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Wyoming wilds

After France, I returned to my home country and proceeded to visit the two places that, taken together, may encapsulate America better than any others I can think of: New York City and rural Wyoming. After a few bustling, hot days spent visiting my brother and wandering below sky-scrapers, people-watching in awe at how many humans, pigeons, and small dogs can fit together in one city, I loaded my suitcase up and headed back west.

 

A family friend from Takilma, Matt Kauffman, invited me out to visit Wyoming University where he teachers to get a sense of what graduate student life is like out there. It’s been two years since I graduated from CC, and even though I’m more convinced than ever that I want to go back to school to get a degree in some field related to wildlife and ecology, I still have very little idea what specific questions I want to look at or where I want to go. This trip didn’t necessarily answer those questions, but it brought me many steps closer than where I was before.

 

After a couple days talking to professors at the University, I headed out to the field sites. I essentially toured a bunch of different graduate student projects, spending a few days with each one, volunteering my time and learning about their research, their advisors, and what sort of big questions they think about.

 

I went from the Wind River mountains looking at Mule Deer migration patterns and how they follow the “green wave” of vegetation as Spring hits at different latitudes and elevations. Then moved onto an ambitious project looking at deer fawn survival and maternal health. Then a sagebrush songbird project looking at nest predation by small mammals near oil and gas development. Then onto the Tetons and an Elk migration project using camera traps to assess sex and age ratios. And finally, a couple days with a Dark-eyed Junco project looking at immunology and metabolic rates at different altitudes.

Measuring a fawn

Measuring a fawn

On songbird nest surveys

On songbird nest surveys

sagebrush sparrow nest (one egg and two nestlings)

sagebrush sparrow nest (one egg and two nestlings)

sagebrush sparrow nestlings trying to make their mouths an easy target for food

sagebrush sparrow nestlings trying to make their mouths an easy target for food

measuring a mouse

measuring a mouse

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Wyoming was amazing, and going there made me realize how much I missed the type of landscapes I grew familiar with in Colorado. There are so few people out there that the natural landscapes are vast and breathtaking. The mountains, especially the Tetons, are so impossibly big it’s easy to get the urge to climb them just to know they’re real. I thoroughly fell in love with the landscapes, from sagebrush to thick bear country, but I also noted the desperate springtime joy of the students coming out of winter hibernation that served as a warning for just how long the snow and cold stays there.

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Along my many visits, some of the highlights (beyond the incredible scenery and beautiful high-elevation hikes) were getting to hold a baby deer fawn, take a ride across the lake at the foot of the Tetons, catch and hold mice, see most of the ungulate diversity Wyoming has to offer, watch a Flicker feeding its young, interact with habituated marmots, observe several badgers, and a stumble across a ruffed grouse in mating display. The grouses were all over the place, but far more often heard than seen. They make a deep, throbbing call that sounds like someone starting a chainsaw in the distance. Even when I finally saw one up close, the sound was more felt than heard, registering at a level almost below what I could actually hear. The mating display was somewhere between ridiculous and elegant. The bird motored smoothly along the grass, seeming to swim rather than walk, like a chubby little tugboat on the water. Then it made that call again, inflating giant red patches on the sides of its neck and sticking its gravely-dark tail into the air. It was a treat.

Horned Lizard

Horned Lizard

A marmot all together too close

A marmot all together too close

Interestingly enough, one of the reasons Wyoming felt so intuitively familiar to me was that it reminded me a lot of the Mara. When I talked to a fish and game biologist who used to be a student of Matt’s, she said she had the same feeling after being in Kenya. The shape and openness of the landscape, the large herds of ungulates that work on a migration cycle, the emphasis on herding cattle, and even the mindset of the people in some ways (independent, politically on the conservative side, proud of their lifestyles and wary of change, happy to live alongside nature but always in a constant battle against the whims of weather or predators).

View of the Tetons on Jackson Lake

View of the Tetons on Jackson Lake

All in all, the trip was thought-provoking, fun, and helpful. I think it’s put me in a good mindset as I prepare for my next adventure. In a few days after my sister’s wedding, I head out for the island of Trinidad as an intern with a guppy evolution project. Hopefully it will bring more exciting work and more thoughtful questions.

I’m sitting in a café in East Village, NYC, sipping a latté, people-watching to the barista’s screaming rock music and trying to process all of the whirling changes I’ve been on lately. I just got back from a family trip to southern France, and I keep catching myself right before I say “merci” to everyone here.

 

After the GGRO and Michigan, I kept heading east and didn’t stop until I was across the ocean. It’s been a long time since my parents, my twin, and I all traveled together, so it was nice to have a family friend’s wedding as an excuse to get out to a place I wouldn’t have thought to travel to on my own. After a rocky start (it’s hard to travel for the first time all of us as adults), it was nice to explore a new place together as a family. We started the trip in Sarlat, which was a beautiful old stone town that was small enough to be cozy but big enough to offer a lot to look at and do and was great place to help us get our bearings.

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I didn’t do very much research before the trip (except for desperately trying to learn some French) and was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful Southern France was. I had imagined that after thousands of years of human settlement, the natural environment would have been pretty much destroyed, but there were still plenty of beautiful rivers, forested areas, and a diversity of birdlife. I very quickly began torturing myself for not bringing my binoculars.

european robin

european robin

barn swallow

barn swallow

common house martin?

common house martin?

One of m favorite days of the trip was when we canoed down the Dordogne river from Vitrac to Beynac. The river had a steady but calm flow, and the only real difficulties had to do with coordination and inexperience. As we drifted along between tree-covered banks, stone castles with twisting spires and trebuchets silhouetted on their battlements would appear between the foliage, suddenly looming up beside short, bright cliff-faces. As we passed different riverside villages, we could pull the canoes out and explore the cobblestoned streets. Congregations of raptors (Black Kites and Red Kites) wheeled overhead, while the occasional swan floated beside us. One trio of geese (I think they were Graylag Geese) even swam up to our boat and followed us, the male hissing softly in our direction.

 

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red kites

red kites

After a few days we made our way to Cregols for Molly and Veronique’s wedding. Vero spent her childhood summers in this area, and so they held the ceremony in the small town hall in the middle of the village. It was a simple affair that was mostly signing the marriage certificate and making a few speeches, but their messages for each other were very moving. It certainly wasn’t a marriage of impulse or sudden passion—the brides have been together for 18 years—but of love, steady and strong. France only legalized gay marriage in 2013, so it was finally a chance for the two of them to make their commitment official in the eyes of the law (very important since they have a child together). They didn’t emphasize the political impact of what their marriage meant, and they’ve been together for most of my life so I had mostly forgotten that as an aspect of their relationship, but it was nonetheless an undercurrent of importance in the ceremony.

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After the ceremony itself we made our way to an even more remote location for the reception and another couple days of celebration out in the woods. It was hard to believe, but the scenery just kept getting prettier the farther we went.

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A bee-imitating orchid at the reception

A bee-imitating orchid at the reception

It was interesting to see the ways in which Molly and Vero managed to merge two very different cultures at the reception. There were a lot of aspects in the planning that felt so familiar to me from our “hippie” community in southern Oregon but other aspects that were uniquely French. And somehow the two merged very comfortably.

 

It was nice to catch up with family friends I hadn’t seen in many, many years and finally connect with them as adults; I also met some really wonderful French friends of Molly and Vero, and we all spent a lot of time with Veronique’s family after the wedding.

 

One day, back in the Cregols area, we took a hike into the woods above the village. It was beautiful to weave through the oak woods with dappled sunlight, occasionally cut through by ancient-looking stone walls. At the top we found the giant sink hole that Molly had told us about. It was big enough to swallow the tiny village, and a mini forest had sprung up in the crater below. Molly said sometimes people rappel down into it and I wished I could have gone exploring in there.

 

Finally, we had to pack up and head home. We spent a day in Bordeaux before we flew out, and it was a bit jarring to be back in city life. The architecture of the city was interesting, and I saw some giant rats down by the riverfront (no one else was nearly as excited about that as I was) but in general I didn’t like it as much as the countryside.

 

Overall, it was a surprisingly sweet trip, and makes me interested in exploring France some more.

To catch a condor

[This is an article I wrote for the GGRO Peregrinations about our Intern Road Trip at the end of the season]

 

When we think of critically endangered species, we often think of animals like tigers, rhinos, pandas, or elephants. However, one of the rarest, most endangered birds in the world can be found not in some far away country but 130 miles south of the GGRO at Pinnacles National Park.

 

The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is the largest North American vulture and is one of the most well-known examples of captive-breeding reintroduction bringing an animal back from the brink of extinction. By 1982, habitat destruction, poaching, and lead poisoning reduced the population to just 22 birds. Many naturalists presumed their inevitable doom because California Condors only lay one egg at a time and take six years to reach sexual maturity. However, in the 1980s, the San Diego Zoo Global program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, the National Audubon Society, and the Los Angeles Zoo began a captive breeding program that has increased the population to 425 birds today (219 of which are living in the wild). The breeding and reintroduction program is ongoing as wild condor populations have yet to reach self-sustaining numbers (due to continuing threats such as lead poisoning), but these birds would certainly be extinct by now if it hadn’t been for those efforts.

 

I remember as a kid watching a nature program about the condors and how researchers donned vulture-headed puppets on their hands in order to feed and interact with the chicks. It was one of the first stories I can remember hearing about conservation and extinction. At that time, it wasn’t clear whether the program would work at all (and to be fair, the numbers are still low enough that the condor’s future is not a sure bet). They seemed as removed from me as tigers in Siberian Russia. Until I got to the GGRO, I had no idea it was possible for me to see a California Condor outside of a picture. So when it came time to plan an intern road trip, finally laying eyes on these mythic birds was #1 on my list.

 

Pinnacles National Park is one of five release sites for the California Condor breeding program and the closest place to find these winged conservation icons. So, on a sunny morning in early January, all five interns crammed into Bridget’s blue Subaru and headed south. We made a few stops along the way to learn about incredibly powerful (and expensive) microscopes at SF State University, poke sea anemones along the coast, and spend a day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Finally, just after dark, we made our way to the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park and found ourselves a camping spot at the Pinnacles Campground.

 

We awoke to dewdrops and quail calls and headed out. At the ranger station we planned our hiking route to one of the best Condor-watching spots: High Peaks overlook. We took the Bear Gulch Loop up to this highest point in the park. It started down in the valley floor, following Bear Creek and winding between Buckeye trees. Then it headed up. And up. And up. We climbed up the ridge past rolling meadows and oaks and into the rocky peaks made of consolidated volcanic ash and landslide breccia. We actually ended up hiking through all the major habitat types found in the park: Riparian, Woodlands, Chaparral, Grasslands, and Rock and Scree.

The other interns at the High Peaks overlook, scanning for condors

The other interns at the High Peaks overlook, scanning for condors

Finally, we reached the High Peaks overlook and immediately knew we were in the right place. There was a volunteer researcher there with a yagi antenna scanning for Condors. We spent a few hours eating lunch, resting and staring at some distant dark specs that we were fairly certain were condors, but weren’t close enough to tell for sure. Finally, feeling slightly dejected, we packed up and started to head back down. As soon as all cameras were safely zipped up in our packs, we heard a gasp and a yell and a giant dark shape soared over the rocky spire behind us. Suddenly an entire group of condors were directly overhead. They floated silently between the peaks and pine trees, their contrasted black and white wings spread wide while their bulbous, naked heads scanned the ground below. They were fantastically huge, and just for comparison, a turkey vulture flew along beside them, suddenly miniscule.

Condor 606

Condor 606

As we hiked down, we kept coming across the same group around bends in the path, slowly circling in the sky. There were at least eight of them, and it struck us how lucky we were to see a group of animals that actually makes up a very large percentage of the overall population. We could also see the big numbers painted on their patagial tags that researchers use to keep track of each individual. From these tags we were able to identify some of the birds we saw:

Condors 340 and 606 and unknown

Condors 340 and 606 and unknown

Female #550: According to the Pinnacles web site and the online Condor Spotter, this bird was one of the few wild-born chicks and was hatched in the park itself in 2010. However, she suffered from lead poisoning and was evacuated to the L.A. Zoo until 2011.

 

Male #606: This juvenile bird seemed to follow us around and is in almost every single one of my photos. His parents laid him in the wild in Big Sur, but concerns about situations like #550 above led researchers to swap his egg out and hatch him at the L.A. Zoo in 2011. He had a stress-free release in January 2013 and seems to be doing well in Pinnacles.

 

Male #340 a.k.a. “Kun-wak-shun”: This bird was the first chick successfully raised in the Oregon Zoo in 2004. He is described as an active and aggressive bird that quickly rose in the Condor hierarchy. He is a very exploratory vulture and often leads feeding expeditions. Sadly, his mate died of lead poisoning in 2014.

 

Male #602: Hatched in 2011 at the L.A. Zoo and released in 2013, 602 is the most dominant of his cohort and is frequently seen in Pinnacles.

 

Male #251 a.k.a. “Crush”: Hatched in 2001 at the L.A. Zoo. Crush’s original mate #306 and their chick died in 2013, probably due to lead poisoning. However, Crush has been courting #222 (Cosmo) for many years and was briefly put back into captivity because of his potentially dangerous jealousy towards her mate. Researchers are hopeful that the two will help form the breeding base of the Pinnacles population.

 

Female #222 a.k.a. “Cosmo”: Hatched in 2000 in San Diego, she is #251’s (Crush’s) current mate. When Cosmo’s old mate was injured and returned to captivity, she finally became receptive to Crush’s advances and although the two have struggled with tragedy, they may do better this year.

 

 

Female #236 “Tiny”: Hatched in 2001 in San Diego, she is one of the puppet-raised chicks I’d heard about. Small for the average female, she has nevertheless successfully raised and fledged two chicks in the wild and is described as having “spectacular parenting skills.”

 

Male #219 “Puff Daddy”: We aren’t 100% sure on this identification, but if we’re right, we got to see one of the largest wild California Condors. Hatched in 2000 in San Diego, Puff Daddy got his name because he makes himself even larger by inflating air sacs in his neck. However, he’s also been through some tough scrapes. Once, eating trash along Highway 1, a can got stuck on his lower mandible and had to be removed. Despite this, he also helped successfully fledge his first wild-born chick in 2010.

 

It was incredible to see these birds in the wild, but reading their biographies makes me even more concerned for their survival. The future of wild condors is uncertain. In 2000, the mortality rate for the wild populations was 25% and lead poisoning continues to be the biggest cause despite bans within the condor’s range. Pinnacles National Parks is trying to reduce lead exposure, and claim that it’s starting to have a measurable effect. Hopefully these California Condors and all the others will continue to grace the skies over Pinnacles National Park so that visitors like us have the opportunity to see these legends of the raptor world in person.

 

[Pinnacles was not our only stop along the intern road trip. We also visited Monterey Bay Aquarium and spent a full day watching penguin behavior as they stole each others’ pebbles, adorable otters performing tricks when they felt like listening to their handlers (which was rarely), wild whales spouting off the outdoor view platform, giant open ocean fish at feed time, an albatross that likes to be pet, sea lions lining the banks outside the aquarium, and many other incredible sights. The end of the trip also included a jaunt out to Año Nuevo to see the breeding elephant seals throw their massive weight around. It was incredible to get the opportunity to explore new areas with the amazing people I’ve grown so close to while at GGRO. I miss the other interns immensely.]

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A–no Nuevo Elephant Seals

A–no Nuevo Elephant Seals

Cal Academy visit, California Academy of Sciences skins

We also visited the California Academy of Sciences and got a tour of their study skins

At the end of all these travels, however, I had to say goodbye to the GGRO and the beautiful Marin Headlands.

Headlands graffiti

My favorite Headlands graffiti

Headlands graffiti

Headlands graffiti

Rodeo beach

A last look at Rodeo beach

It’s been several months since I last wrote on this blog. Since then, I finished migration season, went on an intern road trip, and after a month of office and data work, finished my time at the GGRO. I spent a month at home before heading out to spend a couple of months at Michigan State University working on the data side of the hyena project I worked with in Kenya. As I finally settle in here in Michigan, I’m trying to catch up a little on the blog [A task which I failed to do and am completing many more months later].

 

The final weeks of banding and hawkwatch were cut short by torrential rains in the headlands that set off floods and caused rodeo lagoon to breach to the ocean. The trail I sometimes took to work got so flooded I had to wear rubber boots if I wanted to walk to work. The upside of all of this was that tons of salamanders came out to breed, and plants everywhere burst into bright green.

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The birds started to really slow down towards the end, and it ended up being a pretty low year for the GGRO. However, the final day that I actually caught birds banding was a special one. By that time, I had passed my site leader test and got to run the blind with Dana. We went to the Poison Oak blind, and were instantly surrounded by fog. We only saw four birds the entire day, but we caught three of them, so were pretty happy with ourselves. Early in the day we got a gorgeous dark-morphed Red-tailed Hawk. Then, when something whizzed through the site, we worked at lightning speed and caught a Merlin.

fat female Merlin

Our big female Merlin

Our big female Merlin

dark morph red tail

dark morph red tail

After the official season ended, Buzz offered to take the interns road trapping, which is when instead of staying in one place to catch raptors, we drive around and catch and band birds that we find on the move. We couldn’t all go at once, so we split off onto different days. Matt and I went out with Buzz on the first trip and got phenomenally lucky. We drove north from the Headlands into farmland and long numbered roads and scoured the telephone for perched raptors.

 

The day started off moderately with a few juvenile Red-tailed Hawks and Matt and I each banded one. I was already pretty excited since it’d been so long since I’d held a raptor, but then we spotted another buteo on a telephone post. We weren’t 100% sure what it was until we had it in hand (no one wanted to say it out loud in case it wasn’t true), but we managed to catch a beautiful adult ferruginous hawk. Ferruginous hawks are stunning buteos that live in open prairies and eat ground-dwelling mammals (which is why they have such a big mouth). Their name, from the latin for red, comes from the deep red on the shoulders of the adult hawks that contrasts sharply with their bright white underside. This is a bird that is unusual to see in the Headlands, let alone catch. Buzz has seen and handled just about every raptor you could possibly find on the West Coast, so it is impressive to note that he was excited enough that he asked to band it.

The lighter adult ferruginous hawk

The lighter adult ferruginous hawk

The darker adult ferruginous hawk

The darker adult ferruginous hawk

Matt releasing an adult red-tailed hawk

Matt releasing an adult red-tailed hawk

We were all so excited after the ferruginous hawk, but the day didn’t slow down after that. We banded American Kestrels, and more Redtails (including one adult!) before we finally saw another Ferruginous Hawk on a telephone pole. This one was a bit trickier to capture, but after over half an hour of waiting, we finally got it. We couldn’t believe our luck. Buzz had to keep reminding us that not every road trapping trip went this well, and said that we would have to watch our backs for the next few weeks in case the other interns got too jealous. This second “ferrug” was also an adult and I got to band it. It struck me how different the colors on both the birds were. One was almost pure white below while the other was creamy to dark brown and more heavily marked, while the backs were predominantly gray versus reddish-brown. I was used to noticing plumage variation in redtails since we see them all the time, but I hadn’t expected the amount of difference between the two ferruginous hawks we caught that day.

 

 

After the road-trapping and wrapping up various tasks around the office, the interns took a road trip (see the next blog post). After that, there wasn’t much left to do besides prepare for the end of the year Banquet and make our goodbyes. Since it was the 30th year anniversary for the GGRO, the end of year celebration was especially meaningful. Some of the banders put together a poem, we gave out awards, people read off the high numbers for the year, and everyone swapped stories and ate good food. We interns put together a song (“Angel from the Headlands” sung to the tune of “Angel from Montgomery”) for the Director Allen Fish and performed it for him in honor of his time at the GGRO. It was a lovely way to wrap up a wonderful internship.

A placemat I designed for the Banquet, full of fun raptor activities

A placemat I designed for the Banquet, full of fun raptor activities

The back of the placemat with an answer key

The back of the placemat with an answer key

But even after I was home, I wasn’t quite done with the GGRO. A couple weeks after I was back, I joined a GGRO hawkwatch trip to the Klammath Basin led by expert birder Bob Power. It was an incredible trip and made me embarrassed at how little I had really explored this excellent birding location so close to home. The highlights of the trip were getting to see a leucistic bald eagle (possibly one of the only ones in the world; certainly only one of few) and a mating pair of Prairie falcons doing incredible acrobatics and prey transfers.

Dilute plumage bald eagle

Dilute plumage bald eagle

A beautiful rough-legged hawk

A beautiful rough-legged hawk

At the morning fly-out of eagles

At the morning fly-out of eagles

First one Prairie Falcon had the prey (possibly a mouse)

First one Prairie Falcon had the prey (possibly a mouse)

While the other one screamed at it

While the other one screamed at it

Then they took off and kept passing it from one another

Then they took off and kept passing it from one another

As well as eating it mid-air

As well as eating it mid-air

Eventually I headed off to Michigan to learn more about the lab and spend time with my friends from Kenya, especially Hadley. It was a wonderful trip and it made me so happy to get to see Kay, Dave, Julie, Kevin, and everyone else again, as well as finally meet the people I’d heard so much about. I wrote a couple of blog posts for the lab about what I was doing there “sessioning” notes (http://msuhyenas.blogspot.com/2015/03/from-mara-to-michigan-how-our-field.html and http://msuhyenas.blogspot.com/2015/04/a-long-term-lens-on-fig-tree.html). It was a lot of fun and really helpful to see how a real research lab functions. It also highlighted to me how important it is that the hyena project continues to run even after Kay retires. Kay is starting to make plans to retire, but as of yet no one has stepped up to run the project. Getting to work at the lab, it’s clear how valuable these data are, and it’s heartbreaking to think of the project stopping without Kay as its backbone. But her job isn’t easy and it’s hard to think of anyone who’d be capable of filling her shoes.

 

After a few months in Michigan, I had to pry myself away from Hadley and Loki (Julie’s puppy) and head out for more adventures.

Lily testing Loki on her puzzle box

Lily testing Loki on her puzzle box

Post-peak highs

When I last wrote, we were unclear whether we had really finished up with peak or if there was another push still upcoming. However, it soon became clear that our highest number days were very much over. Following peak, the raptor migration really died down in the Headlands, and the next couple weeks were bordering on tortuously slow. Then, just when I was beginning to worry that if the numbers were only going to get lower from here until December that I would have to start worrying for my sanity, the second Red-tailed Hawk peak soared in and saved the day.

 

A Raven crying out his concern at the juvenile Red-tailed Hawk that just took his perch

A Raven crying out his concern at the juvenile Red-tailed Hawk that just took his perch

A banded Red-tailed hawk stilling

A banded Red-tailed hawk stilling

At the GGRO, there are two different waves of Red-tailed Hawk activity. The first usually peaks around early September, and the second around early November. It appears that these are Red-tailed Hawks coming from two different source populations. The first peak is thought to be mostly local or nearby birds, while the second is made up of longer-distance migrants from the Great Basin and even farther north up into Alaska. (You can read the abstract about it in this paper written by members of the GGRO http://aoucospubs.org/doi/abs/10.1525/auk.2009.08120). You can even see the differences between the two populations visually—we are starting to see far more dark morph Red-tailed Hawks and Harlan’s Hawks than we did in the first peak. Dark morph birds happen relatively frequently among buteos and are essentially just a bird with very dark feathers.

 

A typically-colored juvenile Red-tailed Hawk on the left compared with a dark-morph juvenile Red-tailed Hawk on the right

A typically-colored juvenile Red-tailed Hawk on the left compared with a dark-morph juvenile Red-tailed Hawk on the right

An adult dark morph Red-tailed Hawk

An adult dark morph Red-tailed Hawk

A typical adult Western Red-tailed Hawk for comparison

A typical adult Western Red-tailed Hawk for comparison

A dark morph juvenile Red-tailed hawk

A dark morph juvenile Red-tailed hawk

On the other hand, Harlan’s Hawks are a genetically distinct subspecies of Red-tailed Hawks that breed in Alaska and the far north. They used to be classified as their own species and there are still a few raptor Biologists that argue they should be, but they breed in such remote locations it’s still a little difficult to know to what extent they interbreed with the other subspecies of Red-tailed Hawks. Rather than just looking like a normal Red-tail but darker, the whole color pallet of a Harlan’s is different. They are very black and white with an icy blue/gray eye rather than warmer-toned or brown with a chocolate eye, and they have a wide range of very different-looking tail patterns. They usually have pointed tail feathers and barring into the tips of their wing feathers. They can also come in both light and dark morphs, but even the light morph looks different from a normal Western Red-tailed Hawk. However, while other Banders and Hawkwatchers have encountered them this season, I have yet to actually see one in real life, so if you want to see what they look like, let Google do it’s magic (or look at this guide I found that’s pretty helpful https://www.aba.org/birding/v42n2p30.pdf).

We are still also seeing a wide range of buteos too. Here is a lovely Red-shouldered Hawk.

We are still also seeing a wide range of buteos too. Here is a lovely Red-shouldered Hawk.

Another unusual buteo: A juvenile Ferruginous Hawk

Another unusual buteo: A juvenile Ferruginous Hawk

Along with this second Red-tail peak, we are also getting a high diversity of birds in general. The main migration peak (in terms of highest raptors per hour) that we get at the GGRO is mostly made up of Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks, but there are 19 species that we typically see each season, some of which don’t even show up until that main peak is already long gone.

A juvenile Bald Eagle. Look at that big head!

A juvenile Bald Eagle. Look at that big head!

A juvenile Bald Eagle below the Golden Gate Bridge

A juvenile Bald Eagle below the Golden Gate Bridge

A juvenile Golden Eagle

A juvenile Golden Eagle

We’ve been seeing far more eagles (Bald and Golden) now, and we’re still looking out for the season’s first Rough-Legged Hawk. We call the latter “Pizza birds” because Allen Fish, our Director, buys pizza for the first team that sees it. It’s a nice goal to strive for when the overall numbers have gotten a bit lower. A week ago, there were three days in a row where Hawk Watch saw all four falcons: American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, and Prairie Falcon. And although most of the accipiters pass by during peak, we have been seeing more adult accipiters now. The adult Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks are so striking, with brightly-colored eyes and bright orange breasts. So overall, things are still staying quite interesting out here.

An adult cooper's hawk in flight, look at that pretty red breast!

An adult cooper’s hawk in flight, look at that pretty red breast!

An adult cooper's hawk with her pretty red eye

An adult cooper’s hawk with her gorgeous red eye

A Merlin giving us a close look

A Merlin giving us a close look

A peregrine falcon

A peregrine falcon

***

 

One of the other things we talk about during the second Red-tail peak is that since these birds are migrating from farther away, it’s possible that they may be in poorer condition health-wise. They are also supposedly easier to catch, possibly because they are farther into their migration and therefore hungrier, or because they are better hunters and more likely to commit to a stoop (when a bird tucks its wings in and shoots down at its target) and get caught. However, we had a Red-tailed Hawk visit us in one of the banding blinds that I am shocked made it this far. We saw it fly towards us from far away, and it looked very committed to its stoop. However, rather than continue into the trap, it swooped down several feet away and began attacking something on the ground. We finally realized that it was holding onto the elastic string that connects to one of our traps, and attempting to eat it. It probably saw it move against the ground and thought that it was a snake. However, it didn’t just try to bite it, discover it was fake, and then leave; it spent over ten minutes attempting to kill and eat the string. Every time it would lift up one of its feet, the elastic would move the string slightly, and it would attempt to kill it again. It did this over and over and over again, until it finally got frustrated and flew off, completely ignoring the rest of the trapping site.

The second Red-tail peak is great for banding too!

We may have missed that one, but here’s one I did get to band

***

 

I got to watch Bridget, the outreach intern, give one of her final Hawk Talks of the season. Hawk Talks are one of GGRO’s biggest ways to inform the public about what we do. On weekends at Hawk Hill during September and October, someone from the GGRO does a talk (complete with wooden cut-outs of different birds) about what we do here. Then, if luck holds out, the talk is followed by a live hawk demonstration, where one of the banders brings a captured hawk up to the hill to release. It was really fun to watch Bridget engage a large, mixed-age group of people and effectively communicate some relatively complex ecological concepts. We were even lucky enough to have a cooperative female Cooper’s Hawk join us for the demo. There was a little boy there who was particularly interested in raptors (he called himself an “omniologist” aka someone who studies everything) and spent about an hour chatting with Bridget and me after the talk.

 

A visitor watching Nick do his banding demo with a juvenile Cooper's Hawk

A visitor watching Nick do his banding demo with a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

Bridget explaining wing shape and function during her Hawk Talk

Bridget explaining wing shape and function during her Hawk Talk

***

 

I am currently in the process of training to be a site-leader for Banding. Site-leaders are the people that run a banding blind; they assign tasks, assist other banders, designate luring strategies, make sure raptor health and safety is the number one priority, and decide what to do when things start getting busy or something goes wrong. It is a huge amount of responsibility, and studying for the certification process makes me feel like I’m back in school (sometimes in a good way). It’s really nice to have other banders supporting us as interns as we go through the process, and pushing us just enough that we learn a lot and start to trust ourselves in our jobs. It’s a good learning process because even as we take on more responsibilities, we are constantly relying on the experienced network of the other people with whom we work.

When I last posted, we were gearing up for migration peak. Peak is a week or two when the raptors move in concentrated numbers over the headlands, and is the time when both Hawkwatch and Banding report their highest numbers. People at GGRO talk about Peak with excitement, anticipation, and an almost nervous energy. I’ve had multiple volunteers tell me that I won’t fully understand the work we do at GGRO until I’ve seen Peak.

A juvenile Peregrine Falcon fighting with a raven

A juvenile Peregrine Falcon fighting with a raven

Unfortunately, Peak is a somewhat elusive concept. Over the years, our director Allen Fish has put together all sorts graphs charting out average raptor numbers at certain dates over the years, and the Peak has stayed fairly steady around the end of the September. However, 30 years of data averages out a lot of unpredictability. It turns out that predicting the high point in advance is very difficult, as is recognizing it when you’re in the middle. Peak this year certainly hasn’t gone exactly how people expected it to, and we aren’t sure if it’s over yet or not.

 

Instead of a full week of consistently high numbers, we’ve had a handful of random high days scattered across the past two weeks. There was a storm front that hit the headlands right in the middle of the predicted peak, so it’s possible that that’s what disrupted it, but the reality is that we know very little about what actually controls bird migration, so there are a lot of different theories about what might be responsible: maybe the drought made it more difficult for birds to build up food reserves to migrate at the usual time, maybe there was a different weather pattern north in Canada that influenced birds farther up the migration “pipeline,” maybe birds are shifting their nesting date which would also move their migration date, or maybe it’s just random chance.

A Golden Eagle that soared over Hawkwatch

A Golden Eagle that soared over Hawkwatch

 

Luckily, I happened to be on our peak Banding day, as well as our highest Hawkwatch day so far. Up to that point in Banding, I hadn’t been in a blind with more than a few raptors at once, and I was worried that I wouldn’t have the experience built up to deal with a rush of birds. We caught 36 birds on our Peak day, and it was such a whirlwind that I quickly lost count. I definitely appreciated what training I’d had, since it allowed me to not be as stressed as I could have been. The pace itself was not so insane, but the care needed to make sure we still got adequate data on each bird but didn’t stress it out by holding it too long was a careful balancing act between speed and accuracy that made everything feel urgent.

A Merlin

A Merlin

Marc with Merlin

Me holding a Red-Shouldered Hawk

Me holding a Red-Shouldered Hawk

Our Hawkwatch peak was similarly frenetic, especially early in the day. In a strange way, it reminded me of the whirl of energy that happens in a newspaper editing room the night of publication—everyone running back and forth, hurriedly yelling important data, trying to keep track of all the moving pieces while hastily putting together a finished collection of information. My identification skills had to keep up with the fast stream of birds, and I didn’t have as much time to sit and ponder all of the characteristics on each bird in front of me, I just had to trust in my own abilities and go for it (or make a quick judgment call and say things like “unidentified accipiter” if I couldn’t decide between Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-Shinned Hawk).

A dark morph adult red tailed hawk

A dark morph adult red tailed hawk

A male American Kestrel (with a deceptive tail)

A male American Kestrel (with a deceptive tail)

***

 

A Ferruginous hawk

A Ferruginous hawk

A distant Ferruginous Hawk showing the characteristic three points of light on the wings and tail

A distant Ferruginous Hawk showing the characteristic three points of light on the wings and tail

I have been very lucky in both Banding and Hawkwatch to get to see and handle some of the rarer birds for this region. We’ve seen a good number of Ferruginous Hawks from the hill, which are very large, light buteos (the group of raptors that includes the bigger birds with large, dark-tipped, squared-off wings, like Red-tailed Hawks). When you see them coming head-on, they just look like a giant white V. We’ve also had some Swainson’s Hawks (another, much darker buteo) fly right over the top of the hill. In Banding, I’ve held multiple Merlins (an adorable little falcon that flies so fast they are notoriously difficult to catch). I was extremely lucky on our peak day to process a Red-Shouldered Hawk, and the season’s first Broadwing Hawk. Both of those are smaller buteos, the Red-shouldered with gorgeous dark reddish colors, and the Broadwing with a very light underside and more squat proportions.

A Broadwing Hawk. This one has the classic "pairing knife" shape to its wings in a glide. Birders used to think they didn't exist on the West Coast until organizations like GGRO documented their migration through the area.

A Broadwing Hawk. This one has the classic “pairing knife” shape to its wings in a glide. Birders used to think they didn’t exist on the West Coast until organizations like GGRO documented their migration through the area.

Some various buteos: An Adult Red-Tailed Hawk

Some other buteos: An Adult Red-Tailed Hawk

A Swainson's Hawk

A Swainson’s Hawk

However my favorite so far was the juvenile female Northern Harrier. Harriers (historically called Marsh hawks) are very unique raptors. Allen likes to describe them as the Frankenstein of raptors: take an accipiter tail, add buteo wings, and an owl face, and you get a harrier. They have a strangely stretched appearance to them, and they can ghost so close to the ground that they seem to appear out of nowhere. They hunt the contours of the land looking for small mammals, and they use their disk-shaped face to help them hear the scuttling of voles in the underbrush before they pounce down with their long legs. When I held the one we caught up close, her face was so beautiful, with rich dark browns and red. Her body was smaller than I had imagined—the wings are so large they give an inflated sense of size—but her legs were far longer than I expected. It was so special getting to release her and watch her fly away.

Me with the Northern Harrier

Me with the Northern Harrier

Me releasing the Northern Harrier

Me releasing the Northern Harrier

***

 

Shorter Bird Notes:

 

A large portion of the raptors that migrate through the headlands are Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-Shinned Hawks. These are both Accipiters, which is a genus, or grouping of species, that also includes Northern Goshawks, although I have yet to see one of those out here. They are compact raptors that hunt with a focused tenacity that actually makes them look a bit silly. As is true for most raptors, the females are larger than the males. For Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-Shinned Hawks, the difference can be quite large. So although the “Coops” tend to be larger than the “Sharpies,” there is some size overlap (at least on the West Coast). This, combined with their extremely similar shape and coloration, makes them very difficult to identify. In the end, much of what I learn on Hawkwatch is new tips for how to tell them apart, and for a beginner, I feel pretty good about my progress. However, they are very, very good at trying to trick us.

A Cooper's Hawk

A Cooper’s Hawk

A very, very full Sharp-Shinned Hawk. This fat girl is so big she's very easy to confuse as a cooper's hawk

A very, very full Sharp-Shinned Hawk. This fat girl is so big she’s very easy to confuse as a cooper’s hawk

The day after the storm front moved over the Headlands, we had an explosion of termites. Definitely not as large or as numerous as the ones we had in Kenya, but it was cool to see that even here, the insects work on their own rhythm. Hawk Hill was covered with them during Hawkwatch as they spilled up out of the moist soil, but I was surprised at how few other animals I saw turn out to eat them.

A house finch that came out during hawk watch (but did not eat the termites)

A house finch that came out during hawk watch (but did not eat the termites)

People don’t appreciate Turkey Vultures enough. A lot of volunteers at GGRO scoff at their designation as raptors and the fact that we collect data on them at all. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, “raptor” is a fairly loose term that originally had more to the do with the look and loosely defined behavior of a bird than its genetic relatedness or diet. However, vultures share many convergent characteristics with other raptors, such as hooked bill and talons, and they eat meat. More importantly than just how they are classified, vultures play an incredibly important role as scavengers. Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, means purifier. They have some really interesting adaptations for locating and consuming carrion, such as an impressive immune system and incredible sense of smell. Unfortunately, Turkey Vultures, despite being common and extremely widespread from Canada to the tip of South America, are not invulnerable to the impacts of humans. Because they can often live close to humans and agricultural areas, they tend to accumulate pesticides and other contaminants like lead shot or poison from baited carcasses. They are also often fall victim to (mostly accidental) collisions, electrocution, trapping, and shooting. They are also the most common bird to get hit by an airplane. Thankfully, most intentional efforts to eradicate vultures have ceased, and their numbers have been increasing in the past fifty years, so now we just need a few more people to recognize how cool these birds really are.

A turkey vulture (notice the deviated septum, aka the hole in its nose. This helps it smell better)

A turkey vulture (notice the deviated septum, aka the hole in its nose. This helps it smell better)

We’re about a month into the field season here at GGRO, and it feels great to be collecting data. Now that we’re really seeing and handling raptors, the pace of learning has definitely picked up. And it’s about to get even busier as we start to head into peak season in the next few weeks.

Red-tailed hawk juvenile gliding

Red-tailed hawk juvenile gliding

Hawkwatch has been slowly building as more birds start to trickle through the area. I have yet to experience a truly busy day on Hawk Hill (the place where we conduct the count), but the slow start is helpful because we get to take our time looking at and identifying the birds. As much work as we’ve done with learning to identify birds from photos, there are many things that didn’t solidify until I got out to the field. I’m starting to immediately differentiate Turkey Vulture and Red-tailed Hawks from miles away just based on the way they hold their wings: Vultures tend to soar without flapping, and hold their wings way up in a big V, usually called a “dihedral.” Red-tailed Hawks keep their wings very flat and often “still” in one place while they scan the ground for prey. Some of the identifying features that we learn about in ID classes become easier or harder out in the field. For example, Red-shouldered hawks have bright crescent-shaped light patches on the ends of their wings where the light shines through like a window. These windows are one of the best ways to ID them, but they don’t show up nearly as well in photos as they do in real life. On the other hand, an American Kestrel is so small and usually flies by the hill so quickly, that most of the specific ID features (like the striping on the cheeks) tend to blend together and become less important than overall shape, coloration, and behavior.

A Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk "stilling"

A Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk “stilling” (same bird as above)

Hawkwatch is also a nice opportunity to get to know a lot of the volunteers, and since the whole team for the day is together on the hill at once (rather than in Banding, where everyone is spread out in different banding blinds), it feels like more of a group activity.

Scanning the skies during Hawkwatch

Scanning the skies during Hawkwatch

For me, Banding has been both the most exciting and the most boring part of the job. When you’re catching birds, it’s an exhilarating experience, but when you sit in the cramped, dark, cold blind for eight hours and barely even see a raptor, it gets pretty hard to stay awake. This early in the season, there are definitely slow banding days, and it’s entirely based on luck and weather as to what (if anything) you’ll catch. Because natural systems are wild and unpredictable, all fieldwork has some component of chance associated with it. I’ve already heard many banders say that this is a substitute for gambling, and I can certainly see that. But if my luck with Banding so far is any indication, I should stay far away from Vegas. I’ve only caught birds about half the time that I’ve been out, but those times have definitely made up for the others.

 

The first raptor I got to handle was my third time out when we caught a juvenile female Red-tailed Hawk. She was such a big bird, and felt so warm and substantial held close to my body. One of the first things I noticed about that hawk was her distinctive, almost dog-like musk that was rich and somehow comforting. I never even thought beforehand about how raptors must have a specific smell, just like most animals, but they absolutely do. It’s a very pleasant odor, though I’ve been warned that some of them do smell particularly skunky or like wet dogs.

Me releasing a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Me releasing a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

That Red-tailed Hawk was very calm, and I surprised myself to realize that I felt so calm around her too, even as I was also thrilling in the experience. I loved watching her giant eyes dilate and focus on the world around her. She was a perfect bird for my first processing experience, because she held still for all of the measurements, but was also big enough that I had to be confident in my handholds.

 

Most of the birds I’ve handled so far have been juvenile female Cooper’s Hawks. At first, I thought I wouldn’t like these birds at all, because the first one I saw up close bit my Site Leader until she bled, and took some good chomps at my fingers too. While the beak of a raptor looks intimidating, it is really the feet that are its main killing tools. Because raptor feet and talons are big, strong, and dangerous, that is the point of the bird that is most important to control. This means that sometimes a feisty bird can bite banders with impunity anywhere it can reach, because they are focused on the feet. Many smaller birds take advantage of this, presumably because they know they don’t have as many other defenses, so they want to do as much as they can to encourage whatever is holding them to let go. Cooper’s Hawks especially have very long legs and are excellent at reaching out and “footing” things very quickly, so I always make sure I have a very, very good grip on the legs, which gives the beak a lot of leeway. However, it doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, and sometimes just letting a bird bite seems to calm it down.

Nancy, one of my Day Leaders, releasing a Cooper's Hawk

Nancy, one of my Day Leaders, releasing the “crazy” Cooper’s Hawk

Despite the biting, I really like Cooper’s Hawks. They are very focused and determined in the way they hunt, sometimes to the point of silliness. I’ve seen Cooper’s Hawks go after prey on foot, looking for all the world like a mini velociraptor.

A closeup of a juvenile female Cooper's Hawk

A closeup of a juvenile female Cooper’s Hawk

The other raptors I’ve gotten to handle are American Kestrels. These birds are tiny, colorful, and vexing. They like to come up to the nets in the site and act like they are about to get caught, only to veer off at the last second, or even sit on the net support poles and call irritably while everyone in the blind silently pleads with them to just go into the net already. When we actually manage to catch one, however, they’re a lot of fun to process because they are so tiny and cute (I have also been told that they tend to bite more than Cooper’s Hawks, but I have yet to have a feisty one in hand). The tails on the females look like tiger stripes and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of admiring their plumage.

A juvenile female American Kestrel, showing off its tail

A juvenile female American Kestrel showing off its tail

With banding, I really get a close-up view of the birds and get to respect both their strength and their frailty, and admire their intense beauty. Most of all, I appreciate how every one is different—from plumage or measurements to personality and behavior. It’s fun to wonder about where they came from, where they’ll go next, and how (or whether) they will survive the long migration ahead of them.

 

***

 

Other interesting stories/thoughts from the past month:

 

The Steller’s Jays outside our house are very good at imitating Red-Tailed Hawk calls, and it gets me every time. In fact, as I was writing this blog post, one of them started doing it again, and I had to get up two times and go look before I was sure it was actually just the snarky little mimics fooling me again. They are such clever birds, it’s nice having them live so close.

 

We’ve seen a lot of Golden Eagles on Hawkwatch and it makes me wonder why there are so many compared with previous years.

 

In talking with some of the volunteers who also do raptor nesting surveys, it sounds like it’s been a pretty dismal year for the raptors nesting in the Bay Area. I wonder how that will impact the birds we see on Hawkwatch, or the health of those we catch.

 

I am having so much fun cooking on my own. I love looking up recipes online, or just throwing stuff into a pan and seeing what happens. I am rarely disappointed.

 

We can see very far from up on Hawk Hill. Since we’re so high up, we get a bit of a birds eye view ourselves, but it’s easy to tell that a lot of people on the roads and trails below don’t realize that we can see them. It ends up being a very interesting time to people-watch when the birds are slow. My favorite sighting so far was a man dressed as Santa Claus shaking peoples’ hands at one of the sightseeing pull-offs along the road. It seems a little early for that.

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