Patrick Haulter was holding up a Great Horned Owl’s talon, saying he had been twirling it in his fingers once when it punched a hole in his finger. “Still sharp twenty years later,” he said. Haulter, interpretive naturalist at Brown County State park, entertained and informed the audience in his talk about behavior and anatomy of birds of prey.
“Life for the raptor is tough,” he said. “They’re highly adapted to what they do, but not to us.” He described the crop, where a bird stores food for later “kind of like my beard does.”
The high-tech tools, such as satellite and radio-telemetry, as well as the low-tech ones like banding and wing tags are some of the ways scientists follow the movements of birds. Dr. Brian Washburn, a research wildlife biologist with the USDA Wildlife Service National Wildlife Research Center described how he goes about his work, which tools he chooses, and how he works with other scientists to learn about bird movements, habitat management, and interaction with humans. Washburn depends on people to call about birds they see tagged or find lost equipment. “Goose neck collars are really easy to read,” he said. “Wing tags can be really helpful to figure out who’s who.” Each band has a unique 9-digit code, but they are hard to read at a distance, even with a spotting scope. Eagles require a special band that is riveted on “because they’re so good at popping them off.”
Working with birds of prey can be dangerous, even when a handler wears leather gloves and jacket, eye protection, and limits their interaction to a half and hour. Washburn showed a photo of himself with hands bandaged from an encounter with a bird being banded. “The Cooper’s Hawk is like holding a running chain saw,” he said. “And if an eagle clamps down, it will not let go.”
Cost of the more high-tech tracking devices deter scientists from attaching them to all birds, and the transmitters are often just lost. “Sometimes we get them back, like when a Canada Goose walks in front of a car,” he said.
Will Schaust, assistant manager of Eagle Creek Ornithology Center talked about a variety of birding apps. Once, while walking with family on a hike, a cardinal landed in a maple tree ahead of the group. He was very excited to tell the kids that this was the state bird, how it was also the state bird for six other states, and more. When he asked them if they knew what the bright red cardinal was, they replied, “Mr. Will, it’s an Angry Bird!”
Since technology is enmeshed in our lives, we may as well take advantage of it when we can, he said. Schaust then demonstrated several of his favorite apps that help in bird identification.
- The Sibley eGuide to Birds has the largest variety of calls–some five to seven for each bird–and can be worth the $20 if you want to id them by their calls.
- Birdsnap an app for iPhone or on your computer, uses real photos of birds, it’s free, and you can take a picture and id a bird. But storage for large files can be a problem.
- Merlin Bird ID, which is free from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides five questions to narrow down a bird by size, location, color, and more.
- The Warbler Guide, for $13, offers 58 species of warblers from any angle. “I can spin that bird like a bad 90s DJ,” he quipped while rotating the bird photo.
- eBird, also from the Cornell Lab, is free, and can help birders search for hot spots and keep checklists.
- The Audubon Bird Guide apps range from .99 cents to $8, but it covers the entire country.
As 130 people “ate like raptors” dining on fish, venison, and turkey soup at Saturday’s Lunch with the Eagles, the Indiana Raptor Center falconers brought out several live raptors who had been rescued. Center director of education Laura Edmunds and described their characteristics. Attendees saw a kestrel, barn owl, two peregrine falcons, a bald eagle, and a golden eagle. “There’s something special about birds of prey,” Edmunds says. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I still can’t say what. I don’t have a tattoo yet, but one day I’m gonna take the dive and maybe get a golden eagle right here,” she says pointing to her shoulder.
She says you can tell what type of bird a falconer uses by what car the falconer drives. If they
have a small Kestrel, they might drive a Mini-Cooper. Those who fly Red-Tailed Hawks drive pick-up trucks. But the ones that fly Peregrine Falcons need a bid vehicle like a Navigator. “If you lose a Peregrine Falcon, a bad day means driving 80 miles to get it. If they fly a Cooper’s Hawk, though, they might not have a car at all, they might drive a scooter.”
After lunch, everyone ran to their cars to stop at designated driving spots to see if they could spy the eagles. Experienced birders with scopes were at each stop. While we toured several places, the closest we could get was a bald eagle way across the lake, maybe a mile away. It looked like a white dot in the trees. Not a satisfying ending to our Saturday, though the talks were informative.
Sunday morning came cloudy and cold. We bundled up for the one-hour hike out to the original hacking tower for the eagles. When eagles first learn to fly–or hack–they develop a bond to the location. Eagles return to their hacking site to build their own nests as parents, when they’re about 4-5 years old. The hacking tower built in 1985 on the North Fork of Stillwater Marsh on Lake Monroe accommodated 5-6 week old eaglets brought from Wisconsin and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Using two locations and the average eaglet hacking at 13 weeks, the program could hosted two hacking groups per year through 1989. By then, eagles were coming back to Lake Monroe to nest, and the program was deemed a success.
We stumbled over brush and sticks, following a road that was slowly reverting back to the woods. While walking between the hacking tower and a nearby tower that the biologists used to watch the fledglings, we saw a big black nest across the water. This time is was much closer and easier to see with the naked eye. Suddenly, an eagle swooped in, gliding into the nest. Binoculars rose up to all eyes in unison, and ooos and ahs rang out. At last, our eagle was sighted. What a magnificent ending to a weekend devoted to these magnificent birds, home at last.