Towanda Turkey Vulture Program takes flight
Four birds of prey caught and tagged in May at Towanda High
Published: June 9, 2013
TOWANDA — On May 15, a research biologist and his assistant caught a turkey vulture on the grounds of Towanda High School and affixed a lightweight device to its back that transmits the bird’s GPS coordinates every three hours to a satellite.
Because the bird’s location is then uploaded to the Internet, there are maps on the Internet that the public can look at in order to see where the bird has traveled.
On May 17 the turkey vulture was still in Towanda, but on May 18 it was in Sullivan County at a location west of World’s End State Park. On May 19, it was still in Sullivan County, but at a location a couple of miles northwest of where it was the day before.
This turkey vulture, a scavenging bird of prey that students from the Towanda Area School District have named “Tesla,” is one of four adult turkey vultures that research biologist David Barber and his assistant, Faisan Farid, caught in mid-May at a location behind Towanda High’s student parking lot.
Catching the birds and affixing transmitting devices and tags to them is part of a joint project between Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and the Towanda School District to monitor the movements of turkey vultures and study how the birds interact with their environment, said Keith Bildstein, the director of conservation services at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pa.
“We are very excited” about the project, Barber said at the end of the two-day period, during which the four birds were caught. “Now the fun begins.”
Scientists at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary will use data transmitted by the birds to answer a number of questions, such as where they migrate during the winter, how far they range in a day, and whether they use the same roost or move around from roost to roost, Barber said.
The turkey vulture project at Towanda High is part of a larger project by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary to monitor the movements of turkey vultures, which has involved the placement of devices that transmit GPS coordinates — called satellite telemetry units — on the backs of 30 turkey vultures, Bildstein said.
While turkey vultures are common, scientists at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary hope to learn more about the birds in order to avoid catastrophic population declines, which have occurred in other types of vultures in many parts of Africa and southern Asia, according to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s website.
After the four birds were caught on Towanda School District property, students from the school watched as Barber and Farid weighed and measured the birds, all of which had wing spans of between five and six feet, Barber said.
Barber and Farid also affixed a satellite telemetry unit to the back of another one of the four birds, which has been named “Black Knight,” after the school’s mascot.
And the two also attached a light-blue vinyl tag, measuring 8 inches by 3 inches, to a wing of each of the birds. A number that identifies the bird is printed in black on the tag, and that number allows the public to identify the bird and report its location and the date and time it was spotted to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
After the tags and telemetry units were attached to the turkey vultures, the birds were released.
“It just took two hops and it was off flying,” said Towanda High science teacher Dayna Dawsey, describing the release of one of the birds.
“It was pretty amazing” to watch Barber and Farid interact with the birds, Dawsey said. “They (the birds) are so docile.”
The successful trapping of the four turkey vultures in May followed an unsuccessful effort by Hawk Mountain Sanctuary to trap turkey vultures in Bradford County last fall.
Hawk Mountain was successful this time around because it changed the type of trap it uses, Barber said.
While Tesla’s satellite telemetry unit has been working well, it appears that Black Knight’s unit failed within a couple of days after it had been affixed to the bird, Barber said on Tuesday.
“We’re hoping that it will turn itself back on,” Barber said.
Barber explained that occasionally a satellite telemetry unit will stop transmitting, and then a week or two later it will start transmitting again. The unit will shut down, he said, if it is not receiving enough sunlight, as it is powered by solar-powered batteries.
The public can follow the movements of Tesla and Black Knight, assuming its device starts working again, on maps at www.vulturemovements.org, Barber said.
You can also follow the two birds’ movements by going to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s website, www.hawkmountain.org, and then click on “Science” at the top of the page, then click on “Research,” then click on “New World Vultures,” and then click on “Monitor Tagged Turkey Vultures New.”
Dawsey also announced that the Towanda School District has acquired two video cameras which will allow students and the public to watch turkey vultures in real time over the Internet while the birds are on the roof of Towanda High School.
There will be a link on the Towanda School District’s website that will allow the public to watch the turkey vultures, she said.
The school’s roof is a place where turkey vultures are often seen, Barber said. The birds spend the night in a roost behind the school and then in the morning fly to the roof to warm up and wait for columns of hot air to start rising from the pavement next to the building, which they use to gain altitude when they take flight and disperse, Barber said.
The number on Tesla’s tag is 374. The number on Black Knight’s tag is 349. The tag numbers of the other two turkey vultures caught in May at Towanda High are 375 and 350.
If you see a turkey vulture with a numbered tag, you are encouraged to report the number and the time, date and location of the sighting to Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you see a tagged turkey vulture, but can’t make out the number, you are encourage to report it anyway to Barber, Barber said. If you can’t make out the number, stating whether the tag was on the left or right wing will help to narrow down the identity of the bird, he said.
James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: email@example.com