Monday, September 26, 2011

Falco columbarius

In my not so free time, I have been spending a couple days a week up at one of the two Idaho Bird Observatory raptor trapping stations. On one of the days it is quite crowded as I am participating as part of the "Applied Raptor Biology" course which is required for all Boise State University Raptor Biology students. The other day is my trapping day and if I have been assigned to the Boise Peak trapping station, then I will likely be there all day by myself. I really like Boise Peak and the solitude, but Lucky Peak tends to get more birds.

Last week while at Boise Peak by myself, I trapped my first Merlin (Falco columbarius). I had been working to trap an Adult Red-tailed Hawk which had taken an interest in my lures. He/she had been by twice, but just wouldn't commit. He/she finally landed in a tree in front of the blind and just watched as I tried everything I could to lure him/her in. Nothing worked. Then I noticed a small raptor was mobbing the Red-tailed Hawk. If the Red-tail wouldn't commit, then maybe this bird would. One quick pull on the sparrow lure and I would have my answer. In a flash the raptor turned and like a bullet hit my net. I ran out to retrieve what I must embarrassingly admit I thought was a female Sharp-shinned Hawk. No, it was none other than a Merlin! My first!

 Hatch year Merlin, Taiga subspecies (Falco columbarius columbarius)

The trappers all like to catch Merlins as they are fairly rare. They do not breed in our area, but do arrive during the fall migration and stay through the winter. We may catch a dozen or so during a season between our two trapping stations. In this areas we have the opportunity to see all three sub-species, although the Taiga sub-species is the most abundant.

Hatch year Merlin, Taiga subspecies (Falco columbarius columbarius)

Do you know how hard it is to take raptor photos by yourself?

Just two days later I was at Lucky Peak with our raptor class. Neil was trapping, but I was assisting with the sparrow. We saw a bird in the distance and Neil lured him in closer with our larger lures. As he entered the "station" (trapping area) I noticed it was a smaller raptor and pulled the sparrow. Same as before, it turned on the sparrow and hit the net at full speed. Merlin #2! Neil with the assist!  I immediately noticed that this bird was considerably darker than the first. Could it be the dark Merlin sub-species (Falco columbarius suckleyi)?

Dark Merlin??

Upon closer inspection and consultation with the IBO Research Director Jay, we determined it was still a likely Taiga subspecies, but could be a hybrid between the Taiga and Dark sub-species. The face looks dark enough, but a true Dark Merlin would not have visible stripes on its tail.

Merlin, Taiga subspecies (Falco columbarius columbarius),
possible hybrid with dark Merlin (F. c. suckleyi)

I have no complaints. While they are the same sub-species, I trapped two Merlins in three days. Not bad. There is still five weeks of trapping to go. Maybe another Merlin sub-species or higher on my wish list, a large falcon (Peregrine or Prairie). I'll keep you posted...

Monday, September 05, 2011

Celebrating Vultures Through Art

Karyn and I had the honor of volunteering at the Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey on International Vulture Awareness Day. Karyn was contacted for her artistic skills and abilities, I was merely there for additional support. We were asked to lead a children's activity of a group painting of a vulture (each child paints a bit of the painting). For those of you who know the two of us personally, working with a large group of children was a terrifying prospect.

It all began a few months ago when our friend from Nairobi Kenya, Dr. Munir Virani, contacted us asking if we would participate (check out his amazing photography at his link). He would be in Boise for the event to talk about the huge decline in African and Indian vulture populations. He was interested in modeling a children's art project after a very successful program that was implemented in Kenya. We happily agreed, and then wondered what we got ourselves into!

Karyn performed all of the prep work in acquiring all of the supplies, sketching out some initial designs, and putting together a plan of how it would all work! The sketches were based on initial photographs provided by the Peregrine Fund. Neither of us knew what to expect and what the finished product might look like. We also didn't know how many paintings might be needed. Karyn decided to produce three sketches, we started with a California Condor in flight.

Initial sketches.
California Condor. The first strokes by a 2 year old.
Karyn with our first artist!

One of the challenges was to assign painting tasks to the various abilities within the groups of kids. The younger ones focused on the broad painting tasks like the sky, while the older ones filled in the detail.

Karyn had the original reference photo available and also a small rendition that she painted to help guide the progress, but all of the paint on the canvas was put there by the kids themselves.


Another activity for the kids was to create vulture masks. Here we have a vulture painting a vulture!

Vulture painting a vulture!
More progress.
Starting to come together!

It was very manageable when only one or two kids were working at a time. Then a rush of 6 to 8 at a time! Trying to make sure they had mixed paint available, didn't destroy the painting etc. was a challenge. Many were painting over other's work. In most cases it improved the overall presentation!

Five brushes at a time!
Amazing progress!
Finishing Touches.
The completed work! AMAZING!
The artists and their ages.

Near the end of the day we started the second painting. This one would not be finished, but it was great to have another one to work on.

Painting #2.

It was a hectic and stressful day. Both Karyn and I were exhausted at the end of the day. Of course, I was only the assistant. This was mainly Karyn's show as the photos illustrate. By all accounts it was a tremendously successful event. I believe everyone had a great time and learned a lot about vultures in the process.

Other events during the day included presentations by Chris Parish on the California Condor program, Dr. Virani on the African Vulture program, and flight displays of many live raptors including a Harpy Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Gyrfalcon and Aplomado Falcon. The Peregrine Fund put on a great educational event, which I hope will further the cause to help protect these fabulous creates. I am glad that we were able to contribute to the cause. You can too by educating yourself on the plight of vultures around the world and consider donating to The Peregrine Fund. They have a proven track record in achieving results on the ground (or I should say in "in the air")! I thank them and all of the families that participated!

Luigi - The Harpy Eagle with trainer.
Juvenile Aplomado Falcon in flight.