadly microorganisms. As animals continue to die from the shocking changes in climate and weather on a global scale, the ecological need for vultures could potentially increase where we are instead seeing degradation in natural populations.

In captive breeding efforts, veterinarians trained to recognize the health of both the young and adults are needed in order for there to be successful results. Many of the offspring produced in the captive breeding programs suffer from vitamin deficiencies resulting in a dire need for individuals who are well-versed in raptor nutrition and health.

Lazarus from the Carbon County Environmental Education Center

Lazarus from the Carbon County Environmental Education Center

Although this branch of veterinary medicine is still in the midst of developing, it is easy to predict where its future is heading. Not only can veterinarians help animals in the field for ecological and biological research, but they can also aid in the overwhelming need for general education that we hope will create the behavioral changes necessary to minimize the negative impacts of human beings on natural populations of animals such as birds of prey.

I am a firm believer that getting the opportunity to connect with an animal face-to-face can affect your own personal daily decisions that make an environmental difference when broadened in the lens of the over-all human population. Many of the potential solutions to issues in conservation come from a pool that reaches many different bodies of expertise. We cannot simply expect our problems to be solved without the contribution of the knowledgeable and their efforts. Veterinary medicine is just one facet to the mosaic of the one-health initiative that ultimately aspires to nurture the ecological balance between humans and animals globally.

Rebekah atop South Lookout, viewing the horizon.

Rebekah atop South Lookout, viewing the horizon.

Research Serendipity

By JF Therrien, Senior Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

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

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

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

Out in the Field

By Katie Harrington, Research Associate and Former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

I have just returned to Hawk Mountain from a two-month field effort conducting behavioral and dietary studies of Striated Caracaras, or Johnny Rooks, as the locals call them, in the Falkland Islands. Set off from the coast of South America in the South Atlantic, in a back eddy of the circumpolar current, the Falklands embody the sense of expedition, expanse, and natural beauty that would make any graduate student –especially me– weak in the knees.

Being my third visit to Saunders Island, human population of 4, I had a sense of what to expect: gales and squalls, immense starry skies, long summer days, and thousands of birds. I stayed in a cottage at the Farm Settlement and shared the company of my hosts, the Pole-Evans family, at their farmhouse in the late evenings. During the days, I would figuratively saddle up on an ATV, part the sheep, brake for hens, and set off on the undulating dirt track toward the Neck 10 miles to the northwest, where I’d spend the day with roughly 100, mostly juvenile, Johnny Rooks.

It’s an amazing study population that Dr. Keith Bildstein began banding in 2006. Over 80 percent of the individuals I observed I could call by the name on their leg band, Z26, K27, G22, etc., which allowed me not only to observe population-level patterns, but also to learn more about different individuals’ behavior over space and time, that is, who hangs out where and with whom, for how long, and doing what.

Rooks raking shoulder to shoulder in the kelp wrack that has washed up on the beach.

Rooks raking shoulder to shoulder in the kelp wrack that has washed up on the beach.

For my graduate work at Moss Landing Marine Labs in Monterey Bay, California, I am investigating the role the Rooks play in energy flow in their marine environment. It’s well known that Johnny Rooks associate with seabird colonies, but it’s less understood the extent to which they depend on invertebrates, both terrestrial and marine, as a nutritional resource. You might not think a raptor, formerly persecuted for slaying sheep and frequently labeled a penguin-killer, would spend hours each day silently and determinedly raking for larvae in accumulated kelp wrack. I certainly didn’t, but they do! It’s this behavior I set out to learn more about.

Layered in merino wool, I’d sit for hours, recording three different layers of resolution, from macro to micro: (1) total time an individual Rook spent foraging within the kelp wrack, (2) proportion of time spent actively digging and ingesting invertebrates versus a catalogue of other behaviors within a 4-min period, and (3) ingestion rates within a 30-sec period. Combined, these layers will help me better understand kelp raking as a foraging strategy, and the implications of changing social or climatic conditions.

X36 Yellow hours after receiving a tail mounted accelerometer. If all goes according to plan, we'll find out exactly how he spent the next twenty-four hours after we download the data!

X36 Yellow hours after receiving a tail mounted accelerometer. If all goes according to plan, we'll find out exactly how he spent the next twenty-four hours after we download the data!

A second goal of mine was to deploy and retrieve accelerometers that I had built before leaving San Francisco.  Having learned to wire, solder, and program the archival Arduino microloggers, I had my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t lose them forever. Rooks are wily and persistent, especially when it comes to disarming and destroying miniature gadgets, so I wasn’t entirely sure my plan would work. Luckily, by using two layers of heat shrink and Tesa tape and then tail mounting the units, it did! Keith warned me going into this, saying that it’s easy to trap Rooks, but it’s harder to retrap the one that's wearing your unit. Although, with a single snare and cubed mutton, we fortunately “lassoed” all six of our “accelerometered”  birds! What a rodeo! I’ll now be able to plug these data into visualization software, and by syncing the movement records with behavioral observations I conducted while the birds wore the units, I’ll be able to extract activity signatures and quantify total time spent doing each activity for a twenty-four hour period. I’m deeply indebted to banded Rooks  X36, P25, V26, Z26, M26 and K27. Thank you young Rooks!

For many of my days, I’d sit still and observe, doing my best to blend in with the environment. Frequently, when I would put down my binoculars I’d find a Gentoo Penguin peering closely at me, within arm’s reach, or a pair of King Penguins slowly waddling past me toward the water. Or I’d be closely watching one Rook raking while another, often a recently fledged one or a juvenile, would sidle up beside me to stare at me, head turning upside down for a better look, or to play with my thermos. On many days there would be a Sea Lion hunting and preying upon Gentoos 100m offshore, grabbing and slapping the penguin’s body back and forth on the water. Southern Giant Petrels would get the first go at the remaining carcass, but once it washed ashore it became a hierarchical battle between them, the Rooks, and the local Turkey Vultures. Southern Crested Caracaras steered clear with Petrels around. Not to say they didn’t hold weight at the Neck though, as whenever they flew over, the gulls, oystercatchers and Rooks all would flush in alarm.

Recently fledged K28 after kickboxing a ball of dried basket kelp. 

Recently fledged K28 after kickboxing a ball of dried basket kelp. 

While the Rooks spent most of their days at the Neck foraging or digesting, the four recently fledged Rooks that arrived midsummer introduced me to another side of the species. I’d watch and try not to laugh as they ran toward inanimate, inedible objects and kickboxed them, grabbing on and stumbling over themselves while they held on their “toys.” They’d lie there on their side, partially flapping, partially kicking, and doing what I could only call playing with the objects. Energetic and clumsy, they seemed to be learning to navigate their world. I could certainly relate to their seeming enthusiasm.

Working with the Rooks has been an incredible opportunity to contribute information on a little-studied species, engage with the amazing South Atlantic ecosystem, and build relationships with local residents who have been so generous in supporting our work. Keith and I will return to the islands in July to present our findings at a “Farmer’s Week” get-together in Stanley, the capital of the islands, before continuing to Saunders Island to rejoin the Rooks. Until then, I’m sure they’ll be raking away, running under fences, and continuing to perplex and delight, and, perhaps, frustrate all who encounter them.