Friday, July 6, 2012

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

When people think of vultures, they usually picture a dirty scavenging bird that can be grotesque to look at. Vultures are often represented in films and cartoons as symbols of death and evil. Frankly, our society has got it wrong. I find vultures beautiful and amazing due to experiences I have had in my work. They contribute so much to our environment, yet they are birds that are normally overlooked.

One of the most common vultures found in North America today is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). I'm sure you have all seen them before, though you may not have realized it. If you ever watch the sky on a nice sunny day with little wind you can usually find dark birds circling up in the sky. The turkey vulture is one of the easiest birds to identify in flight. They make a "V" shaped silhouette and they can seem wobbly as they soar. The underside of their wings is two toned where the upper is a dark brown to black and the lower a beautiful silvery color.

Turkey Vultures (TVs) in flight are incredibly graceful and energy efficient. They are commonly observed riding thermals, which are spirals of rising warm air. Soaring on thermals allows vultures spend less energy since they don't have to flap as frequently. Turkey Vultures can reach up to speeds of 60 mph! They are also long distance migrants. TVs up in Canada have been known to migrate as far south as Venezuela.

Another awesome characteristic is the Turkey Vulture's sense of smell. (Most bird species lack or have a very limited sense of smell.) They can pick up scents of carcasses from long distances. They use their sense of smell and eyesight to locate food sources.

Fun fact: If you look at the profile of the Turkey Vulture you can see through one nostril and out the other!

Now I've been pretty clean about vultures so far, but hear is your warning for it's about to get gross!

Turkey Vultures have their own built in defenses, and I have to say it is very effective! If a TV is trapped by a predator or feels threatened they can vomit. Now imagine what vultures eat and picture it digesting for a while. Yup, I would not want to mess with a vulture. There are multiple theories as to why they vomit, and I'm sure they all play a part. If the vulture vomits, it decreases the bird's weight for an easier escape flight. The vomit could also be a distraction to deter the predator or possibly feed the predator so the TV can get away. (I hope no one has been eating while reading this!)

Turkey Vultures also poop on their legs! Originally it was thought to be a cooling mechanism, but research indicates there might be more to it. Their urine is acidic and can prevent the spread of harmful bacteria which would be very helpful since they stand on decaying carcasses to feed.

These unique characteristics although gross are helpful for the vulture's role in the environment. They help clean up. All the road kill and lost game from hunting would take days to weeks to decompose without a vulture's help. Imagine road kill piling up and the spread of bacteria and disease. I'm quite thankful we have vultures!

I've only worked with turkey vultures when I was researching Bald Eagles because they both shared a love of dead nutria. They would fly into a bait site so gracefully and in such large numbers, they would always end up putting on a show! I remember a few times where we had at least 30+ vultures (TVs and Black Vultures) and within two hours our bait was gone. It was bad for catching eagles, but impressive to watch all the same. When I've been up close to TVs their skin is actually a pretty pink red color and their beak is a pearly white. They were very clean and their feathers were very soft. I was also lucky enough that they didn't see me as a threat so I was saved from the vomit!

I hope this sheds some light on what a Turkey Vulture is really like. Like the title says, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I for one find the Turkey Vulture to be a beautiful bird!


For more on vultures around the world check out this awesome video from The Peregrine Fund. The speaker is Munir Virani, the Africa Programs Director for TPF.


Vulture Comic courtesy of

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Falco sparverius

If the American Kestrel’s size matched its attitude I think a lot of us would live in fear. Of course this would be my favorite raptor and the bird that started it all for me.

I was in seventh grade on a field trip to Cornell University. My interest in birds was just beginning and this trip completely reeled me in. The university had a room where all sorts of live raptors were on display with student handlers. One bird caught my eye immediately. It looked like a miniature Peregrine Falcon to me at the time. The girl handling the bird told me it was an American Kestrel. I was in love after that moment. I remember that night going online and looking up more facts about kestrels. But being only a 13 year old at the time, I had limited resources and other distractions as teenagers usually do. Birding ended up on the back burner for the next few years. I wouldn’t encounter a kestrel again until I was in college.

So what is an American Kestrel exactly?   Let me enlighten you  :) 

The American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) is North America’s smallest falcon. They can be found throughout the country and possibly in your backyard. Kestrels like open habitat with perches for hunting. You can find them easily perched on telephone wires and utility poles along meadows and farm fields.

Kestrels hunt song birds and small mammals such as mice and voles. They also hunt insects such as june bugs and big juicy grasshoppers. They will hunt from perches and hover hunt which is when they actually hover in flight while looking for food.

What is really unique about these little guys is that they are cavity nesters. They raise their young in cavities found in trees, snags, etc. Kestrels usually raise between 1 to 5 chicks during the breeding season (Although I have seen some very dedicated parents raise 7!!!).

In New York, the kestrel population has decreased by 14% according to USGS and the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). Part of this decline is due to a lack of nesting cavities. Fortunately, nest boxes have been designed and built for kestrels where natural cavities may be lacking. You can even build your own nest box! If you have some open habitat and want a better chance to see these awesome birds all you have to do is look up a design online and build a nest box. I recommend the Hawk Mountain design, which can be found here:

For more basic info on this species check this out:

Kestrel Nest Box - and yes that is a dead hamster in my pocket

Back to where it started....

During my junior year in college I was lucky enough to take a class on Adirondack Raptors where I met the professor, Mark Manske. The class and Mark's obsessive passion for raptors (warning! There is no cure once you trap and band that first hawk or falcon!) reignited my own love of raptors and took me under his wing (yes, pun intended). He happened to have an American Kestrel nest box program in the summer where he would check nest boxes and band the chicks.  I had been hooked on banding raptors since that fall when Mark invited me out with some of my friends and fellow students to trap migrant raptors. So naturally my good friend/partner in crime (Lisa Schofield) and I came up with a capstone project for the kestrel nest boxes in which Mark would become our mentor.

Capstone: also referred to as crapstone by students at PSC, a research project created by a student or group of students with help from a mentor to be completed before graduation (Basically it was a grad school prep mini-thesis)

I spent the next year sleeping, breathing, and living kestrels. It was awesome! The summer before my senior year was when all the field work was conducted. Lisa and I ended up renting an apartment for the summer near our study site. We quickly learned what a waste it was since we were only there to sleep. Mark, Lisa, and I trapped and banded adults as well as chicks almost every day. The schedule was quite busy when we also would help out another professor mist netting passerines (song birds). There were days we were up from 3 am to 10 or 11pm. I honestly don’t know how we kept that schedule. Thankfully, Mark, who was lovingly called Pappy, made sure we ate and took naps.  At times I remember coming to the point where you had to decide if showering or eating was more important than sleep. Usually sleep won.

Male American Kestrel

Female American Kestrel

At one point in the summer my mom and sister paid us a visit for a few days. The first day my mom was disgusted with the messy apartment and my lack of showering (That’s what ball caps are for, the birds don’t care what you look like!). After two days in the field, she understood and was more accepting. 

A lot of work and dedication goes into trapping kestrels and checking nest boxes. All our traps were hand made in which I pricked and noosed my fingers multple times. We also would have to run with a pole and ladder to the nest box to try and trap an adult if it was inside. I think Lisa and Mark enjoyed this part a bit too much. Apparently I run funny. 

Once we had an adult or chicks in hand we would record their measurements and band them with a federal band on their right leg. Sometimes this was not an easy task. I learned quickly that kestrels have quite the attitude and love to bite around your cuticles. I remember having a bloody thumb from a persistent female while my mentor laughed as we banded her. Although I had the last laugh when she got the best of him afterwards. 

Weighing Female Kestrel (yes, those are 2 soup cans taped together)

Each federal band placed on a bird is numbered to identify individuals and is reported to a national database called the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL). If the bird is found or recaptured and reported to the BBL we can gain more information on the species such as dispersal, migration, and even development.

Important! If you ever spot a bird with a band and can read the numbers/letters or even find a dead banded bird, REPORT IT! It's simple, just go to this website and follow the steps :

By reporting this you are contributing to science and you can even learn about the bird you found. One of the kestrels from the nest boxes I helped with in New York was found all the way down in Houma, Louisiana!

Banded Red-tailed Hawk
During that summer we caught and banded 42 adults and checked 130 nest boxes. In the following years I have returned to help Mark in the summer with his kestrels when I could. I hope to continue helping again this summer.

Basket of Kestrel Chicks :)

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Other Side of the Field

Field Biologist, Research Technician, Field Technician, Research Assistant are all different titles that have been associated with my work so far. These titles can be pretty vague so I thought I could enlighten you all a little better J

Basically I am at the start of my career so of course I work crazy hours and get paid very little for it just to fill up my resume and gain experience. I remember on more than one occasion working from 5:30 am to 11:00 pm (I only get paid for 8 of these hours). For the most part, the hours of work sit on the back burner because of the rewards. I get to work outside and handle wild animals! There is no other feeling like holding a bird in your hands. It’s a magical moment that is usually pretty short lived since we want to leave as little impact as possible on the bird and its habitat.

Well, enough of me getting sentimental about birds, I wanted to write about another aspect of my work. It’s a side that isn’t shared too often, but most field biologists can relate to, well at least the women.

The Ups and Downs of Women in the Field

Women were originally a minority in the wildlife profession like most other careers. In the past few decades they have increased exceedingly! Even so, I have only had one job which there had been more than one other woman working alongside me. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy working in all male crews. It can be really fun, but after a couple months you start to miss that extra estrogen.

These would look great in a swamp!

Field jobs are as described, out in the field. This means field clothes, hiking boots, baseball caps, pony tails, and no jewelry. You don’t dress up for work. You wear what you don’t mind getting bird poop on. I love that I can wear a T-shirt and shorts to work, even if it gets pooped on (Just adds more character). I’m not sure if that is considered an up or down, but I have to say I have lost my sense of style and skills of walking in high heels. Last time I went shoe shopping with my mom she practically rolled off her seat laughing at my attempt to walk in high heels. In her words, “You walk like a cowboy!” Thanks mom.

One perk I have found over the years on being the only female in a crew is you tend to get more privacy at times. I’ve been lucky enough to have my own bedroom on multiple jobs and even my own space for toiletries. That might not seem like much to most people but when you live with up to ten or twelve people in a three bedroom house, it’s a luxury.

Sometimes as the woman in the crew you can get placed into the position of cook and maid in the field house and data recorder in the field. I’ve heard this from multiple technicians and have experienced it at times as well. I have felt that I have to “keep up” with the guys, but keeping up for me is pretty fun. I keep up with trapping, hiking, drinking, and making fools out of ourselves. And after all that, if I feel like cooking, baking, or cleaning. It is very much appreciated. (Chocolate chip cookies always win!) I’ve been lucky that the majority of biologists I have worked with all take their fair share of cleaning and cooking.

One big downer on this job at least for me is the bathroom. As a field biologist the world is your toilet, so grab that shovel and TP! This is one thing I am jealous about men. They can pee standing up. They can pretty much get away peeing wherever they want. Women, well, we have to squat. That’s if you can even find a place to squat. In the desert I had to take shelter from the truck. In Louisiana, where I am currently, I hold it because we work in cane fields near highways where everyone would see. Even when you have a good spot, it might surprise you, which leads me to this embarrassing story of a time I had to go in Montana.

Montana Rockies

I was trapping migrating raptors this past fall on a mountain ridge in Montana. We have two trapping blinds so our crew splits up to run both for the day. It was early afternoon and I couldn’t wait any longer so I walked down to the woods to relieve my bladder. I had to walk a good distance because I wanted to avoid our processing tent where we band the raptors that we catch. If someone caught a bird while I was squatting, they would surely get a full moon. So I eventually find my spot and take care of my business. It wasn’t until afterward that I felt a prickly itchy feeling on my bum. I then realized it was from a prickly plant that had grazed my hand. I shrugged it off and joined the crew in the blind.

After awhile though, that itchy feeling wasn’t going away. I noticed my fingers had started swelling too. I tried to ignore it longer hoping I could make it through the day. I really didn’t want to tell my boss or the crew seeing as they were all guys. It would be super embarrassing! Eventually I put my pride aside and showed my fingers to my boss. It went like this:

Me: “I think I got into something in the woods. It was a prickly plant.”

Boss: “Ouch! I bet it was some of those nettles. You okay?”

Me: “Yeah.” Apparently my hinting had failed so I went back to scanning outside for raptors, trying to hide my worry and embarrassment. My butt was on fire by now so I tried again, this time more to the point.

Me: “I think I sat in the nettles too.”

Luckily that clicked in my boss’s head. We all had a good chuckle in the blind and my boss took me down the mountain early so I could take care of things. The guys in the other blind didn’t know what was going on as my boss radioed them that he was leaving early with me because I wasn’t “feeling well”. At the end of the day after a shower I was much better. I was greeted with concerned faces from some of the guys while the others tried to hide their laughter. I’m still not sure today if everyone figured it out.

Recently I found out women can stand up and pee now too! No more crouching or questionable plant encounters when you buy the Go Girl! Basically it is a fancy funnel for women who like camping and rock concerts. Yes rock concerts. You can check them out here:  I love their slogan - Don't Take Life Sitting Down!

I have to tell you I will probably never buy a go girl. What do you do after you’re done? Stick it in a Ziploc bag and put it back in your pack? Wash it out in the woods? I’ve done some gross things, but carrying that in my backpack all day would gross me out!

So now you have a closer look at the other side of working in the field, maybe too close for you?

Until next time!

Friday, March 30, 2012

For The Birds…a fitting title for this blog seeing as that is what my life has become. For the past few years I have started my career as a field biologist, primarily working with raptors (No, not the dinosaur…I still have recurring nightmares of Jurassic Park!) also known as birds of prey to most folks.

Velociraptor (Very Scary)
I decided to create this blog as an outlet for myself, a place to share my stories and possibly even teach my readers something new. I will also let you in on the peculiar life of being a biologist and how it is more than a job, but a lifestyle. The pay is low, but the rewards are unforgettable! (Even if my family and friends think I am a little crazy)

Modern Raptor, Rough Legged Hawk (Not So Scary)
As a kid I was always found outside looking under rocks for life and bringing home injured animals to take care of. Our house was full of pets as well except recently it is down to just a cat and dog seeing as I only live there sporadically due to my ever changing seasonal jobs. It only made sense I went to college to earn a degree in wildlife science. 

Since earning my degree I have been out in the “real world” trying to gain more experience in working with wildlife which is where this blog comes into play. If you’re still with me I’ve decided to share a story for this post, so here goes:

A Bored Cop and a Quail Dump

My first job after college was working for The Peregrine Fund in New Mexico. I was lucky too that my best friend was working alongside me on this job. She always kicked my butt in gear while I usually showed her how to take a break every once in a while. Over all we worked together really well as a team. Our job basically was feeding and observing Aplomado Falcon chicks that were being released into the wild.

What is an Aplomado Falcon, you might be wondering? Check it out here:

Our work site was located in the Chihuahua Desert on a cattle ranch. We were so far south we could see Mexico from our site! Aplomado falcons tend to be bird hunters so we fed them a healthy diet of quail on feeding platforms. (Our field house had a gigantic freezer stocked full of dead quail for these guys. It took up a good portion of my bedroom and really added to the d├ęcor of the field house.) After each feeding we had to clean up after the messy eaters, one of the less fun parts of the job. Our boss showed us an area outside of the ranch to dump the quail remains so other critters could finish it off.

Once we had our work routine down, everything was going smoothly until one evening. Some days we ended up working past sunset (yeah no 9-5 jobs here!) so we would end up dumping the quail in the dark. One night I noticed a police truck parked near our quail dump site. I didn’t think much about it until it was there again the next evening. My friend and I debated about dumping the quail. It must have looked very fishy to the cop, but at the same time the quail would rot in our garbage. We did have a cockroach problem which still makes me shudder, and half our fridge was occupied with quail in various thawing states (As a field biologist you get used to having your food next to dead things, after all that’s what we eat as well.) We ended up not dumping the remains and headed onto the interstate to head home. The cop followed us immediately. Crap. I knew we were going to get pulled over. He followed us for a couple miles until finally the lights and siren went on. I pulled over and my friend rolled down the window for the cop. Our conversation kind of went like this:

Cop: License and Registration….New York, huh?

Me: Yes, Sir.

Cop: Where were you coming from?

Me: The ranch, we work there for The Peregrine Fund.

Cop: What do you do there?

Me: We are reintroducing Aplomado Falcons to the area. We basically feed them and observe them every day.

Cop: You do what?

The look on the cop’s face was pretty funny. I’m not sure exactly what he was expecting from two twenty something girls in an F-150 working at night near the border. I am pretty sure he checked over our truck to see if we had illegals or drugs. Instead he pulled us over for a broken license plate light. We got off with a warning of course.

Our boss burst out laughing and shook his head hearing of our adventure that evening. The light was fixed immediately and we went back to dumping quail in our usual spot. Little did I know that was the first of many experiences I would have with the police or border patrol due to my work, but those are for later blogs.


Rough Legged Hawk: by William Blake