Soaring Opportunities

Posted on in In the Field by Kirsten Fuller, former education intern

kristen birdwatching
Kirsten birdwatching in Maricao State Forest.

What a whirlwind the past six months of my life have been!  When I arrived at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary back in March, I never expected that my four-month internship would end up being cut in half for what proved to be an amazing adventure.

toro negro
View of the Toro Negro mountain range, where the majority of the sharp-shinned hawk nests were located.

Last November, I had applied to work for the Peregrine Fund, an organization dedicated to the conservation of birds of prey.  Slated to begin in January, the project had already been in progress when I was approached with an opportunity: there was suddenly a need to hire a field technician for a study of the endangered Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawk in the central mountain region of Puerto Rico.  I could not believe this opportunity was available to me, and I was incredibly excited to pursue it. 

Finishing up my project at Hawk Mountain, I arrived in Puerto Rico at the end of April.  We jumped right into learning about the project and catching me up on what had been going on for the first four months of the study.

Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawks are an endangered species of forest raptor.  They perform mating displays above the forest canopy in late winter and begin building their nests and laying eggs in spring.  By the time I arrived on site, 18 nests had been located.  The original field crew on the project had put in all of the legwork of searching for pairs – including using a machete to chop through the thick Puerto Rican jungle – so by the time I got there my role was mainly observing the nests. 

Let me set the scene for a “routine” day in our lives:

Wake up and eat breakfast.  Get dressed in pants and long sleeved shirt.  Gather equipment: binoculars, notepad and pen, wristwatch, and GPS.  Hop in the jeep.  Mentally prepare for the mayhem and pandemonium of Puerto Rican drivers.  Avoid crater-sized potholes that could swallow the jeep whole.  Search through the radio stations until we heard “Despacito.”  Arrive at the parking site for a specific nest and then breathe a sigh of relief for arriving unscathed.  Upon arriving, my task was usually to hike from the jeep to one of the nests on a footpath created by one of the members of our team. 

kirsten climbing tree
Kirsten climbing a coconut tree.

Ah, the hikes!  Most of the hikes took about 20 minutes to reach the nest site.  Along the way, I would focus almost entirely on not falling down.  The Puerto Rican jungle was friendly, but there were a lot of things to slip on; palm fronds are like Puerto Rican skis. 

These hikes were always such an adventure, and at times they were so surreal that I felt like I was living someone else’s life.  The first hike I joined, our group got stuck in a sudden torrential downpour.  The creek we were hiking along started rapidly filling up with water, the rocks became incredibly slippery, and the spiky tree ferns were tearing my hands apart as I accidentally reached for them to maintain balance.  Yet all the while I could not stop laughing!  Although not every day would prove to be as much fun or exciting, and admittedly the thrill of the jungle would eventually wear off a bit, my first trek was an unforgettable experience. 

sharp shinned hawk
A female Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawk enjoying a bananaquit.

Once at the nest site, our task was simple: first, identify if the female was present.  If so, examine if she was still incubating her eggs and note any unusual behaviors.  As time went on the challenge became identifying the hatch date for the eggs, and then observing the growth and development of the nestlings from afar.  I always enjoyed spending the time at the nest sites listening to the sounds of the jungle, hoping to hear a male call to signal that he had prey to deliver, and then watching the interaction between the female and the male around the nest site.  We were lucky enough to watch the nestlings grow into fledglings.  While we had nests predated by pearly-eyed thrashers and nests fail due to unknown reasons, there were still some pairs that fledged young. 

sharp shinned nest
A digiscoped photo of a young sharp-shinned hawk beside the nest is Toro Negro state forest. This nest was almost entirely made out of pine needles!

There was one nest that looked structurally pathetic.  It was made almost entirely out of pine needles, and we were certain it would not last long enough for the young to leave the nest.  However, to our surprise, the pair ended up fledging two young!  These kinds of triumphs were so exciting to witness.

I am certainly happy to be home after such an adventure and to resume my normal schedule, but there is still a part of me that would love to be back in Puerto Rico climbing a coconut tree, struggling to order a burrito with my poor Spanish skills, and hiking to a serene and secluded spot to enjoy what beautiful nature the jungle has to offer.  This experience reinforced my interest in studying birds of prey and has left me anxious to start my next, and hopefully just as exciting, adventure.