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Posts Tagged ‘keith bildstein’

Johnny Rooks digging for kelp maggots on the Falkland Islands.

By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D., Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science
and  Katie Harrington, Hawk Mountain Research Associate
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

29 August 2016

Bear with me on this; it is really quite exciting…

Kelp maggots are the larvae of coastal dipterid flies that feed on rotting seaweeds, including kelp that drifts up along sandy shorelines.  In the northern hemisphere, these larvae (aka maggots) are themselves fed upon by shorebirds and passerines, including crows, which excavate them from kelp wracks that accumulate along the shorelines of sandy beaches.  Although studied little south of the equator, kelp maggots also inhabit the rotting kelp that drifts up along the shorelines of the Falkland Islands, including those on Saunders Island, a 49-square mile landmass in the northwestern part of the archipelago.

Neck Maggot Feeding Summer

Johnny Rooks digging for kelp maggots

For more than four years, we and our colleagues have watched the Striated Caracaras (aka Johnny Rooks) that we have been studying on Saunders Island, digging and probing beached kelp adjacent to penguin colonies there, and have wondered if these largely scavenging birds were receiving ecologically significant amounts of nutrition from the buried invertebrates.  In February of this year, we began to study this feeding behavior in detail using a protocol that allows us to quantify the rate at which individual caracaras secure maggots.  Our observations involve counting the numbers of maggots individual birds catch and consume during 30-sec feeding bouts.  We continued to collect data using this protocol on our most recent trip this August to assess the extent of seasonal differences in feeding rates.  We also collected maggots and weighed them to determine their individual mass, allowing us to determine their nutritional value. Our results, albeit preliminary, suggest that although birds capture maggots at higher rates in austral summer than in austral winter, in both seasons they manage to do so at rates of capture that are high enough to provide substantial nutrition for the birds engaging in this behavior for several hours or more daily.

The dogged determination and methodic nature with which the rooks dig is impressive, with many birds digging alternately with their left and right feet five inches or more into the rotting kelp while securing dozens of maggots over brief periods.  Clearly, more study is needed, but our initial observations suggest that this nutritional resource plays a significant role in the life of Striated Caracaras year round.

Summer maggots

Exposed kelp maggots

Intriguingly, on the most recent trip we also saw groups of rooks digging in upland pastures where they were feeding on what appeared to be small earthworms and grass grubs, with about the same rate of capture as when they were catching kelp maggots.  On our next trip in February 2017, we plan to expand our observations considerably.  In the interim, we will be presenting preliminary results of our work at the annual meeting of the Raptor Research Foundation in Cape May, New Jersey, in October.

Of course, insect eating is not unknown in raptors.  Kites, American Kestrels, and many other falcons routinely do so, as do larger birds including Steppe Eagles overwintering in Africa.  However, digging in the ground for insects is relatively uncommon among birds of prey.  Honey buzzards reportedly do so, and kites and Common Buzzards dig for earthworms in recently plowed fields in Europe.  That said, at least some rooks appear to do it routinely as well, and not only on Saunders Island.  In August 2013, during a short trip to Steeple Jason, a tiny island in the Falklands more than 50 kms from Saunders Island, one of us saw large numbers of caracaras digging for earthworms in peaty soil at the base of the island’s steep escarpment.

Our work with caracaras indicates that they are severely food stressed in winter on the Falklands.  Digging in the ground for invertebrates at first may not seem “raptorly,” but beggars cannot be choosers, and the taste of a live invertebrate may beat that of a rotting vertebrate anyway.

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Red-backed rescue - cropped

Keith rescuing the female Red-backed Hawk from a pack of Striated Caracaras.

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

24 August 2016

With an extensive open-country distribution throughout much of southern South America, Red-backed Hawks are the functional equivalent of North America’s widespread Red-tailed Hawk. The mid-sized Buteo—red-backs weigh in at just over one kilogram, or roughly the same body mass of a Red-tailed Hawk—feeds mainly on small birds and small mammals across much of its continental range.  But on the Falkland Islands, where the species also is common, red-backs focus on Upland Geese, a large terrestrial goose that weighs 3.5 to 4.0 kilograms, or more twice the body mass of a Red-backed Hawk.  Given this rather unusual predator-prey size relationship, red-backs, which are non-migratory on the Falklands and remain paired-bonded throughout the year, hunt geese together in male-female duos with one hawk distracting the goose while other surprises and “takes down” the un-suspecting waterfowl.  In many instances, both members of the pair kill the goose before feeding on it simultaneously, with both gorging themselves and often returning to the carcass for a day or more as they strip every last piece of edible tissue from it.

This cooperative feeding routine works well for the red-backs on the main islands of East and West Falkland, where there are few if any Striated Caracaras to worry about, but such is not the case where the two species co-occur on the smaller, peripheral islands.  Our principal Striated Caracara (aka Johnny Rook) study site, Saunders Island, which is inhabited by several dozen Red-backed Hawks, as well as over 80 Striated Caracaras, is a case in point.  On Saunders Island as elsewhere, caracaras may be incapable of subduing and killing Upland Geese on their own, but they are not above competing for a dead goose once a pair of red-backs have killed it.

Such was the case on Saunders last week when my colleague Katie Harrington and I came upon a pair of Red-backed Hawks feeding upon a recently killed Upland Goose in a sheep meadow at the eastern end of the island one morning earlier this month.  Both hawks, but especially the female, had already gorged themselves on the carcass while cooperatively fending off several dozen, mostly juvenile caracaras that were attempting to partake in the feast. As we approached the group to read the bands on the caracaras—we have fitted more than 1,100 of Johnny Rooks with individually numbered rings as part of our long-term studies of the species—the male red-back took off. The female tried to do the same but was unable to do so given an enormously over-filled crop, which made it impossible while she was being attacked by more than a dozen caracaras that had pinned her down on her back and were feverishly “footing” and pecking at her.  Sensing that she was not long for this world, I jumped off my ATV and ran her down after she broke free from the swarming caracaras.

Keith with red-backed

A close-up of Keith holding the female hawk, with it’s bulging crop.

My decision was instantaneous, our initial approach, which had spawned the male’s successful departure, had left the female vulnerable, and although interfering in nature is not something I typically do, in this case our approach had tipped the competitive balance in this ongoing interaction, and my rescue attempt was aimed at minimizing the consequences.  The carcass was a little more than a kilometer from our cottage at our farm-settlement headquarters, and I remounted my ATV, cradling the hawk in my left hand while steering and thumb-throttling the ATV with my right.  We reached the settlement several minutes later where I placed the female in a dog kennel to give here time to digest her crop peacefully.

Four hours later I released the hawk, who by then had digested about half of food in her crop, but to no avail, as a group for more than a dozen caracaras appeared as out of nowhere and proceeded once again to pin her down in what appeared to be a death grip.  Once more I sped toward the hawk, ran her down, and re-rescued her, placing her back in the kennel with a plan to release her the following morning.

By the time I had grabbed her from the kennel the next day morning, the distended crop was no longer visible, and although half-a-dozen caracaras again initially pursued her, this time they kept their distance, as the lack of a crop most likely signaled them as to the danger in approaching too closely.  After flying off and perching on a fence post for about 5 minutes, the hawk flew off un-pursued in the direction of the goose carcass and her mate.  She was re-sighted at the settlement several days later holding her own against a group of caracaras fighting over a goose carcass that had been fed to the farmer’s pigs.

The sharper talons of the predatory Red-back Hawk make them formidable opponents to the less predatory and less well-armed caracaras—at least when not encumbered by an over-filled crop.  However, when they do have a large crop, the interspecies-competitive relationship changes, and in mid-winter (austral-winter August is the equivalent of boreal-winter February) when both species are hard-pressed for food, it becomes something of a raptor-eat-raptor world on the Falklands Islands where things can change rapidly for individual birds.

Stay tuned… next week I will blog about yet another potential dietary item for food-stressed Johnny Rooks: kelp maggots.

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Skyline drive survey

Our survey vehicle on Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park during our initial survey in the summer of 2005

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

20 July 2016

I realize that I am running a risk with this column in talking about raptor monitoring. Indeed, when I begin to talk about monitoring, my audience often begins to doze off.  If I continue to talk long enough, some may even fall asleep.  Nevertheless, monitoring not only is a useful tool in raptor conservation; it is an essential tool.  When we in raptor conservation fail to monitor populations of birds of prey we often pay a steep and, in some instances, an irreversible cost.

Consider the current plight of the Indian Long-billed and Asian White-rumped Vultures, two species that 40 years ago ranked as the world’s most abundant large raptors.  Both species were then common and widespread throughout southeastern Asia.  When populations of both species crashed by more than 95% in Bharatpur, India in less than two decades in the late 1900s, the problem was thought to be pesticides.  But when similar reports were received for other populations elsewhere in these species wide ranges, a lack of earlier population monitoring made it difficult initially to ascertain the actual magnitude of the declines.

Two vultures that had once been so common that no one thought to monitor the sizes of their populations were now so uncommon that some conservationists were suggesting that they were in the “fast-lane” to extinction.  Half of a very large number is still a very large number, and by the time people were paying attention to these formerly species few knew what their once very large numbers had been.

Eventually conservationists learned the problem was an FDA approved drug, diclofenac, then in use on livestock.  Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory substitute for aspirin that, while non-toxic to humans, turned out to be highly toxic to vultures in the genus Gyps.  But without proper population monitoring, we had reached a point where expensive captive breeding was necessary to reverse the trends.  Had we been monitoring these populations earlier, such extreme measures would not have been necessary.

Which brings me to my point.  Monitoring populations of raptors—even common and abundant species—is a critical component of practical and effective raptor conservation.  This is why Hawk Mountain decided to begin doing so with two species of common and widespread New World vultures in 2005.  As of late 2015, the Sanctuary has surveyed Black, Turkey, and other vultures in 23 locations throughout the Americas: from central western Canada in northcentral North America all the way south to Tierra del Fuego in southern South America and the Falkland islands in the South Atlantic.

Our surveys include both winter and summer counts totaling more than 24,000 miles of road counts across 14 United States, 4 Canadian provinces, and 6 central and South American countries.  Surveys are conducted by a driver and one official observer along secondary routes at 30 to 40 miles an hour on rain-less and fog-less days.  Counts begin at nine in the morning and end at four in the afternoon after and before most of the birds have roosted for the evening. In addition to Black and Turkey vultures, all other scavenging birds of prey are counted as well, including all other vultures, condors, and caracaras.

When we began the counts in 2005, the plan was to survey both Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures in representative areas across much of their geographic ranges and to redo the surveys once a decade in both winter and summer, so that populations of both migratory and resident populations of these common scavengers could be monitored routinely. Declines in numbers could be assessed in a timely fashion, and conservation action taken as necessary, before populations had declined catastrophically.

Black bear scvenging a road-killed deer

An unexpected “non-vulture” scavenger feasting on a road-killed deer along Skyline Drive during our second round survey in the summer of 2016.

Round two of our surveys began in early July 2016 when three Summer Field Experience Interns and I redid two day-long road counts in northern Virginia that were originally undertaken in the summer of 2005.  One of the routes was a mountainous 195-kilometer meander along Skyline Drive in the Park Service’s Shenandoah National Park and the northern-most section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The other was a 211-km route that followed the eastern shoulder of the upper Shenandoah Valley.  The numbers of vultures sighted were encouraging.  During two days of field work this summer, we counted a total of 253 Tukey Vultures and 14 Black Vultures, versus 124 TVs and 9 BVs seen on the summer 2005 counts.

Although this initial field effort was a modest one, we will ramp-up counts this winter to include 6 routes totaling 963 kilometers in western and central Panama, along with the two winter counts in northern Virgina.  Over the next five years, we plan to re-conduct all of our surveys from west-central Canada south to Tierra del Fuego.  We hope to find that all populations previously surveyed are stable of increasing.  However, if they are not, we plan to put conservation actions into play that will determine the cause or courses for the declines and begin work to reverse them.

Vulture perform important ecological services in the ecosystems they inhabit, not the least of which include nutrient recycling and reducing the likely spread of diseases including botulism, anthrax, and rabies.  Protecting their populations is a critical aspect of Hawk Mountain’s mission, and we plan to stay on top of this.  Our next surveys in Virginia are scheduled for December 2016.  We plan to redo our winter surveys in Panama in January 2017.  Once we have conducted them I will be in touch.

Between then and now let me know if you have any questions on this monitoring effort and how you can support the Sanctuary financially in carrying out this crucial part of our mission. Feel free to email me at Bildstein@hawkmtn.org or call me at 570 943 3411 ext. 108.

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keith releasing vulture may 2016

Keith releasing “Calm Lady” at the Buckeye dairy-farm trap site.

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

27 June 2016

We’ve all seen the Gary Larson cartoons of vultures perched or soaring above one or two desiccated cowboys insightfully expounding on something comical.  Truth be told however, vultures are rare inhabitants of most of the world’s deserts.  Fortunately, this is not so in the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.

The Sonoran, a fascinating and ecologically rich region, is an important go-to place for vacationing Canadian and US snow birds, as well as home to 10 species of amphibians, 100 or so reptiles, 60 mammals, and more than 350 species of birds, including the world’s most northern breeding populations of Cathartes aura aura, a largely Neotropical subspecies of Turkey Vultures.  Investigating raptors at the limits of their geographic ranges has been a fascination of mine for more than 40 years, and this explains why I traveled to Buckeye, Arizona, 30 minutes west of Phoenix on Interstate 10 just before midnight on the night of Tuesday 17 May 2016.

Hawk Mountain’s Senior Research Biologist Jean-Francois Therrien and I landed at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix with an ambitious agenda.  The following day I would travel two hours south to Tucson to give a talk on our vulture work at the world famous Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, while at the same time Jean-Francois would hook up with Rich Glinski, the editor of The Raptors of Arizona, and try to catch vultures at a dairy facility outside of Buckeye.  Dairy farms are large in Arizona, and still-born calves would be the bait at our desert trap site.

Both Black and Turkey Vultures occur in Buckeye, and although we had begun our studies in the state in 2014 focusing solely on the latter, we have recently expanded the work to both species, as both were feeding, interacting at, and fighting over at the same nutritional resources, and fully understanding the feeding ecology of two species was only possible if we studied both of these competitors.

My talk at the museum was set for noon and a group of 40-plus museum workers and volunteers were eager to what I had to say as the museum had open an exhibit featuring both Black and Turkey Vultures a few months earlier.  Half way through the talk my mobile phone vibrated in my pocket.  Unfortunately, I ignored it as I didn’t want to interrupt the presentation.  That was a mistake, as Jean-Francois was calling from Buckeye to let me know that he and Ron had just caught and placed a satellite tracking device on an adult Turkey Vulture they had decided to call “Moo Moo,” the name the young daughter of our host blurted out when she first laid eyes upon it.  (Most of our trapping sites are on private land, and we always make certain to engage the land owners in all aspects of our field work, including watching us place tracking devices on the birds we catch and tag and helping us name them.)  The next phone call came two hours thereafter when JF called to let me know that he and Rich caught and tagged a second Turkey Vulture named “Gash.”  Both individuals, while quite healthy, weighed less than 70% of the Turkey Vultures we catch in Pennsylvania, which were members of the considerably more massive septentrionalis subspecies.  Needless to say we celebrated the day over dinner at a “wings” restaurant close to our motel.  We had brought four tracking devices with us, and after just one day of the four that we had allotted to trapping and tagging birds, we were half way to our goal.  The pressure was still on, but reaching our goal certainly appeared doable, and we were pleased.

Keith and AZ bird May 2016

Keith with “Calm Lady” at the trapping site.

We caught Turkey Vulture number three, “Calm Lady,” early afternoon the next day, and caught our fourth Turkey Vulture, “Early Bird,” before eight the following morning.  Four birds after a little more than two days in the field.  Not bad… not bad at all.  We took time off from the field the rest of day three while planning our work for the remaining two days we had scheduled to be in Arizona.  When we first started working in Arizona in May of 2014, our plan was trap and tag at least a dozen Turkey Vultures, and the four we caught in May of 2016 brought our total 15.  We also planned to conduct a series of six seasonal road surveys totaling 1,061 miles in southern and western Arizona.  The surveys would allow us to estimate the sizes of the wintering and summering populations there, providing us with critical information on regional numbers.

The next morning we set off a 166-mile road survey that began at Gila Bend and meandered through the towns of Ajo, Why, and Sells Arizona, while circling back toward Tucson.  We counted 63 Turkey Vultures and 3 Black Vultures along the way.  After overnighting in Tucson, we conducted a second, 152-mile survey that began at Three Points and continued south to Nogales on the border with Mexico, before turning north to Continental.  On that survey we counted 30 TVs and 1 BV along this route.  After finishing the survey we scurried back to Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix to catch a red-eye flight back to Newark, New Jersey.  It was then onto Hawk Mountain by car, where we arrived mid-morning on Monday the 23rd.

Although we had spent but five days in the field, we had managed to catch and tag four new Turkey Vultures and had conducted two full-day roadside counts.  Our next trip to Arizona will be in January 2017, when we hope to catch and tag at least three Black Vultures and conduct as many as six road surveys.  Although the work—if you want to call it that—might seem tedious to some, for me and my colleagues it was as close to heaven as one comes in raptor biology…  a chance to catch up on all things “vulture” while trapping and tagging a few birds, surveying an important regional populations of two species, and getting the word out to the public about why we are studying Turkey and Black Vultures and what we are finding out about them.

In my next blog, which I hope to have out in several weeks, I will update you on our Arizona findings to date.

To learn how you can help support our studies, email me at Bildstein@hawkmtn.org or call me at 570 943 3411 ext. 108.

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Keith holding a satellite tagged juvenile Hooded Vulture

Keith holding a satellite tagged juvenile Hooded Vulture

By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D.
Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science
3 October 2013

As readers of this blog know all too well, Africa’s vultures are in trouble … big trouble. Nine of 11 species are “Red Listed” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, either as Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered, and many regional populations face the immediate threat of extirpation. Hooded Vultures, whose movement ecology Hawk Mountain decided to study in detail in 2012 are no exception (the species is now considered Endangered globally), and many populations in both East Africa and South Africa appear to be in steep decline.

With critical support from the Wallace Research Foundation and North Star Science and Technology, Hawk Mountain and its colleagues in Africa are in the process of placing satellite tracking devices on individual Hooded Vultures in many parts of its African range. Indeed, if all goes according to plan, two or more tracking devices will be placed on Hooded Vultures in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa later this autumn.

Earlier this week my colleagues and I placed four units on Hooded Vultures (three juveniles and one adult) in The Gambia, a small West African nation surrounded on all sides except for its Atlantic Coast by Senegal. The work went extremely well and what I learned during my short visit to this African nation has lifted my spirits considerably.

Clive Barlow, an intrepid Gambian colleague and new friend, has been watching Hooded Vultures for decades in The Gambia, and his willingness to partner with Hawk Mountain allowed me and raptor specialists Dr. Marc Bechard of Boise State University and Dr. Corinne Kendall of Columbia University to conduct a series of road surveys in The Gambia, as well as catch and tag four individuals for satellite tracking. Clive who has worked in The Gambia as an ornithologist for 30 years, co-wrote the book on Gambian birds with Dr. Tim Wacher ZSL UK (Barlow, et al. 1997. A field guide to Birds of The Gambia and Senegal), and l laid the ground work perfectly.

Our first day on the ground included meeting our counterparts inthe Gambia Department of Parks and Wildlife Management, including its director Mr. Momodou L. Kassama, and explaining how we intended to proceed with our work and discussing the details of our permit. The second day included baiting a trap site that Clive had been “pre-baiting” for weeks and sitting back and waiting for the vultures to arrive.

And arrive they did.

Part of a large communal ground roost used by Hooded Vultures near the national airport in The Gambia.

Part of a large communal ground roost used by Hooded Vultures near the national airport in The Gambia.

We placed the bait–a recently killed domestic chicken–out and set the trap at 9:30 a.m. Within two hours our first birds (two adults and a juvenile) dropped down and within a minute, we had trapped our first two Hooded Vultures: an adult we named Makasutu after the privately protected forest we had caught it in, and a juvenile named Mandina-Gambia, after the Mandina Lodge, the ecotourist facilty we used as base camp. In addition to placing tracking units on the birds, we collected a small amount of blood from each of them for sexing and eventual genetic analysis, weighed them, and released them back into the wild in short order. It is unusual to trap two birds simultaneously so we were confident about our great start.  The next day we caught and tagged another juvenile in the Department of Parks and Wildlife Management’s Abuko Nature Reserve about 20 kilometers away, and named it Abuko in honor of the reserve. We also conducted the first of three roadside counts along a 24-kilometer route during which we saw an astounding (at least to us) 654 Hooded Vultures. Two days later we caught a second juvenile at Abuko and named it Tan Hoodie … “Tan” meaning “vulture” in the local Wolof language. Two additional road surveys later in the week suggested that in western-most Gambia, at least, populations of approximately 20 birds per square kilometer were the norm, which is far more than any of us had anticipated. Indeed by comparison, I had only a few dozen hoodies during five weeks of work in the Masai Mara region of southern Kenya in 2011 and 2012.Why the birds are doing so well in The Gambia remains something of a mystery, but studying the movements of these birds, and comparing them with those of birds in decline populations elsewhere promises to be an important first step in understanding the species ecology in different parts of it range, which, in turn, should help us better assess where the threats to this species lay, and how we might better design effective strategies for their survival.

Several adult Hooded Vultures at a trapping site.

Several adult Hooded Vultures at a trapping site.

Unfortunately, one week in the Gambia is but a tiny step in the right direction.  Additional work, including satellite tagging many more birds is needed. The task will not be easy but for the rationale for doing it is plain. If we don’t learn more about this species ecology and behavior, and we don’t learn it quickly, we may lose ecologically functional populations of this the most widespread of all African vultures.More field work will require more funding, of course. But my trip to a haven for Hooded Vultures has only served to rejuvenate my enthusiasm for this important project. The loss of ecologically significant populations of vultures in southern Asia has brought with it dramatic increases in scavenging feral dogs, which, in turn, has resulted in rabies in humans skyrocketing in many places. We simply can’t afford to let that happen in Africa, the center of Old World Vulture diversity.Hawk Mountain plans to be in this good fight for the duration. If you want to help Hawk Mountain in this truly worthwhile effort, please contact me.

For information about how you can help, contact: mailto://bildstein@hawkmtn.orgor 570-943-3411 x108.

Acknowledgements:  Mawdo Jallow & Lamin Sanyang (DPWM) , Lawrence Williams , Linda English & staff Mandina Lodges @ Makasutu, Dr Tony Fulford & Dave Montrieul (road surveys & photographs)

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Johnny Rooks rip meat at a carcass. Photo by Keith Bildstein.

Johnny Rooks rip meat at a carcass. All photo by Dr. Keith Bildstein, Hawk Mountain.

By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D.
Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science 

Having studied Striated Caracaras–or Johnny Rooks as they are often called–on the Falkland Islands for three years, I have steadfastly defended “my” species against their “flying devils” reputation.  They are in no way “bad birds,” I have told people, but rather are merely curious and, at times, a bit mischievous, but certainly not mean spirited.  But after what happened earlier today I may need to change, or at least temper, my feelings toward these birds.

I bought a 4×4 ATV to help conduct road surveys on 49-sqaure-mile Saunder’s Island last year, and my first “quad-trip” from the farm settlement on the island to the Gentoo Penguin colony this February went off without a hitch. The ten-mile trek across rugged and rocky terrain had taken me more than an hour to complete, and I was eager to survey the penguin colony for color-banded caracaras as part of my ongoing research on their movement ecology on and beyond the island. 

Three un-banded Johnny Rooks met me and the quad at the gate to the penguin colony and I decided to take my ignition key with me just in case the birds had a mind to take my vehicle for a spin.  I then went off on foot for my one hour survey at the colony. 

repaired seat with duct tape racing stripe by keith bildstein

The brand new research quad already sports a duct tape racing stripe.

Forty minutes later, when my quad was once again in view, I noticed that five Johnnies were hopping all over it, and that at least one bird was pulling at the vehicle’s black naugahide seat.  I was still more than half a kilometer away and downhill from the quad, and I decided to continue my search for banded Johnnies and deal with un-banded individuals at the quad once I was done. 

When I closed to within 100 meters of the vehicle, I could see that the birds already had shredded the front edge of the seat cover and that two juvenile Johnnies were alternately pulling out the foam-rubber cushioning and calling out to the others to join in the fun. 

I often tell people that the strongest muscles in a Johnny Rook are its neck muscles, and strong neck muscles enhance their ability to quickly pull meat from penguin carcasses during the feeding frenzies they engage in.  I was now witnessing how they managed to keep those muscles in shape:  in less than an hour my relatively new quad had become an exercise machine, the avian equivalent of a stair-master for the neck. 

I sprinted the last 50 meters to the quad and surveyed the damage.  Dozens of bite-sized pieces of foam rubber were scattered about the machine, as were several long strips of shiny new black naugahide.  The dash board was missing several buttons, including the one that I use to reset the vehicle’s odometer to record distances traveled on my quad surveys, and the area around the ignition lock had been tampered with. 

Looking down at the three remaining birds, I proudly extracted the quad key from my jeans and showed it to them.  “I outsmarted you guys,” I said to myself and placed the key in the ignition slot. But when I turned it, nothing happened. The horn worked just fine, but I couldn’t start the quad, and the idea of a ten-mile walk back to the settlement crossed my mind. 

Not fun and certainly, more than a bit embarrassing. 

Methodically inspecting the quad’s heavily festooned handle bars from left-to-right helped me solve the mystery.  The Johnnies has pulled my emergency stop cord from its mooring and had hidden the critical connecting rubber plug under the cowling that surrounded the quad’s steering column. In less than a minute I reassembled the safety contraption, started the vehicle, took off toward the settlement. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon reupholstering my seat cushion with foam-rubber from my camera’s Pelican Case and an ever-handy roll of duct tape. I then asked my Falkland Island hosts for suggestions on how better to protect my quad from my birds. A heavy-weight burlap bag appeared, together with a handful of bungee cords. Since then, cloaking my quad with burlap has prevented the Johnnies from destroying it. 

burlap covered quad with caracara looking on by keith bildstein

Note to researchers on Saunder’s Island: use burlap and bungee cords to protect your all-terrain vehicles.

The take-home message: Flying devils? No, not really. 

It isn’t every day that a study species teaches a biologist how to take care of his equipment. In fact, I probably owe the Johnnies a favor for setting me straight on how to keep my quad intact. But I do have a suggestion for them. The next time they feel “instructive” I hope that they just write me a note on how to keep my equipment neat and tidy.

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