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Archive for January, 2018

By Dr. Keith L. Bildstein, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science

18 Jan 2018

Monitoring the distributions and abundances of birds of prey is “key” to tracking changes in their conservation status.  And this, in turn, is key to protecting them.

Indeed, lack of monitoring once-abundant Old World vultures in southern Asia during the height of their diclofenac-induced population declines in the 1980s and 1990s allowed populations of three species of widespread and common vultures to plummet catastrophically by more than 95%, unnoticed by the conservation community. Conservationists were caught by surprise at this greatest global loss of raptor populations in recorded history, necessitating expensive captive-breeding programs, which, unfortunately, some believe may offer “too little, too late” to restore these once-common species to their former status.

It was with this self-inflicted catastrophe in mind that Hawk Mountain Sanctuary embarked an ambitious intercontinental population monitoring scheme stretching from southern Canada to southernmost South America, aimed at tracking both short and long-term shifts in the distributions and abundances of populations of the world’s two most common New World scavenging birds of prey, the black and turkey vulture, along with other less common avian scavengers including caracaras and condors.

The Sanctuary’s effort began in 2004 with eight winter roadside-survey routes in Costa Rica, totaling more than 1200 kilometers.  Since then, a series of more than 150 seasonal (both winter and summer) roadside counts have been undertaken across Canada, the United States, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and the Falkland Islands.  In 2017 we began resurveying these routes to assess the extents, if any, to which populations of scavenging birds of have changed over the years.  Seven roadside-counts in central Argentina were the first to be redone this July.  In late December 2017 I re-ran two of the southernmost surveys in southern Patagonian Chile.  The latter two surveys are the focus of this entry.

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Road sign indicating the highway goes to the end of the world (Ruta del fin del Mundo).

Although the two survey routes are just beyond the traditional southern distributions of both black and turkey vultures, both are within the distributions of Andean condors, southern crested caracaras, and chimango caracaras.  (The routes, themselves, are part of the “Ruta del Fin del Mundo,” or the “Highway at the End of the World,” as the Chileans call it on their road signs.)  The goal was to learn if black and turkey vultures, both of which are extending the northern limits of their ranges in North America were doing the same southward in South America.  I was on my way to field work in The Falklands, and had scheduled four days to survey scavengers along the two routes I had earlier surveyed in the austral summer of 2010-2011.  One route followed the northern shoreline of the Strait of Magellan for 205-kilometers from 40 kilometers south of Punta Arenas, Chile, to Punta Delgada, Chile, close to the border with Argentina.  The other stretched 193-kilometers from 40 kilometers north of Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, Chile, near the southern terminus of the Andes.  Although the forecast called for rain on three of the four days, I planned to complete my surveys. Thankfully the wet weather held off, and I was able to conduct all four surveys without interruption.

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An old store in a ghost town on the shoreline on the Strait of Magellan in Patagonian Chile.

Both routes took me through spectacular treeless Patagonian Steppe, desert-like regions with little vegetation that superficially resemble parts of the arid American West–open areas ideally suited for spotting both perched and flying birds of prey.  Although the surveys are just “indexes” of populations of scavenging birds of prey inhabiting approximately half-a-kilometer strips along either side of the roads, they do provide relatively consistent counts of scavenging birds of prey in an area.  Indeed the two counts along the first route yielded survey totals of 13 southern crested and 1 chimango caracara, and 13 crested caracaras and 3 chimango caracaras on the 19 and 21 of December 2017, respectively, supporting the validity of the survey technique’s ability to assess regional populations.  The second route was more variable with no Andean condors seen on the first count day and 10 seen on the second, but all-in-all, these results and our earlier surveys suggest that populations of the three species seen had changed little across the eight years of the austral-summertime surveys.  Whether this will hold for scavenger surveys in other regions remains to be seen.

However, that is only part of the story.  Although I did not have time to record other species seen along the routes, I did see a number of other fascinating birds and animals, including handfuls of cinereous harriers and variable hawks, together with rheas, flamingos, black-faced ibises, southern lapwings, and guanacos.  One of the most fascinating behavioral aspects of the surveys was that road–killed rabbits and other small mammals that had been hit by traffic the evening before each survey were quickly fed upon by southern crested caracaras early the following morning, with the caracaras unquestionably out-competing kelp and dolphin gulls that tried unsuccessfully to “horn-in” on the action.

The situation reminded me of what I saw several years ago while studying Old World vultures in the Masai Mara of south-western Kenya, where in early-morning, first-in-the-air, ruppells, white-backed, and lappet-faced vultures congregated at and fed upon lion- and hyena-killed prey from the previous evening’s predation events.  Although my Patagonian observations occurred only across several days, there was little doubt that a daily feeding pattern existed.  The fresh-killed rabbits I spotted from early to mid-morning each day—and that each attracted as many as a dozen or more caracaras—had all but disappeared by late morning, with nothing but bright-red splotches on the concrete roadway offering evidence of what had happened the previous evening, an obvious example the unintended effects of human commuters.  Another intriguing behavior was that of Andean condors, several of which were seen in low-flying (<5 meters) flight along the roadsides, something I often associate with carrion-seeking turkey vultures in both North and South America.

These recent surveys convince me that even without black and turkey vultures, road surveys can be both fun and scientifically profitable, and I look forward to conducting them again in another 5 or 10 years.

More roadside scavenger counts are planned for central Argentina in January and in Arizona in February.  I will keep you posted on the results.

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By Adehl Schwaderer, Hawk Mountain Conservation Science Trainee

03 Jan 2018

 

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

 

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

 

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Versace perched on a barn in the Kempton Valley, notice her wing tag and antennae of the telemetry unit.

Thankfully, our first day in the field was a success! Zoey and I followed Versace’s movements from the previous month, which led us to a large roost of black and turkey vultures in the Kempton Valley. We were ecstatic, and from that point on, we were on a roll! Throughout the next three months we kept up our tracking efforts and found many more roosts (some permanent and some temporary), observed interesting behaviors, and made an effort to trap and tag these birds. By doing all of this, we were able to confirm some of our suspicions. However, we also discovered things we did not expect.

 

One of the suspicions we were able to confirm was that black and turkey vultures more often than not share the same roost sites. These two species have very different tendencies when searching for food, feeding, and perching, but that did not stop them from co-existing at the same roosting sites and air space. We also suspected that the vultures would use some roosts more consistently than others depending air temperature, trees available, and proximity to their next meal. We determined what each roost site was being used for, as well as observed a shift in preferred roost locations and species composition as winter set in and turkey vultures began migrating south.

 

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Turkey vulture trapped and tagged in Kempton Valley by Adehl, Zoey, and David Barber. 

We found the most unexpected results attempting to trap “our” black vultures. We enlisted the help of Hawk Mountain biologists, David Barber and Jean-François Therrien, who both have extensive trapping and tagging experience with vultures and other raptors. The goal was to capture and wing tag a substantial number of the black vultures we followed around in the Kempton Valley.

 

 

To do so, we staked down road kill (a vulture delicacy) at several roost sights we had determined were used mainly for feeding. Once the bait was staked, we placed noose traps made of fishing line and parachute cord in a diamond around the carcass. Once everything was in place, we would wait for the vultures to descend on the meal and consequently get their feet stuck in our traps—a process that does not harm the birds).

 

That is exactly what we did. We waited… and waited… and waited to no avail. The first site we chose to bait was seemingly perfect. There was already an area on the property where the landowners frequently discarded rotting vegetables and meat scraps. In addition, dead trees and conifers, which provided many roosting options for the birds, surrounded the dump.

 

However, shortly after we began baiting, two unwelcome visitors decided to join the flock: an adult and immature bald eagle. Now you may be thinking, “Wow! How amazing you get to observe vultures and the majestic bald eagle in one place!” Well, you would be wrong. We learned immediately that vultures and eagles do not enjoy sharing the same air space, or the same dining room table for that matter.

 

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Adehl holds the trapped and newly tagged turkey vulture.

We are confident that this interaction caused us to be unsuccessful in trapping vultures at this trap site, and the second area we chose to bait and trap. As soon as the eagles were seen at the roosting areas, black and turkey vultures were not seen roosting in those locations again during our observations. We did not expect this to occur because in other locations, like the Conowingo Dam in Maryland, eagles and vultures co-exist in the same feeding sites with no apparent issue. We believe the higher tolerance in these areas could be due to a larger food source with enough to go around for everyone, meaning that there is no need to initiate a food fight. The availability of only one carcass at our bait sites and providing large carcasses that were more easily discovered could have been the reason that the vultures and eagles in our study did not get along at our sites. However, all was not lost! In the end we did manage to trap and tag one turkey vulture, which was a very valuable learning experience for Zoey and myself.

 

 

Ultimately, I was able to witness unique behavioral patterns through this opportunity that will stick with me the most. I will never forget the breezy autumn morning when over twenty turkey vultures performed aerial acrobatics on a freshly plowed hill between bouts of picking through the soil with their bills and talons. Nor will I forget standing in the pouring rain, watching more than forty black vultures run across the bars of an information tower with their bills clapping and wings spread wide.

 

Zoey and I learned so much by only taking the time to stop and observe, and we are excited to see what else others that take the time to do the same will discover.

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