In the Field

Temporary Tattoos for Long-term Conservation

By Jillian Hojsak, Summer 2018 Conservation Science Trainee

Jillian and Lindy

Jillian and Lindy

I know vultures aren’t the cutest. Despite their negative reputation, vultures are a keystone species; they play a vital role in the ecosystem as a scavenging bird of prey. My summer traineeship at Hawk Mountain in 2018 initially sparked my interest in vultures. I began researching the often-villainized creature and learned of all the risks they face, particularly Old World vultures. Through Hawk Mountain’s international network, I connected and talked with Dr. Lindy Thompson, Project Coordinator for Vulture Conservation and Research at the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa. The more I learned from her, the more invested I became.

One year later, I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa myself! Through Dr. Spelman’s course at the Rhode Island School of Design, I spent three weeks in the Limpopo Province, learning about conservation and current human-wildlife conflicts. The other student artists and I generated projects that communicate or enact a conservation solution to one of the conflicts. We attended lectures regarding elephant, rhino, pangolin, lion, and vulture poaching while simultaneously learning about the local culture. Much to my surprise, our vulture lecturer was Lindy! It was great to officially meet her and speak with her about vultures, especially after the devastating mass poaching event in Botswana, where over 500 vultures were killed via three poisoned elephant carcasses.

Jillian painting the temporary tattoo on a student.

Jillian painting the temporary tattoo on a student.

My final project highlighted the intensity and personable qualities of South Africa’s vulture species. I created an online quiz for people to determine which species they relate to the most, while informing the participant of the risks that vultures face. I designed six vulture portraits to accompany each species: Cape, bearded, lappet-faced, white-headed, white-backed, and Lindy’s favorite, hooded. The concept began by acknowledging that protecting vultures protects humans. Vultures are a main defense against lethal toxins/diseases like anthrax and rabies. Furthermore, lead bullets used for hunting contaminate our own water and environment, as well as vulture blood.

A close up of a student’s temporary vulture tattoo.

A close up of a student’s temporary vulture tattoo.

We presented our projects to high school students in Acornhoek, and it was both successful and inspiring. I painted my designs on the students for three hours straight, after they took the quiz. The act of putting vulture art on our own bodies, even temporarily, symbolizes how poisons affect us as well as them. I enjoyed expanding conversations with each girl, as I painted their selected vultures. It was encouraging to see them become excited about vultures and their individual personality traits. I left South Africa feeling inspired and hopeful that art can have an impact on conservation – even if it’s just for individuals.

Inside the Arctic Blind

By Rebecca McCabe, PhD Candidate McGill University, Hawk Mountain Graduate Student

Two rough-legged hawk chicks in their nest.

Two rough-legged hawk chicks in their nest.

On the frigid tundra, the only thing between myself and the hard ground is a cushioned seat; my feet are propped up against a millions-of-years-old rock. The camouflaged blind is conspicuous against the treeless landscape but allows me to watch the birds without disturbing them. I stare through the small window, binoculars in hand, at an open cliff face where a rough-legged hawk sits about halfway down on a grassy green ledge.

Four young sit inside the nest cup, calling out to their parents “feed me, feed me.” At 10:15 the adult female swoops in and lands on the perch above the stick nest where we have our trap. She hops down to attend to her young before flying off. Less than five minutes pass before she returns. The chicks stand up and start calling excitedly. Finally, food has arrived! Their mother pulls apart the prey with her sharp bill, and within 30 seconds, it disappears into the crops of a few hungry hawks. She then returns to our baited trap but once again evades capture, and after a few nibbles she leaves to a higher perch, where she dutifully watches over her young.

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We endure over an hour of silence until the chatter of the young hawks begins once more. The female is back on the trap! For the next twenty minutes or so, I watch, hardly blinking as she climbs and hops back and forth from the trap to the nest, feeding small bits of prey to her chicks. With each leap I hold my breath, waiting for her to become trapped. Finally, after a dozen trips, her leg gets caught in a noose. I quickly radio to JF, “We got a bird!” and I leap from my seat, open the blind door, and run down the hill towards the base of the cliff. I cross the river and quickly climb ten meters up the crumbling, vertical cliff to retrieve the female who lies calmly on the ground with a noose line caught around three of her toes. I secure her wings with one hand and grab her legs with the other. Next, I carefully place her inside of a cloth bag and remove the noose from her toes, so I can head back down the cliff and up the valley to meet Dr. JF Therrien, Hawk Mountain’s Senior Scientist.

Rough-legged hawk with a satellite telemetry tracking unit attached.

Rough-legged hawk with a satellite telemetry tracking unit attached.

The stunning bird weighed over 1.1 kilograms and was placid as we measured, banded, and affixed a backpack transmitter. JF held the female and guided me as I slid the harness over her head and fitted the backpack to her body. We snapped a few photos, admired her beauty, and with great big smiles on our faces, we released her back onto the open tundra.

The data collected from this female and the other rough-legged hawks trapped on Bylot Island, Nunavut will help us better understand the breeding dispersal, migratory movements and survival rate of North America’s largest buteo. To learn more or to support this important research, click here or contact Dr. JF Therrien (therrien@hawkmountain.org; 570-943-3411 x104).

Special thanks to Hawk Mountain’s supporters, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, the NSERC CREATE-EI program, the Polar Continental Shelf Project, Université Laval, and Parks Canada for supporting this study in the high-Arctic.

Rebecca with the newly tagged rough-legged hawk, just before release.

Rebecca with the newly tagged rough-legged hawk, just before release.

The Burrow Master

By Zoey Greenberg, Science-Education Outreach Coordinator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

While owls are inherently fascinating, burrowing owls take it to another level.
— David H. Johnson, Director of the Global Owl Project

Conjure up the image of an owl with a furrowed brow, kicking soil out behind him as he digs in the dirt. He stops periodically to check for danger, excavating a burrow deep, complex, and big enough to host a mate and their future offspring. While it sounds like something out of a cartoon, these creatures do, in fact, exist. Did I mention that they decorate the outside of their burrow with firecracker wrappers and coyote scat?

Well, they do.

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Burrowing owls, Athene cunicularia, are a small owl whose historic range includes most of the grassland, prairie and desert ecosystems of North and South America, and some of the Caribbean Islands. Burrowing owls in most of the United States re-use burrows made by prairie dogs, ground squirrels and badgers rather than digging their own, providing an intriguing and unique example of a bird species benefiting heavily from the presence of a mammalian neighbor. One of the smallest North American owls, the prevalence of these charismatic birds has drastically decreased with a decline in suitable habitat and fossorial mammals.

While many formerly suitable prairies are losing owls, there is one magical place near Hermiston Oregon where burrowing owls have a success story to tell. This is largely due to David H. Johnson, or DJ,” as he is fondly called by his dedicated volunteers. David donates fourth months out of his year fighting to maintain a productive breeding ground for burrowing owls (he truly does protect owls night and day. His schedule is very similar to the species he loves). I was lucky enough to visit his site this past Spring, and the experience was nothing short of riveting.

David Johnson holding several burrowing owls.

David Johnson holding several burrowing owls.

The Umatilla Army Depot where David has set up “owl shop” covers 17,000 acres of land. Burrowing owls are natural residents here, however a complex sequence of events beginning in the 1950’s led to the eventual extirpation of a critical burrow excavator upon which the owls rely; the badger. In a nutshell, Pronghorns were introduced to the Depot, but their population soon crashed. Coyotes were blamed even though the true cause was likely inbreeding, and indirectly through a coyote control program, badgers were eradicated. Without badgers to dig burrows, the owls began to suffer from a lack of critical nesting sites. Don Gillis, the Environmental Manager for the Depot at the time reached out for help resulting in the inclusion of David, a known “owl guy.” A team was born, and in July 2008, the first artificial burrows were installed on the Depot. In spring 2008, only 3 or 4 pairs of owls were left on the Depot; in 2009 there were 9 pairs; in 2010 there were 32 pairs. Now, there are between 45 and 55 pairs breeding every year. There is no doubt that without the implementation of this program, burrowing owls would no longer be present on the Depot.  

In addition to enabling the local population to prosper, the project has paved the way for unique research opportunities. David has been coordinating the investigation of over ten research questions, including topics such as mate selection, juvenile dispersal, migratory behavior, the relationship between male vocalizations and family lineages, deciphering whether burrowing owls are flea vectors, and assessing the burrow-decoration techniques of males. Next steps will ideally involve the reintroduction of up to 30 badgers. Preceding studies will aim at assessing the long-term relationship between the owls and the badgers, with an intended goal of re-establishing “natural ecosystem functions of the land,” as David describes it. In essence, putting things back where they belong.

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As is true on most breeding grounds, there are seasonal influences on the population dynamics of the Depot, resulting in good and bad years. Severity of weather, availability of small mammals, and ages of individual owls are such factors. Even considering difficult breeding seasons, through a well-established banding protocol David has found that there are new owls arriving to the Depot, fueling a diverse gene pool and proving that the site factors into a more holistic picture of burrowing owl populations in the West. Each year, roughly 25% of females and 15% of males on the Depot are “new” birds. There are also many returners, with the senior bird being a whopping eight years old. David considers any burrowing owl older than six years to be a “grizzled old timer.” By banding individuals on the Depot, new information has been gleaned about the personal life histories, lifetime reproductive success, and the collective contributions of this population to the species status as a whole.  

David speaks of burrowing owls fondly, saying they “live short, intense, and dangerous lives at the top of the food chain. They are truly driven by nesting success, and undertake absolutely amazing, ingenious, and significant feats of ecology to advance their lives.” He also points out that they offer us an enhanced visibility into the world of owls since we can observe them more readily than other species. There are also notable benefits to burrowing owls being on the land. They control deer mice populations, virtually ridding the Depot’s troop field areas of the rodent and therefore reducing the presence of hanta virus. Without top predators like owls, trophic cascades can occur within ecosystems in which one level of the food web is suppressed, resulting in consequential trickle-down effects. Burrowing owls deserve a place within the desert ecosystem, and as a top predator they occupy a critical position within a complex and beautiful food web.

Zoey holding a burrowing owl chick.

Zoey holding a burrowing owl chick.

After several days involved in the project, I could see why every volunteer’s eyes sparkled while holding these birds. David has cultivated an owl oasis where not only is quality science achieved, but people are simultaneously invited to share in the delights of discovery and become a contributing character to the story of the owls. David emphasizes that his project, while focusing on ecology, also addresses the ways in which owls factor into myth and culture, what he calls a “deep-time human-owl relationship.” Burrowing owls have historically been viewed as having direct connections to the underworld for reasons that are deducible (living underground), yet there is another element to owls that pulls us in. Is it their all-knowing large eyes? Their eerie yet amusing vocals? Their nocturnal existence?

For David, the allure of the burrowing owl stems from the countless ecological insights and complexities that are discoverable by looking at the landscape as they do. For me, owls symbolize a unique predatory mindset, defined by an attuned relationship with prey that I can only dream of understanding. Owls possess this, and something else…a mysterious twist on existence that strikes a chord, perhaps due to their imperceptible presence even when they are sought.

David looked me in the eye and told me he would fight for owls until his last breath. This verbalized commitment forms a cloak of hope over the Depot, and paints an optimistic outlook for a species that may sit under the radar, so to speak, but deserves a home just like us.

David would like to express gratitude to the US Army, Oregon National Guard, and the many, many volunteers who have helped make this owl study so successful.

Zoey releasing an owl into a burrow at sunset.

Zoey releasing an owl into a burrow at sunset.

Photos compliments of the Global Owl Project.

Winged Adventures and Migration Tales

By Pat Dumandan, Spring 2016 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Pat sitting atop boulders at South Lookout during her traineeship in 2016.

Pat sitting atop boulders at South Lookout during her traineeship in 2016.

All animals have their own stories to tell. As someone who plays favorites, I particularly enjoy the sagas of our feathered friends. Conservation science has been particularly useful in helping us peek into their lives, from learning about their family dynamics, to understanding the decisions they make when moving about their territories and across the globe, to keeping us informed about their numbers.

Estimating raptor abundance is especially tricky, because they are secretive species. Luckily, most of them have annual plans to seasonally move back and forth from their homes, following more or less a similar route each way. This allows us to see them altogether and effectively assess their population status. So, when we actually think about it, long-term raptor migration monitoring studies tell us about the adventures of migratory raptors in a human-dominated world.

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Knowing that humans are architects of ecological communities, I am intrigued by how our past intentional or unintentional actions have affected migratory raptors. A few months ago, this idea was fueled by a great mentor and the former HMS Director of Conservation Science Dr. Keith Bildstein, who encouraged me to work on this for my master’s thesis. My graduate research at Boise State University is now focused on gaining insights of how human-environmental changes have influenced the composition and abundance of migratory raptors over extended time periods.

Fortunately, I am able to go on this “winged” adventure and implement this project using the largest raptor migration count dataset worldwide, which is maintained by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (HMS) and was generously shared to me by one of my raptor conservation heroes and current Director of Conservation Science, Dr. Laurie Goodrich.

Dr. Laurie Goodrich and Pat posing in the Acopian Center Trainee Offices.

Dr. Laurie Goodrich and Pat posing in the Acopian Center Trainee Offices.

As a former conservation science trainee, this is both exciting and humbling, because I get to work on an amazing multiple-decade dataset, which is a luxury for wildlife researchers, and also because I get to  work on it alongside my mentors at the Mountain.

During the last few months, I sleuthed historical data by trying out different statistical tools and reading relevant articles written more than 50 years ago.  By doing so, I developed a deeper appreciation for natural history and realized how far along quantitative ecology has gotten. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed being behind the desk, crunching numbers and doing non field-based work. Since I got the taste of fieldwork, I did not think that being “domesticated” in the office would suit me, but somehow I got over it and realized that making sense of data collected over time is equally fun and more challenging, even.

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Currently, I am amidst the process of refining a breakpoint model which would help me determine the “breakpoint” year/s (i.e., when a change in the abundance and diversity of the migratory raptor assemblage is observed) and hopefully, would best describe HMS raptor count data. Once I successfully fit an appropriate model, I can then identify which main threat to raptors (direct persecution, habitat change, and environmental contamination) caused shifts in the assemblage structure. This would help fill in the knowledge gap of how large-scale disturbances influence larger aggregations of animals.

With the continued support of the generous donors of HMS and the Project Soar Grant, I am able to stay in the United States to work on my project during the summer, under the direction of my adviser, Dr. Todd Katzner, and Boise State professors who are in my thesis committee.

These days, I find it thrilling whenever the models I run converge and when I do not get error prompts. As silly and nerdy as it sounds, I feel the same rush as when I spot a huge flock of migrants coming in whenever I get these little wins, analyzing over 80 years of HMS count data. I am very excited to complete this project so I can share a raptor migration tale to the world that is filled with lessons we should have learned from our previous mistakes that have contributed to biodiversity loss, and hopefully find a happy ending with the formulation of effective raptor conservation strategies moving forward.

A Grand Adventure

By Kirsten Fuller, former conservation and education trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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Elementary geometry taught me that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  Life, however, is not geometry. Going from college to career has hardly been a direct path; it’s been more like this photo of the Bright Angel Trail at Grand Canyon National Park: winding and weaving through the universe.

The path I’ve taken has been riddled with challenging experiences, interesting people, and magical places. I wouldn’t have altered the course I’ve taken for anything, as it has gotten me to places I never imagined I could be.

My first position with Hawk Mountain was with the education department. At the time, I was working on my bachelor’s degree in education, and still contemplating if teaching was in my future. Director of Education, Erin Brown, was a supportive and flexible supervisor and allowed me to tailor my internship directly to my interests: a combination of education and ecological research. 

Since my first internship with Hawk Mountain, I have worked for the Sanctuary as a volunteer and a conservation science trainee. I keep returning to the Mountain because it motivates me to plow forward in pursuit of my goals.  From each member of the Hawk Mountain team I have learned unique skills that influenced my personal and professional ambitions.

Kirsten holding a California spotted owl.

Kirsten holding a California spotted owl.

After my conservation science traineeship at the Sanctuary ended last May, I headed west to California to work for the Institute for Bird Populations as a field technician tracking California spotted owls and northern goshawks. This hands-on fieldwork experience would not have been available to me had I not gained the training necessary from my experiences at Hawk Mountain.

Similarly, I would not have been prepared for my next position with Hawkwatch International as a hawk counter, had I not previously spent a season counting hawks flying up the Kittatinny Ridge in PA during spring migration. For over 400 hours I baked in the Arizona sun, counting raptors flying the 18 mile gap over the Grand Canyon during fall migration. While the species that dominated our count in Arizona were similar to Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to observe species specific to the west as well: ferruginous hawks, prairie falcons, and zone-tailed hawks.

A soaring California condor

A soaring California condor

And I can’t discount the grandeur of witnessing magnificent California condors gliding close overhead (even if they were only flying so low to check on the status of our mortality).

At the start of the year I began a new job as a wildlife technician at the Grand Canyon. My position focuses on threatened and endangered bird species: the California condor, Mexican spotted owl and southwestern willow flycatcher.

Kirsten using the radio telemetry unit to track California condors passing the canyon.

Kirsten using the radio telemetry unit to track California condors passing the canyon.

One highlight of my job is tracking California condors along the rim using radio telemetry. This offers the chance to use my interpretive skills to inform visitors about conservation issues threatening these prehistoric creatures.

Another fun aspect of this job is the opportunity to help other biologists on their projects. Throughout the spring and summer I will be able to help trap bats along the rim and within the inner canyon. Trapping bats is similar to mist netting for birds, except these winged creatures bite. The bat in this photo a big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus).

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Each bat gets swabbed and tested for white nose syndrome, which has not been documented at the Grand Canyon yet. Whether it’s bat, elk, javelina or rattlesnakes, learning about the complete wildlife scene at the Grand Canyon has been informative and interesting; I don’t see myself abandoning my raptor research intentions anytime soon though.

Author and desert activist Edward Abbey once said, “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view”. Amazing, indeed. My view may have changed over time from the Kempton Valley to the desert, but neither one is favored by me.  Both views are unique, special, and inspiring.  

Like so many conservation science trainees, I am now thousands of miles away from Hawk Mountain. Despite the distance, I regularly reflect on my time at the Mountain and how it has helped me get to where I am today. More than once I have hit the trails in the Canyon sporting a Hawk Mountain Sanctuary hat or shirt and ran into a visitor that recognized the name of the organization I love dearly. Hawk Mountain’s reputation is far reaching, and I am so proud to be forever connected to this special place.

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Power Lines Remain a Threat for the Endangered Cinereous Vulture

By Alfonso Godino, HMS Research Associate

Cinereous vulture in flight, with power lines visible in the background. Photo by Scott Bowers.

Cinereous vulture in flight, with power lines visible in the background. Photo by Scott Bowers.

The cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) is an endangered species in Portugal and in the European Union. After the extinction as a breeding species in Portugal during the 1970´s, we observed a few pairs starting to breed in Tejo International National Park in 2010.

After almost a decade after the recolonization, no studies were implemented on this colony with the exception of the annual breeding population census.

Due to the lack of information about the ecology of this colony, in 2018, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary collaborated with the Tejo International N. P., and joined efforts with the Portuguese National Agency for Nature Conservation, the electric company ENDESA, and the Toxicology Department of the Veterinary University of Murcia to study the cinereous vulture in the main colony of Portugal.

The main goals of this project are to study the juvenile dispersion and to identify the limiting factors and threats affecting to this group of the population.

Alfonso and team tagging the vulture from the nest.

Alfonso and team tagging the vulture from the nest.

To achieve these goals, in 2018, all the nestlings in the colony (8) were equipped with GPS-GSM transmitters, six of them were tagged in the nest and other two were sent to the wildlife rescue centre before fledging (one because the collapse of the nest and the second one due to the beginning of a starvation process), but both were released later after recovery.

Movements during the first year of tracking showed all the juveniles stayed mainly in the colony and nearby surroundings, with some excursions of 80-100 km away from the colony. During one of these excursions, one of the vultures showed, thanks to the information sent by the transmitter, small movement and no flight behaviour.

After detecting this lack of movements, on April 10, staff of Tejo International N. P. and Serra de São Mamede N. P., another protected area close where the vulture was detected, went to the location of the last positions sent by the transmitter.

The place, 70 km southwest of the colony where the vulture was tagged, is an area of Mediterranean open forest and extensive livestock, a perfect place for a juvenile cinereous vulture searching for food. Unfortunately, several power lines cross the area.

Park staff load the car after locating and capturing the injured vulture.

Park staff load the car after locating and capturing the injured vulture.

After a few minutes searching for the vulture, the team found the bird, and it was sent to the nearest wildlife rescue centre close to the Tejo International N.P. The first vet check showed a dislocation or luxation on the right wing, affecting some tendons, probably caused by an impact. Due to this diagnostic and the urgent need for a surgical intervention, the vulture was sent to the Veterinary University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD).

First vet visit for the vulture to assess the injury.

First vet visit for the vulture to assess the injury.

The injured cinereous vulture is still at the University and waiting for a diagnostic to start the rehabilitation process with physiotherapy in the rescue centre. Only after this period of therapy will we be able to determine if this vulture could released back to the wild or if it must keep in captivity for all its life.

All signs point to a collision with a wire as the origin of this wing injury, and the presence of several power lines in the area where the vulture was found, none of which have been marked to reduce birds´ collision, lead us to think that this is the cause of this unfortunate incident.

Electrocution and collision with power lines is an important threat for raptors´ conservation in many areas all around the world, despite the effort of public bodies, wildlife conservation NGOs, and electric companies to minimize this threat.

But many times, the incidence of raptor collision and electrocution by power lines is underestimated, because there are no records due to the lack of monitoring. For this reason, it is very important to use new technologies and to equip raptors with GPS devices with the goal to detect potential threats.

The injured cinereous vulture on the way to vet. Notice the satellite transmitter on it’s back, which made locating it possible.

The injured cinereous vulture on the way to vet. Notice the satellite transmitter on it’s back, which made locating it possible.

In this case, the information supplied by the GPS-GSM units provided by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and especially the combination of coordinates giving us the bird’s location and the information on movement speed provided by the device, allowed us to detect very quickly that the bird was not flying. As a result, we could react in time to recover this bird while it was still alive. If this vulture was not equipped with the GPS, it is highly probable that nobody would have known of the collision with power lines and the vulture would have died.

There are still six other nestlings equipped during 2018 with GPS and in 2019, and another eight new cinereous vultures of the Tejo International N. P. colony will be tagged with GPS units thanks to the HMS support. The information provided during this first year of monitoring and the future information gathered for these vultures will be an essential tool to identify and prevent threats on this endangered population, and it will increase our understanding about the juvenile dispersion and survival in this colony.

Trailblazing for Armenian Raptors

By Levon Harutyunyan, former conservation science trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Levon stationed atop Hawk Mountain’s North Lookout during fall migration.

Levon stationed atop Hawk Mountain’s North Lookout during fall migration.

My bird conservation path went parallel to my Hawk Mountain “era” since autumn of 2017, when I was accepted as an International Trainee of the international training program in conservation science. Despite that I had built some experience by that time working in the field of wildlife conservation for several years, those four months of training at HMS were another level, another challenge, and a unique experience for my entire professional career. Working side by side with world-known ornithologists and conservation professionals, is apparently the best way of gaining hands-on experience and motivation for working harder to foster further devotion to nature and birds.

Levon presenting about the Hawk Mountain Conservation Trainee program.

Levon presenting about the Hawk Mountain Conservation Trainee program.

I left the Sanctuary in the beginning of the winter, but with warm emotions, memories, and new knowledge of raptor migration and conservation. With inspiration and confidence, I returned to work at the Institute of Zoology of National Academy of Sciences of Armenia and the Armenian Society for the Protection of Birds NGO.  Several weeks later, together with the Acopian Center for the Environment, we organized information sessions in 3 Armenian universities, featuring the International Training Program in Conservation Science at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s Acopian Center for Conservation Learning. During these sessions, the program alumni presented the training program and shared their stories about Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and its conservation practice.

Following that year, I was actively involved in annual bird census programs and bird monitoring projects for the corporate sector, but I have always considered developing my own project proposal regarding raptor conservation. I had many ideas, but none of them were called into action.

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However, after a long period of exploration, in late 2018 I became a PhD student at the Scientific Center of Zoology and Hydroecology NAS RA and finally defined the topic of my research. I decided to study the raptor migration in my country. Being located between the two large flyways connecting Eurasia with Africa, Armenia serves as a one of the migration corridors for northern populations of birds of prey. In the country 39 raptor species are recorded in total, of which more than 20 migrate different distances from Armenia and through Armenia during autumn and spring migration.

Armenia is not an exception in terms of the threats to migratory species. Nevertheless, the volume of migration of birds of prey across Armenia has not yet been assessed, and this fact triggered the necessity for the study. The main goal of my research is to determine the raptor migration stopover sites in the country, assess their importance and ecological aspects, and identify existing threats the types of potential barriers. Although some people think that this is a very ambitious task, I believe that if you love what you do, you will succeed. At present, I am working on the detailed planning of this project and field study design.

In the end, my short story is just one among hundreds of others that have been somehow shaped up by the Hawk Mountain experience. This is the place that can change the minds and attitudes towards nature and wildlife, and one of the important locations in the world to be visited by any prospective student of ornithology or potential bird conservation professional.

Environmental Literacy: A Continuum

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Leadership Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain educators who attended the PAEE 2019 Conference, posing with HMS educational materials. From left to right: Shannon Lambert, trainee; Zoey Greenberg; leadership trainee; Andrea Ambrose, educator; Riley Davenport, trainee; Erin Brown, director of education.

Hawk Mountain educators who attended the PAEE 2019 Conference, posing with HMS educational materials. From left to right: Shannon Lambert, trainee; Zoey Greenberg; leadership trainee; Andrea Ambrose, educator; Riley Davenport, trainee; Erin Brown, director of education.

This March, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary sent several members of the education team to the 2019 conference for the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Education. This meeting of educators is held every year in hopes of encouraging networking, idea exchange, and cultivating a resurgence of passion for our state’s hard-working team of environmental educators. Attendees ranged from classroom teachers to naturalists to folks like Hawk Mountain’s own Andrea Ambrose, Todd Bauman and myself, all of whom presented on the efforts of the mountain to inspire nature immersion and appreciation of raptors. Erin Brown, Shannon Lambert, and Riley Davenport were also in attendance, offering valued support and documenting our presentations.

Zoey and Andrea presenting “In the Name of Environmental Literacy, Let’s Make Science Sexy.”

Zoey and Andrea presenting “In the Name of Environmental Literacy, Let’s Make Science Sexy.”

Andrea Ambrose and I co-presented “How to make Science Sexy,” illustrating some of the ways that Hawk Mountain thinks outside of the education box, and engages visitors in creative ways. We focused on the importance of making science accessible, so as not to further perpetuate the lingering reputation that science is for academics only. Among our highlighted examples were detailed natural history posters on several of our migrants, our use of a turkey vulture rap to encourage vulture appreciation, Google earth animations highlighting black vulture movement data, our distance-learning raptor drunks, and build-a-bird kits, with which Andrea decked an attendee out in talons, a beak, and excellent eyesight to illustrate raptor adaptations to an amused audience. Todd Bauman gave an incredible presentation on the use of media to engage youth in natural history, highlighting his experience as a trip leader for the Hawk Mountain Conservation Corps.

These presentations also tied in with the conference theme of “Cityscapes and Greenscapes,” selected by conference coordinators as a way to discuss how environmental education intersects rural, urban, and suburban landscapes, green spaces and everywhere in between. As a well-known destination for both recreation and migration observation, Hawk Mountain attracts people from many walks of life and corners of the world, yet we are located in a rural area and maintain a strong connection with the perspective of Pennsylvanians. This diverse appeal provides us with many opportunities for educational innovation, and to top it off, we are exposing international conservation science trainees to the public, and the public to them. This mixing of world views is a rare and priceless element of education programming, and paves the way for the exchange of new ideas.

Another potent undertone to the conference was our global need for an increase in environmental literacy. Environmental literacy has been defined as the desired outcome of environmental education, which aims to provide learners with sound scientific information and facilitate the development of critical thinking skills as well as creative problem solving and decision-making abilities. Ideally the acquisition of these attributes would lead to increased environmental literacy, or an individual’s “understanding, skills and motivation to make responsible decisions that considers his or her relationships to natural systems, communities and future generations.”

This is a loaded description, and designing programs that achieve these learning outcomes and result in a more informed public can be a daunting task. However, many of us would agree that encouraging this holistic perception of our role within the environment is a societal outcome worth fighting for. One helpful way to break down this concept of environmental literacy is to think of it as a continuum, with a ladder of “steps” that individuals may climb over the course of their lifetime. Even those who work in the environmental field every day such as biologists, environmental educators and park rangers, are still climbing this ladder, and I would argue, there is no such thing as either a perfect score, or someone who is environmentally illiterate. We all start somewhere. 

This conference caused me to reflect on where I see myself on the ladder, as well as how my own style of teaching about raptors may push people towards one level of literacy over another. This was an eye-opening thought process, and allowed me to experience the conference with a fresh perspective on how to engage people in a way that meets them where they are, rather than coerces them to meet me where I am. We all comes from different environmental backgrounds and I believe that working with your audience’s existing context is more effective than trying to persuade them to abandon their context for your own.

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Due to the nature of this educational challenge, collaborative conferences like PAEE are immensely helpful in exposing educators to a variety of tool boxes, as well as success stories that demonstrate how honoring the environmental realities of a given community can stitch people together through a shared passion for the natural treasures in their area. I attended talks on how to get kids excited about bugs, the importance of marketing in conservation, how to tell science through story, the benefits of citizen science, and I even read love letters written by children to their watershed. I believe these local projects are important kindling for a more universal acknowledgment of our responsibilities to the natural world.

I will continue to nourish my own environmental literacy framework, and through my work with raptors, I hope to encourage the same desire in others. As I move through this process, I will remember David Sobel, whose words apply, in my opinion, not only to children but to every individual:

If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.
— David Sobel

The Mystery of Pennsylvania's Lesser Black-backed Gulls

By David Barber, Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

We stood around the back of the pick-up truck tearing up day old bread, cookies, and muffins into bite-sized pieces.  When we thought we had enough, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist, Patti Barber, grabbed a bag and walked to the middle of the vacant parking lot and started tossing pieces into the air.  Within seconds ring-billed gulls came flying in to take advantage of the free meal.  But these gulls weren't the reason we were all gathered on this cold March day at Nockamixon State Park.  Patti was after lesser black-backed gulls.

Adult lesser black-backed gull with satellite transmitter. Photo by Pat Rago.

Adult lesser black-backed gull with satellite transmitter. Photo by Pat Rago.

Lesser black-backed gulls have captured the attention of Pennsylvania's birdwatchers ever since they first started showing up in winter in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1960’s.  You see, lesser black-blacked gulls do not nest in the United States and these birds typically appeared in November and disappeared in March.  Where were these birds coming from and where were they going?  Armed with 10 satellite transmitters, Patti along with biologists from the Game Commission, Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary hoped to find out. 

While the ring-billed gulls were not shy about coming into the buffet, the lesser black-backs were more aloof, standing off to the side of the food scrum, just outside the range of the rocket net.   They had to come into the center of the feeding frenzy in order to fire off the rocket net.  By moving around with the food Patti was able to manipulate the flock's movements.

Hawk Mountain Research Biologist David Barber and PA Game Commission Biologist Patti Barber check the fit of a satellite transmitter before releasing a lesser black-backed gull. Photo by Pat Rago.

Hawk Mountain Research Biologist David Barber and PA Game Commission Biologist Patti Barber check the fit of a satellite transmitter before releasing a lesser black-backed gull. Photo by Pat Rago.

By late afternoon, the flock finally moved so the lesser black-backed gulls were in the target zone.  With a boom the net arced out over the gull flock ensnaring nearly 80 gulls, a mix of ring-billed, herring, and lesser black-backed gulls. Everyone mobilized, releasing the ring-billed and herring gulls and saving the prize, 20 lesser black-backed gulls.  By the time all of the gulls were released, the sun was setting and the cold was seeping into our fingers.  Not willing to simply release our captives, we needed to need to find a warm, bright spot where we could band the birds and attach the satellite transmitters. 

We drove back to our house, turning the garage into a make shift banding station.  The immature gulls were measured and banded, while the adults received both a band and a satellite transmitter.  We finally finished processing the last bird at 2 am and caught a little sleep before driving back to Lake Nockamixon to release the birds at sunrise.

According to Patti, the transmitters are providing a wealth of information, the birds don't just spend the winter at Lake Nockamixon, but often commute to different water bodies in southeastern Pennsylvania and central New Jersey, including Green Lane and Peace Valley reservoirs in PA and Spruce Run and Round Valley reservoirs in NJ.  Some even spent time on the NJ shore before commuting back to Lake Nockamixon. 

Movements of  lesser black-backed gulls through June 2018. Map by PA Game Commission.

Movements of  lesser black-backed gulls through June 2018. Map by PA Game Commission.

And where do these birds go in the spring? Of the 9 birds that were tagged with transmitters in 2018, one transmitter stopped working before the spring migration, but five of the birds spent the summer in Greenland and three spent the summer in Quebec, Labrador and Newfoundland, Canada. 

As of early February, six of the gulls returned to southeastern PA, one was wintering in Virginia, but is heading north to PA and one transmitter failed on the breeding grounds.  An additional satellite transmitter was deployed on an adult bird last week and is hanging  out at the New Jersey reservoirs.

Thanks to the Pennsylvania Game Commission with help from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and volunteers, we are well on our way to solving the mystery of Pennsylvania lesser black-backed gulls. 

Visit the Game Commission's Lesser Black-backed Gull project page for updates as they become available.

Land of the Sky Clowns

By Zoey Greenberg, Science Outreach Leadership Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

King Vulture

King Vulture

King vultures are ridiculously handsome scavengers. When one of these color collages fixes you with a bright yellow gaze it’s akin to locking eyes with a sky clown, though somehow the moment feels un-funny. True to their name, they carry an air of royalty that is impossible to ignore and as a species, they are a breathtaking compliment to the diversity of the natural world.

I saw my first king vulture this month in Costa Rica, as I joined senior research biologist JF Therrien and former trainee from 1999, Pablo Porras, to assist in Hawk Mountain’s vulture surveys as part of our ongoing population assessment study. On this trip six surveys were completed, covering a wide expanse of Costa Rica’s rich and diverse habitats and updating our web of vulture knowledge by furthering our understanding of their winter movements. We also succeeded in confirming a collaboration with the non-profit Osa Birds: Research and Conservation, in which two annual vulture surveys will be completed by director Karen Leavelle and her crew.

Driving survey routes through Costa Rica

Driving survey routes through Costa Rica

There were many a day when the note taker (often me) remained in a constant state of scribble-frenzy as vultures swooped literally everywhere, and while neck cramps became my constant companion, they were worth the discovery that this year’s numbers were plentiful. In total, 2,785 vultures were counted! Turkey, black, and yes, king vultures were recorded as were other raptors, such as road-side hawks, black hawks, yellow-headed caracaras, and crested caracaras. The next step is to compare the numbers recorded in our 2019 surveys with surveys conducted in 2006. Hawk Mountain and its partners intend to repeat vulture surveys in many regions of the Americas in the next few years.

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 Costa Rica is part of an important geographical bottleneck that funnels migrating raptors to and from South America. During the early 2000’s there was a raptor count site called Kekoldi  located on an indigenous reservation close to Puerto Viejo. Kekoldi was run by Pablo from 2000-2006, and our own Dr. JF Therrien volunteered there as a counter, returning on this trip for the first time in sixteen years.

To revisit the site, we hiked from a lodge built and run by Sebastian Hernandez, a member of the Cabeca tribe, up to a tower built by Sebastian himself using trees from around his home. After climbing four flights of wooden steps our heads popped into sky surrounded by canopy, butterflies, chattering toucans, and eye level turkey vultures. Only moments later we caught the silhouettes of double-toothed kites, black hawks, white hawks, and a fascinating turkey vulture mimic, the zone-tailed hawk. All of these birds and more, in February.

Kekoldi and the Costa Rican migration corridor see one of the top five highest counts of migrating raptors in the world, and one of the most numerous peregrine falcon flights in the Americas. The Kekoldi tower was built with the intent of hosting visiting scholars, educators and enthusiasts from local communities and internationally. Regretfully, financial support became a limiting factor all too soon, and after a count of six years there were no longer resources to keep the tower manned each season, although sporadic counts are occasionally conducted. 

Many cutting edge studies are illustrating the need for understanding of species’ annual cycles, and this means investigating multiple hotspots along their journey. The Costa Rican Caribbean flyway is part of the migration pathway for many North American birds. Perhaps with greater outreach in raptor conservation, those with the knowledge and passion to start another count site may be inspired to do so. When that day comes, raptors throughout the Western Hemisphere will have higher chance of survival through their long migratory journeys in the years to follow because as we have learned, monitoring and education are a powerful duo that when used properly, can change the trajectory of conservation.

In addition to surveying vultures, Another intent of our visit to Costa Rica was to explore the possibility of promoting the importance of raptors within schools. Hawk Mountain is already partnering in Veracruz Mexico to promote environmental education and outreach and has been for more than 25 years. Our hope is to extend the raptor conservation message by providing materials and training throughout this critical flyway. 

There are approximately twenty schools near the Kekoldi count site that already receive outreach from the Talamanca-Caribe Biological Corridor, overseen by the country’s Ministry of Education. This organization is a well-established and respected facilitator of nature engagement for public schools in the area. During our visit we received a positive response from their education coordinator about the possibility of inputting a Hawk Mountain generated raptor component into their future programs. The intention would be to contribute materials such as children’s books, lesson plans, posters and interactive activities that would fit the needs of local schools, and prove useful within their community’s environmental reality. 

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JF and Pablo searching with binoculars from the tower.

JF and Pablo searching with binoculars from the tower.

On my final day at the tower I contemplated the strong undertow of the country’s natural history. Tropical creatures danced and shuffled by in erratic circles as we kept our binoculars skyward, waiting for a raptor to carve figure eights in the clouds above. Our hope is that one day this experience will be available to others, and that visitors will be able to engage in their very own sky clown moments, solidifying in their minds the majesty of the tropics and the beauty of the raptor world.