wildlife monitoring

Across the Pond with Raptor Care Rock Star

By Rachel Spagnola Taras, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Nearly a decade ago, Jemima Parry-Jones (JPJ), Director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) located in Newent, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, answered an e-mail I sent to her hoping to gain insight on captive raptor management. Not only did JPJ promptly and thoroughly respond to my questions, she insisted that I visit her facility. With the generous support of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary friends Brian and Sandra Moroney, I completed my educational journey across the pond earlier this season to benefit our feathered educators and the volunteers and staff who work together to maintain best practices in raptor care management at Hawk Mountain. Education raptors help to connect learners of all ages to conservation with an up-close look at species that serve a vital role in our ecosytems worldwide. 

Jemima Parry-Jones and a barn owl welcom school children to ICBP.

Jemima Parry-Jones and a barn owl welcom school children to ICBP.

Located in the quaint English countryside, ICBP oversees nearly 300 birds of prey, including a diverse workforce of owls, eagles, vultures, kites, hawks, falcons, and harriers. During my stay, I was treated to a grand tour of the entire facility. Open to the public 7 days per week, 10 months of the year, visitors have the opportunity to see raptors on display in a zoo-like static setting and during multiple free-flighted training sessions throughout the day. During these flying demonstrations, ICBP trainers connect visitors of all ages to a fast-paced, exciting look at natural history in action.

One highlight of my visit was participating in training several  yellow-billed kites by cuing birds to fly over the field in front of visitors and signaling them to return, tossing meat straight up in the air to emulate their natural behavior of grasping prey in flight. Although I do not consider myself athletic, there’s nothing like being watched by countless visitors who are glued to your every move while one of the most famous falconers in the world is narrating and evaluating your meat throwing abilities. With the supportive direction of JPJ, I felt like an Olympian.  

An ICBP staff member monitors the weight of a white-tailed sea eagle.

An ICBP staff member monitors the weight of a white-tailed sea eagle.

In addition to shadowing the husbandry and training of some of the world’s largest and endangered raptors, I learned new techniques and skills to improve communication through body language and clear cues when working with animal colleagues. While working with a massive white-tailed sea eagle, I honed my ability to remain perch-like to provide a stable and trustworthy roost. If you see me lifting weights, you’ll understand why I want to build and maintain a strong  and stable resting place for a bird who weighs over ten pounds.

 Sadly, when visiting the on-site rehabilitation hospital building, I learned more about real-time conservation challenges like the direct persecution of raptors in the community. Unlike North America, migratory birds are not legally protected and are perceived as competition for resources such as small game.  I had the opportunity to meet with law officials who were inspired by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s rich history thanks to pioneer conservationists like Richard Pough and our own founder, Mrs. Rosalie Edge.  

On this side of our shared Atlantic Ocean, I remain proud to represent the world’s very first refuge for birds of prey and to help advance our mission by sharing our story and the need for continued research and education worldwide.

Help support our raptor care and public raptor education efforts by donating or becoming a member today.

The Challenge in the Joy of Learning: Batumi 2018

By Paulina Camarena, 2016 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

I still remember the time at Hawk Mountain, when one of my now best friends and colleagues in raptor conservation, Aneesha Pokharel, was slightly worried about identifying North American raptor species as she is from Nepal and those birds would be completely new to her.  Now it was my turn.

As a field biologist focused on bird monitoring, particularly raptors, I have monitored migrating raptors in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in México, my home country, in addition to being an intern at Hawk Mountain in the spring of 2016. However, the time to jump into unknown species to me appeared recently.  I found out that the Batumi Raptor Count (BRC) was seeking volunteers to monitor the migration from August to November in Batumi, Georgia. Despite knowing it was going to be a challenge to count and identify species I have never seen before, I decided to apply, and I cannot be happier about having taken that chance.

View of Batumi and the Black Sea from Station 1 - Sahalvasho

View of Batumi and the Black Sea from Station 1 - Sahalvasho

My first day was August 12, 2018, and my journey to Batumi has been the longest I have ever taken to reach a place. As I was in England, I took a flight from London to Amsterdam, then to Istanbul, and finally, being the most affordable option at the moment, I took a bus to Batumi. I spent 24 hrs in that bus! Despite the long hours and stressful moments—absolutely no one spoke English nor Spanish in the bus—I gratefully remember how some people helped me in many ways. Finally I was there, in my new home for the following two months: Sahalvasho in Batumi.

Pallid Harrier soars by Batumi. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen.

Pallid Harrier soars by Batumi. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen.

Honey buzzards, steppe buzzards, black kites, marsh harriers, Montagu’s and pallid harriers… among many others. They looked so similar to the new, unskilled eyes. The first days felt absolutely slow, with quiet early mornings and long hours with not many birds yet decorating the sky, plus the pressure of learning to ID the species. There were two observation points: Sahalvasho and Shuamta. Station 2, Shuamta was my favorite since the beginning, as the height was just a pleasure in addition to the landscape, and for the ones who have been there, we know the hike up is not precisely easy at all times but certainly rewarding. Step by step, day after day, and thanks to the people I was surrounded by, I started to pick up the species I was watching. However, I have to admit it took me a while to feel confident enough to say “Palmtop” and register the species I was seeing cross the transect line. While watching a bird through the binoculars and thinking “that’s a marsh harrier" to then hear  “marsh harrier!” by someone else, I knew that I was successfully learning  and in those moments I felt such joy. The days started to go faster, and the number of birds counted day after day increased.  To watch and be able to discern between Montagu's and pallid harriers was a rewarding experience but definitely not an easy one, among many others, and was the result of the everyday practice.

Imperial eagle flies overhead. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen

Imperial eagle flies overhead. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen

 During my stay at Hawk Mountain, I learned significantly about vultures and their critical conservation status, and they became among my favorite group of birds. I will never forget the moment at Batumi, when a griffon vulture circled among an enormous kettle of steppe buzzards just in front of us, and another memory made by a moment when, after some light rain around Station 2, raptors flew by so close to us that we felt we could almost touch them. In no place before I have seen raptors flying by so close. The time of the eagles also arrived, and watching hundreds of them flying above us was also memorable; these are the things that make you feel you are a lucky person.

Over a million raptors were counted this season, however Batumi was not only the birds. The BRC is the people from many countries and a variety of backgrounds, reunited to contribute in raptor conservation; it is the charming Georgian families who hosted us and the delicious food that was on our table on every dinner time. It is the sharing of knowledge and experience, for sure an amazing learning opportunity for everyone.                

Part of the team of international counters at the BRC 2018.

Part of the team of international counters at the BRC 2018.

Springtime in Montana

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

Spring sunrise in Montana, over the Mission Mountains.

Spring sunrise in Montana, over the Mission Mountains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Back-to-Back Snowy Owl Adventure

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

The view on Amherst Island

The view on Amherst Island

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

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

The sun rises over the frozen Lake Ontario.

The sun rises over the frozen Lake Ontario.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Male snowy owl trapped and tagged in Saskatchewan. 

Male snowy owl trapped and tagged in Saskatchewan. 

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

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

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

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

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

Eyes Up and Open

By Abigail DeVizia, 2017 Hawk Mountain Artist in Residence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos and art by Abigail DeVizia. 

All photos and art by Abigail DeVizia. 

Adventures and Advancements in Captive Raptor Management

By Rachel Spagnola, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture in Conservation

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

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

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

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

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

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

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

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

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

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

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research Serendipity

By JF Therrien, Senior Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

Tagged black vulture. Photo by Holly Merker.

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

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

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