Heroes of Hawk Mountain: Sue Robertson

Posted on in Heroes of Hawk Mountain by Laurie Goodrich, Director of Conservation Science

Sue Robertson with an American Kestrel

On December 1, 2022, a Hawk Mountain volunteer and friend of 40 years, Sue Robertson of Kempton, PA, passed away. Sue was 94 years old.

In late 1980s, she and her husband Bob came to Hawk Mountain to inquire about volunteering on the kestrel banding and box monitoring project.  With Jim Brett and Laurie Goodrich’s blessing, they took over the kestrel nest box monitoring and banding program while working under the Hawk Mountain banding permit. Bob had his own federal banding license in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but had given it up when his work became too busy, though he always missed working with raptors.

Sue and Bob began their interest in raptors as teens exploring falconry.  After their marriage, this interest continued with banding on the Kittatinny Ridge and rehabbing injured birds in their kitchen and porch.  They had many fun stories about birds they rescued or cared for.  Hawks brought Bob and Sue Robertson together early on and enriched their lives, and eventually, brought them to us. Hawk Mountain is fortunate they settled in Kempton and agreed to monitor kestrels when they did.

From 1987 to 2008, Bob and Sue Robertson were synonymous with Hawk Mountain American kestrel research and were regularly seen driving through the Kempton/Hamburg area in their truck prominently labeled ‘Hawk Mountain Kestrel Research.’  Because they were so well known in the community and Bob loved to keep busy, they quickly expanded the box network to more than 150 boxes in three counties, becoming incredible community ombudsmen for Hawk Mountain and kestrels.  Sue kept the notes on each box in data sheets and on a map in her careful handwriting, and even up to this year had an incredible memory for each box, landowner, and its history of kestrel occupancy.

Bob and Sue welcomed anyone interested to tag along on daily outings. They trained every class of Hawk Mountain spring trainees and interns in kestrel handling, aging, and banding for more than 25 years. Excellent teachers, they also worked with Hawk Mountain graduate students to assist in their research, all of whom subsequently published Hawk Mountain scientific papers on kestrel biology (e.g., Victor Apanius, Dan Ardia, Todd Katzner).  Hundreds of interns and trainees speak fondly of their time in the field with Sue and with Bob, and how they would treasure the dinners at their table as much as the kestrel field work. Sue loved getting to know each group of trainees and interns and having them become part of the Robertson extended ‘family’ was a natural step.  Sue would often keep in close touch with them after they left, sending handwritten notes and letters.  One of the young people trained by Bob and Sue was Bracken Brown, who lived in Kempton and at a young age became a regular kestrel volunteer on the summer box checking.  They likely played a large role in setting Bracken and others on their journeys to becoming raptor experts themselves.

In late 1980s, Bob and Sue discovered a large concentration of wintering kestrels in Cape Coral, Florida and began spending their winter months in Cape Coral, mapping every kestrel and banding as many as they could. They would arise each day by 7 and be on the road by 8 AM daily.  Those early years they trapped and banded more than 300 wintering kestrels a year in this highly dense wintering site.  Some Hawk Mountain staff and interns visited them in Florida to learn more about kestrels on wintering grounds.   Sue always welcomed visitors to their Florida home with open arms. Sue estimated that she likely had banded more than 3,000 kestrels in her lifetime, but we guess it was many more.  

After Bob passed in autumn 2008, Sue continued to work on the kestrel nestbox research by going along with the staff and trainees to check the boxes and band the young.  She trained staff and trainees and relayed her personal knowledge about each box with a smile on her face while sharing her respectful approach to handing and measuring each bird. 

After Bob died, staff members Laurie Goodrich and occasionally Bracken Brown, along with Robertson family members and other former trainees, would spend time each winter in Florida with Sue, surveying and banding kestrels on their long-time study area to help her continue their work. Laurie reports “Sue loved going out to see the kestrels and seeing who had returned as much as banding them. Holding a newly caught bird in her hand always brought her a smile, but the discussions of where the birds traveled from and the amazing journeys they took filled the time.  She was fascinated with all we were learning about her beloved birds.”

The kestrel data collected over 35 years have formed the backbone for follow up work by Dr. JF Therrien and graduate student Mercy Melo as they try to understand the declines in kestrels throughout the eastern flyway, and were the basis of several papers published on kestrels in the last decade.

In 2013, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary honored Sue Robertson with the prestigious Hawk Mountain Warden Award, recognizing her many years of volunteer work on behalf of kestrels and her long support for Hawk Mountain science and trainee program.

In 2014, Sue Robertson was also awarded the 2014 Disney Conservation Hero Award by The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund after Hawk Mountain nominated her. The Disney Conservation Hero award recognizes local citizens for their tireless efforts to save wildlife, protect habitats, and educate communities.  That Disney agreed with Hawk Mountain, that she deserved the award, is testament to how much she and Bob accomplished.

Even today, Sue’s maps of kestrel locations and nest box records continue to be used by Hawk Mountain staff and graduate students to ask new questions about American kestrel ecology and carry on the research that began with her and Bob’s passion and dedication. Sue was a good friend to Hawk Mountain but also to me. We will miss her.