Never would I have imagined a trip to the Falkland Islands a mere 14 days after completing my M.S. in Biology, but that’s exactly what happened after I met Hawk Mountain’s Dr. Keith Bildstein at an American Kestrel research meeting in Boise, Idaho. Keith knew about my thesis research on the winter foraging behavior of American kestrels and red-tailed hawks, so when he told me the striated caracaras or “Johnny Rooks” I would be studying in the Falklands went against almost all the behavioral patterns I knew about raptors, I was beyond intrigued.
Upon landing on Saunders Island, we were greeted by three welcoming parties: island owners David and Suzan Pole-Evans, a small herd of sheep, and five Johnny Rooks.
This first encounter with the Johnnies involved a lot of heads turned sideways while we peered inquisitively at one another. As we waited for the plane to take off, Suzan quickly wrote down all of the alphanumeric codes of the banded birds that were in sight, all still peering at us from outside the windows of the Rover. When we reached the settlement, more Johnny Rooks were waiting, and even more could be seen flying towards us as we carried our bags into the house. I assumed they would leave when the door shut, but when I peeked through the curtains a Johnny looked up at me from right outside. That was when I started to understand just how different the birds were.
In the bird-of-prey world, you will often hear raptor biologists and falconers talk about a bird’s personal “bubble,” or how close you can get to a bird before you ‘pop’ that space and the bird flies away. Different species of raptors will have different sized bubbles, for example, I would be lucky if I could stop my car within 200 m of an adult red-tailed hawk without it flying off.
As the days passed it became even more apparent that Johnnies did not require a lot of personal space, and more so, they did not care about yours. Going for a walk often meant I had one hovering less than two feet above my head. If I stopped, it would land nearby and because they are rather social, others usually quickly joined. I could almost see the curiosity in their eyes as they tried to find new entertainment on the island. Whether they knew it or not, I was equally as curious about them.
After one week of interacting with these birds I had already formulated questions I would like to research for my PhD. Why do groups of juveniles dominate a food source over an adult during the winter? Why are some islands populated with primarily juveniles? The time and energy Keith, Micky Reeves of Falkland Islands Conservation and others have spent banding over 500 Johnnies will allow us to look at and compare the behaviors of individuals, something most biologists are unable to do. Reported sightings of bands from individuals like Suzan Pole-Evans and others, coupled with the GPS satellite transmitters that Micky fitted on six birds will also help us to understand how they move–and when, and if they move–between the islands throughout the year.