Interviews with Alumni
by Rand Snyder
Pictured above: Adult Female Golden Eagle captured in MT at RVRI on a net launcher.
Sarah Norton ‘09
PSC Program: Fisheries and Wildlife Science
Job Title: Lead Migration Raptor Trapper
Agency: Raptor View Research Institute
Current Location: Lincoln, MT
I’m sure it’s been quite the journey from PSC to Lincoln, MT. Did you have any internships or seasonal jobs while you were attending PSC that helped lead you to your current position?
I didn’t have any official field jobs until after graduation, but my capstone research project played an important role in focusing my research interests and career goals. After taking the Adirondack Raptors class taught by Mark Manske, and volunteering with him on weekends to trap local raptors, I found my passion in raptor research. This led to my capstone project, which I conducted with my classmate Lisa Schofield on a nest box study of American kestrels.
I recall you were an active member of the PSC chapter of The Wildlife Society. How did that organization help you out with your career path?
Yes, as a member of The Wildlife Society I was able to meet wildlife professionals at conferences, as well as learn about recent wildlife studies and research. It gave me more insight into what to expect with job prospects after graduation.
So, what did you do for work after graduation?
After graduation I continued to further my interests in raptor research by working various field jobs around the country. My first field job was working as a Hack Site Attendant in New Mexico for The Peregrine Fund. This position allowed me to be a part of reintroducing and releasing Aplomado Falcons (Falco femoralis) back into the United States. A Hack Site is where captive-bred Aplomado Falcon chicks are moved to when they are close to fledging age. When they arrived at the site, we fed them through a hack box on a tower, so they experienced as little human contact as possible. After a few days in the hack box the chicks were released. My main duties were to keep track of the released chicks, and to continue to feed them until they were flying or hunting well enough on their own.
A quick summary of my many other seasonal jobs includes: Animal Husbandry Specialist in 2010 (Hawk Creek Wildlife Center, East Aurora, NY), Snail Kite Research Technician in 2011 (University of Florida, Kenansville, FL), Bald Eagle Research Technician in 2012 (Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge/Houma, LA), Aerial Survey Technician in 2012/2013 (Craighead Beringia South, Eastern MT), Raptor Research Technician in 2013 (South Dakota State University, Buffalo, SD), Lead Biological Technician in 2014 (U.S. Geological Survey, Corvallis, OR), and a Research Technician at the Inter Mountain Bird Observatory in Florence, MT.
So how did you learn about your current job with Raptor View?
I first learned about Raptor View on the Texas A&M online job board. Rob Domenech, the Executive Director, was hiring two hawk counters for the 2010 fall migration season. I applied thinking it was a long shot, but Rob hired me and asked me back the next season to be a trapper. Since then, I have been welcomed back every fall and I will also be trapping eagles this winter for Raptor View. My raptor work with Mark Manske at PSC, and working for The Peregrine Fund, really helped me get the position.
Describe a typical day for you at Raptor View.
A typical day for me begins around 7:00 in the morning at the field house. We get the crew around, make breakfast, pack any food or gear needed for the day, and I help decide where crew members will work for the day. Currently Raptor View has two count sites and two trap sites near the continental divide outside of Lincoln, MT. Then we load up gear and drive to our sites. Depending on which site I am at for the day, I will either hike up or drive an ATV to the ridge. Once there, I set up our trapping blinds with crew members, and then we begin to trap migrating raptors. The majority of the day is spent sitting in blinds, scanning with binoculars for raptors, and keeping in contact with hawk counters. When a raptor is caught, I process the bird by banding each bird with a USFWS band and collecting morphometric measurements. At the same time, I am training new employees and interns how to properly trap and handle wild raptors. When Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are trapped, I collect a blood sample for DNA and lead testing. I also wing tag Golden Eagles as part of a mark-resight study. We have very slow days when flights are poor, and very busy days where I am constantly processing raptors. At the end of the day we pack up, head down the ridge, and begin planning for the next day.
Can you describe the long term goals of your work?
The work I am involved with mainly focuses on Golden Eagle research. Raptor View has been conducting migration studies on adult Golden Eagles by equipping the eagles we trap with satellite transmitters. Another study is focused on Golden Eagles and ecotoxicology. In particular we are looking at lead contaminants accumulated in eagles due to them feeding on gut piles left out by humans. Golden Eagles can ingest lead from gut piles left from hunters who use lead ammunition. Lead poisoning can then occur, and sometimes leads to death. Overall, Raptor View and I are interested in making the public more aware of the effects of lead on our eagles, and in understanding migration corridors and wintering grounds, so that we can better prevent more loss of habitat from human development. This work allows us to identify and understand migration corridors as well as wintering and breeding grounds, and to identify potential threats to eagles and areas that could be protected in the future.
It’s really difficult to pick just one favorite moment after working five seasons with Raptor View. I think though one of my favorite moments was when I caught a female Golden Eagle with two of our interns in 2013. At the time I was in the blind moving our pigeon on the line and we had two immature Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) taking passes at it. As the red tails harassed the pigeon, I noticed an eagle pop up from the valley and begin flying directly for the pigeon. I quickly pulled the trigger line and the bow net safely opened over her, trapping the eagle. All three of us burst out of the blind in excitement, and I extracted her from the net. The pigeon was unharmed. It was the first Golden Eagle caught on the ridge that season. We then banded, processed, and released her together. It was an exciting capture and what made it even better was being able to share it with our interns and teach them about trapping and handling techniques.
So your job is seasonal? What do you do in the off-season?
Yep, it is! The fall season is based on the raptor migration and weather, which varies from year to year. We usually work September through October. It’s a short season, but we only take days off when we can’t count or trap due to weather. The rest of the year I work other seasonal positions, usually involving some sort of raptor field work. Most of these positions I also find on the Texas A&M job board. The hardest season to find employment is in the winter. When I can’t find winter field work I have taken office jobs in my hometown, or signed up at Temp agencies. I also try to save up my earnings for the winter months, when finding work can be difficult.
My main goal right now is getting into grad school. With all the experience I have gained from field work, I’m ready to go back to school to contribute more to raptor research and to run my own studies. Long term, I hope to be hired full time through a government agency or a nonprofit like Raptor View Research Institute.
Run into many Smitties along the way?
Personally, I actually haven’t met any fellow Smitties along the way. A few of my crewmates and previous employers have heard of Paul Smith’s and have worked with Smitties who I actually went to school with. Through social media, I know many of us have moved out West and its fun to see where they are and what type of work they are up to. On another note, my friend and fellow Smitty, Meghan Jensen, who is currently working on her PhD, invited me down to Albuquerque this summer to help trap Cooper’s hawks for her research. She will also be visiting me this fall for a few days, and will help out with our trapping efforts. Finally, I would like to add something about Jorie if I could. Dr. Jorie Favreau was my advisor and a definite role model while I was at PSC. She pushed and challenged me to do my best. She also gave me the confidence to take the plunge and move to New Mexico for my first field job.
Peregrine Falcon in Montana Fall trapping at RVRI.
Placing a PTT transmitter on an adult Cooper’s Hawk in MT for RVRI.
Culmen measurement (beak length) of Golden Eagle chick in Oregon volunteering with Oregon Eagle Foundation
Banding a Ferruginous Hawk chick in South Dakota for South Dakota State University.
Checking a Ferruginous Hawk nest in South Dakota for South Dakota State University.
Equipping a Snail Kite chick with VHF transmitter on an airboat in Florida for University of Florida.
Glossary of Terms
Hawk Counters – We have hawk counters on the north side of our ridges to identify and record migrating raptors on a daily basis. They will also radio the trapping blinds about raptors making good flight lines towards the ridge to help increase our trapping success.
Mark-resight study- A method commonly used in ecology to estimate an animal population’s size. A portion of the population is captured, marked, and released. Later, another portion is captured and the number of marked individuals within the sample is counted. NOTE: Sarah and RVRI don’t catch enough for population estimates, this type of study is mainly just used to understand migration corridors and wintering/breeding grounds.
Morphometric measurements – These are standard measurements recorded for raptors that are banded. Some of these measurements also help us sex raptors since females are larger than males.
Wing tags – We use blue wing tags with white numbers to mark Golden Eagles. The wing tags are a great visual aid to resighting individual eagles. We record resightings using trail cams on carcasses, and people from all over the Western US have sent Raptor View photos of eagles we have tagged in the past. This allows us to record where individual eagles are migrating, wintering, and breeding.