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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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The team pauses to take a self: From left, Jean-Fancois Therrien, Marc Bechard, Jennie Duberstein and Keith Bildstein.

The team, from left, Jean-Fancois Therrien, Marc Bechard, Jennie Duberstein & Keith Bildstein.

By Keith Bildstein, Ph.D.
Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
May 26, 2014

I have just returned from field work on the northernmost population of North America’s southernmost race of turkey vultures, Cathartes aura aura, a diminutive and largely tropical sub-species that weighs only two-thirds as much as other North American turkey vultures.  Our field team was made up of Hawk Mountain Research Associate Dr. Marc Bechard of Boise State University, former Sanctuary trainee Dr. Jennie Duberstein of the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service, me, and Hawk Mountain’s Senior Research Biologist Dr. Jean-Francois Therrien.

Our work in the approximately 100,00-square-mile Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona which included placing satellite tags on both turkey vultures and black vultures, turned out to be—as  often is true of field work–full of surprises.  Our new trapping site at a pair of dairy farms on the outskirts of Buckeye, Arizona, southwest of Phoenix, was far better managed than many of the farms we had visited before, and its owners were gracious beyond belief. One of the potential trap sites offered little in the way of clear views of any traps we might put out, but a second site near a massive ossuary, or boneyard, proved to be perfect.

A bone pile provided an ideal trapping site in the Sonoran Desert west of Buckeye, Arizona.

A bone pile provided an ideal trapping site in the Sonoran Desert west of Buckeye, Arizona.

Our plan was simply enough to trap and tag six turkey vultures and four black vultures, conduct a few day-long roadside counts, and spend a day looking for several of the individual vultures we had tagged in May 2013. We had nine days to accomplish all of this and, as there was no rain in the forecast, the plan seemed quite reasonable.  In the past, our experience with trapping turkey and black vultures has been that the latter species is easier to trap than the former, in part because black vultures dominate turkey vultures at carcasses, and in part because of the black vulture’s more social nature (i.e., if you catch one you are likely to catch many).

But not this time around.

The first six birds we caught were turkey vultures!  Blacks, although relatively common in the area, rarely showed up at our trap site, and were more skittish than the turkeys. We did catch one on the sixth day of trapping, but decided to turn to road surveys on the seventh day, as the likelihood of trapping more black vultures seemed rather low.  Presumably most black’s in the area were feeding somewhere else, and unfortunately, we never found that location.

A perched turkey vulture along one of our survey routes near the ghost town of Ruby, Arizona.

A perched turkey vulture along one of our survey routes near the ghost town of Ruby, Arizona.

We spent the next two days counting vultures along two road-survey routes that covered more than 300 miles of Arizona secondary roads south of Gila Bend and Tucson Arizona, mainly in the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and the Coronado National Forest.  Unlike the counts we conducted in January, the routes were filled with single and small groups of turkey vultures, many of which appeared to be searching the roadways for road-killed carrion, including snakes. Overall, we saw more than 10 times as many birds as we had seen along the same routes in winter, suggesting that the bulk of the population migrates south from the region in winter.

We spent the final day in the field searching for the five vultures we had tagged last May. The first one we searched for was “Jennie,” a vulture that, having migrated about 250 miles into Mexico last October, returned to Arizona less than a week later and overwintered in the area south and west of Gila Bend.   Unfortunately, Jennie was roosting in the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, a bombing range south of Gila Bend that was off bounds for us, and was feeding at a dairy farm west of Gila Bend that the owners would not allow us to enter.  The next three birds were roosting and hunting closer to Maricopa Arizona and we set out in search of them just before noon.

The last known location of the next bird, “Desert Rat,” took us to a roosting site in a nut grove across the street from a large dairy farm.  Although we did not actually see the bird, we did find a number of molted feathers under a nut tree, confirming the presence of vultures at the site.

Keith and Linda Wallace-Gray with her vulture namesake in May 2013.

Keith and Linda Wallace-Gray with her vulture namesake in May 2013.

The next bird we looked for was “Julie,” who had last been sighted over a recently cut  north of Stanfield, Arizona.  Although we failed to see Julie, we did see another tagged vulture, “Linda” feeding together with six other birds on a road-killed jackrabbit at the edge of the hay field. Linda’s transmitter had been “misbehaving” and was sending signals episodically, with the last fix being recorded more than a month earlier in early April.  She was close to where she was then, and our sighting of her helped explain the episodic nature of her signals.  Although her tracking device was still in place on her back, the antenna for it was missing, a fact that almost certainly explained the spotty nature of her signals.  Given that we had seen close to 100 birds the day we were searching for the tagged individuals, and that as many as 500 birds almost certainly were using the area, our visual sighting of Linda, albeit without her antenna, was like winning the lottery … a “grand finale” of sorts for our field work.

Our plans are to revisit Arizona next January, not only to finish our tagging efforts there, but also to conduct additional road surveys. Although we are but one year into our studies of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert vultures, we already have learned much about their ecology.  Equally importantly, we also have learned to expect the unexpected in this population, which gives me reason to believe we need considerable additional monitoring to understand this most-southern race of North America’s most common and widespread avian scavenger. So please stay tuned.

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