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Dr. Mike McGrady, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Research Associate

13 Feb 2018

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An adult Egyptian vulture that was captured and fitted with a GPS transmitter in Oman.  Adult Egyptian vultures are mostly white from about 4 yreas of age, with black flight feathers.  Juveniles are brown, and subaduts are mottled, becoming ever whiter with age.  Photo: M. McGrady.

Like so many Old World vultures, the Egyptian vulture is globally endangered.  The threats to Egyptian vultures are pretty much the same as those that other Old World vultures face, and include electrocution, changes in food availability, direct and indirect persecution, targeted and inadvertent poisoning, and hunting for the black magic market.  Its endangered status and the threats notwithstanding, the Sultanate of Oman is a stronghold for Egyptian vultures, because it apparently has a healthy resident population and is a wintertime destination for a substantial number of migrants from farther north.

Since 2012, International Avian Research (IAR) has been working with the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) conducting research on Egyptian vultures in Oman.  That work has included surveys on Masirah Island (which was found to be home to the second densest breeding population in the world), monitoring numbers of vultures at landfills and satellite radiotracking of vultures.

Since 2015, the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association (GLAZA) has, through Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, supported the work of IAR.  Two vultures were fitted with GPS radiotags in both 2015 and 2016, and two steppe eagles were fitted with tags in 2017—steppe eagles are also endangered; they breed mostly in central Asia, but migrate south (including into Oman) in the winter.

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An adult Egyptian vulture fitted with a GPS transmitter and ready for release being held by an Environment Society of Oman staff member.  Photo: M. McGrady

In January 2018, with the continuing support of GLAZA and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, along with additional support from the Bernd Meyburg Foundation for Raptor Research and Conservation, IAR and its cooperators were able to capture 13 Egyptian vultures, 12 adults and one 2-year-old, and fit them with GPS tags.  Since then, the birds have been doing what vultures do.  Most of the vultures have spent their days ranging mostly in northeast Oman in the Hajar mountains and surrounding foothills. They have made regular visits to landfills, roosted in steep wadis in the mountains, and perched on high voltage electricity pylons. One bird has behaved a bit differently and has made at least two laps of the northern part of the country, seemingly always on the move.

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Adult Egyptian vulture in Oman in January 2018.  The GPS transmitter is fitted as a backpack and can be barely seen. Photo: M. McGrady

What do or will we learn from tracking, and how can this help conserve Egyptian vultures?  Well, the tracking of four vultures since 2015 has revealed that in Oman, Egyptian vultures suffer from electrocution and make regular use of landfills for feeding.  The data indicate that the vultures may move around in a way so as to keep tabs on the availability of food.  This, if you think about it, makes sense for a species that must find food that is not reliably available at all times.  The data further suggest that ongoing upgrades to waste management in Oman, reducing the number of dumps from over 300 to 12, may not have negative effects on vultures.  Indeed, improved waste management may make food resources safer for vultures and at the same time find benefits for human health, which is really good news.   IAR and ESO have also used the information to educate the public, including school children, about vultures and the important ecosystem services they provide as nature’s waste managers.

The data from these newly deployed tags should help the cooperating groups do more.  As we try to understand the ecology of the Egyptian vulture in order to conserve them, more data is important to the pursuit of science-based solutions.  From a public education standpoint, a complete “story” that includes more individuals over more years, provides a compelling case for conservation.  Also, with so many tagged adult birds, at least some are expected to be migrants, so new information on timing and routes of migration should be collected, and the location of breeding areas farther north can be determined. Such information is important in devising effective conservation strategies that span the huge range covered by migratory individuals, and it demonstrates the connectivity between breeding and wintering areas, which are sometimes separated by thousands of kilometers.

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Movements of 13 Egyptian vultures caught and fitted with GPS transmitters in Oman in January 2018.

 

If you want to keep up with this effort, IAR posts information every so often on the project at https://egyptianvultureoman.blogspot.co.at/ .  If you would like to support this project, please do so through an earmarked donation to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

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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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By Katie Harrington, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Research Associate

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

Many birds of prey time their feeding efforts to take advantage of the cyclic abundance of their prey.  In East Africa, for example, Old World Vultures rush to flight each morning to search for ungulate carcasses created by previous night’s lion and hyena kills.  And in Europe and elsewhere rodent-eating Eurasian Kestrels synchronize their feeding efforts to co-occur with the four-hour activity cycles of voles they feed upon.  Other raptors, including most notably coastal populations of sea eagles and ospreys, set their hunting efforts to coincide with falling tides, taking advantage of the increased vulnerability of fishes in shallow waters created by the receding waters.  And now, thanks to the insightful field observations of former Sanctuary trainee and now graduate student Katie Harrington of San Francisco, raptor biologists can add Striated Caracaras to the list of tidally influenced birds of prey.

Found only on remote islands in Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands, Striated Caracaras, or Johnny Rooks, are aggressive scavenging birds of prey.  Once thought to rummage almost exclusively on dead and dying seabirds and livestock (including penguins and sheep), human leftovers, and occasionally, marine-mammal feces, we have discovered that these cunning birds of prey also take a many kinds of terrestrial invertebrates, including both earthworms and grass grubs, and as well many intertidal invertebrates, including dipteran kelp maggots, limpets, barnacles, and even—believe it or not—octopuses.

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The early bird gets… the octopus. The first two rooks on the scene dislodge the marine predator from where it was sheltering in a tide pool and begin consuming its tentacles.

One of the primary efforts of our most recent field efforts on Saunders Island, in the Falkland Islands where roughly 150 Johnny Rooks spend the summer months, was to learn more about the importance of invertebrates in the Rooks’ diet. What factors influence the amount of time Rooks spend foraging for invertebrates each day, and does this strategy provide an ecologically significant amount of nutrition? To find out, we spent hours observing the Rooks raking for maggots in accumulated, decomposing kelp wrack, some determinedly excavating pits six inches deep, and many digging shoulder to shoulder for over an hour. During one mid-afternoon observation session, we observed what appeared to be a shift in their preferred entrée. The Rooks exited the kelp wrack and flew toward an adjacent rocky intertidal zone that was being slowly exposed by the falling tide. First one, then four, then up to twenty birds entered the rocky area, both by flight and by their often-preferred method of walking and running.

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In less than a minute, the word is out, and more than 10 Johnny Rooks surround the octopus. Many of the juveniles in this group were banded earlier this year.

Previously submerged, the rocks began to provide a platter of meal options, from blanketing mussels to limpets to innumerable species of invertebrates sheltered under flat rocks. We watched as the rooks began silently and systematically walking along the waterline, peering under overhanging rocks in search of limpets that had not yet suctioned tightly to survive the low tide. Unlike their foraging strategy within the kelp wrack, which can reach as many as fifteen individuals raking within 2 meters of each other, the Rooks searched the intertidal as individuals or in small, mixed-age groups. As the tide fell further, some even alit on the partially exposed adjacent kelp forest, searching the algae’s stipes for potential prey. Their persistence paid off as we watched many quickly consuming their quarry, some within two minutes of their previous catch.

Less than fifteen minutes from the time the Rooks shifted into the area, a juvenile bird encountered a Southern Red Octopus caught in a tide pool. The Rook immediately pulled the octopus up onto a rock where it laid overturned, struggling to right itself as nine juveniles began pulling on and partitioning its tentacles. Within six minutes, more than thirty Rooks encircled the octopus, which had been reduced to portions of its head, with which individual Rooks were then able to abscond. With full crops, the group dispersed, some Rooks sheltered aside nearby ledges to digest while others retreated to a fresh-water seep on the adjacent cliff to wash down the meal.

Previously, the only known predators of the Southern Red Octopus were Southern Sea Lions and humans that opportunistically fish for them during spring tides; yet the speed at which the Rooks dispatched the octopus suggested this was not the first time they had encountered the eight legged invertebrate. Octopus may be clever, but they have met their match in the Johnny Rook.

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