167th AW, Argos USDA continue black vulture research

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Biologists Trish Miller and Adam Duerr fit a harness for a telemetry device onto a black vulture at Argos Cement Plant in Martinsburg, W.Va., May 23, 2019. , the 167th Airlift Wing, Argos Cement Plant and the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Wildlife Services teamed up to research black vultures in and around Martinsburg, W.Va., in an effort to mitigate potential aviation hazards. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Master Sgt. Emily Beightol-Deyerle)

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — In 2018, the 167th Airlift Wing, Argos Cement Plant and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Wildlife Services teamed up to research black vultures in and around Martinsburg, in an effort to mitigate potential aviation hazards.

Since then, 164 black vultures have been fitted with red tags bearing an alphanumeric code and one black vulture now carries a telemetry device on its back, so the bird’s movements can be tracked and studied.

Four more devices, jointly funded by Argos and the 167th AW, are scheduled to be placed on black vultures in the coming weeks.

Chad Neil, a wildlife biologist for USDA APHIS Wildlife Services-W.Va. and part of the 167th AW’s bird/wildlife aircraft strike hazard, or BASH, team, said the device is already providing the team with useful information.

“We could see that (the black vulture) stuck around Argos for two days then looped around the airfield and then headed down to Front Royal, Virginia,” Neil said.

The solar-powered device weighs 45 grams and is expected to transmit a plethora of data for at least six months, according to Neil.

Maj. James Holsinger, 167th AW chief of safety, noted that the devices provide location, movement, altitudes, airspeeds, vertical velocity and activity levels.

“The (team) takes the tracker data combined with solar and lunar data, weather, season and terrain features to identify high risk areas to our mission,” Holsinger said. “These high risk areas are then provided to crews to aid in their risk assessment and mitigation processes.”

Andrew Frye, the environmental manager for Argos, solicited biologists with Conservation Science Global to help with the black vulture research.

Adam Duerr, director of research and senior wildlife biologist for Conservation Science Global, and Trish Miller, also a senior wildlife biologist for CSG, spent the afternoon of May 23, under a group of trees at Argos carefully fitting the device on a black vulture.

The biologists fashioned a harness from a smooth, lightweight and durable ribbon to ensure the device would stay put on the bird’s back without impeding its ability to fly – a time-consuming process.

As Duerr and Miller fitted the device, Neil and a team of other USDA biologists, along with four Airmen from the 167th AW, tagged other black vultures captured on the Argos property. Sixty-four black vultures were tagged and released that same afternoon.

The black vultures, a protected migratory bird, began making an appearance on the Argos property in the summer of 2017 and the population has steadily increased, according to Frye.

Neil said he surveys approximately 200-300 birds each time he goes to Argos. The cement plant’s deep quarry and heat thermals from the large kiln create an attractive environment for the birds.

With a wing span up to three feet, black vultures are often seen flying around the top of Argos’ tower.

Neil said they have received a few reported sightings every week since they began tagging the black vultures last year.

Anyone who spots a tagged black vulture in the area is asked to send an email to vulture.tag@gmail.com with the location of the sighting, a tag number if visible and any behavioral information.

“The more feedback we get, the more we can collaborate, see what these birds are doing and manage the risks they pose,” Neil said.