wildlife photography

The Challenge in the Joy of Learning: Batumi 2018

By Paulina Camarena, 2016 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

Pallid Harrier soars by Batumi. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen.

Pallid Harrier soars by Batumi. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen.

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

Imperial eagle flies overhead. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen

Imperial eagle flies overhead. Photo by Frits Hoogeveen

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

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

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

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

The Best Kept Secret at Hawk Mountain

By Sean Grace, President
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Bill Moses. 

Photo by Bill Moses. 

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

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

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

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

Yours in conservation,
Sean Grace

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.