Berks County, PA (WHTM) – It was definitely an “Ooohh, Ahhh” moment for fourth graders from Lauer’s Park Elementary School in Reading when Educator and Raptor Care Specialist Jess Gary lifted a Great Horned Owl out of its travel crate.

The GHO is one of the animal ambassadors at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Presentations like this are just one way the sanctuary spreads the word about the importance of birds of prey.

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“Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has been here since 1934. We’re the first Raptor conservation organization in the world,” says Sean Grace, President of the facility. Educating the public became an early priority, at a time when raptors were considered vermin, and often shot on sight.

“Part of our thrust was connecting people to the mission. And you do that via education. And of course, first, we started locally and reaching out to local people and talking to them about the importance of it.”

As word of Hawk Mountain spread, people came to learn more about their methods. “There’s now 200 different raptor count sites across North America that are looking at raptors and how they migrate and cataloging all of that data,” says Grace.

In 1980 this teaching effort went worldwide. According to Grace, they have an international trainee program, and have trained more than 500 trainees from 76 countries.

We met up with two of the trainees at the South Lookout. Molly Laurie is from Bath, Pennsylvania. Aigerim Olzhayezh is from Khazakstan.

“Here at the mountain,” says Olzhayezh, “I’m a conservation science trainee. Currently, I’m doing my graduate research in Kazakhstan on impact of forest activities on raptors. And here in Hawk Mountain, I’m getting more experience with raptor conservation science in general.”

She already had a connection to Hawk Mountain. One of her advisors in Kazakhstan was from the United States. “He was a former trainee here. and he gave me an idea that, hey, you should try to apply and see, you will get more experience and knowledge.

Laurie didn’t have so far to travel, but shares common goals with Olzhayezh. “I got my degree and environmental science from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, and I knew I wanted to work with wildlife work in the field of conservation. My last year of college, I did an animal care internship at the Lehigh Valley Zoo. And then I was looking for more opportunities related to conservation, wildlife. And I stumbled upon Hawk Mountain and it seemed like the perfect fit.”

Among their learning experiences is taking part in the sanctuary’s annual bird migration counts. They’re about midway through the autumn count. They and other trainees spend a lot of time peering through binoculars and entering information in the Sanctuary database, as the birds soar along the mountain ridges, riding on updrafts. This meticulous recordkeeping has been going on since the earliest days of the sanctuary, and the compiled data tells us a lot about the health of the raptor population. Sean Grace tells us things aren’t going well for a lot of species, but looking back through the data shows there’s still reason to hope.

“Some populations were imperiled with DDT. We saw our data showed that there were no immature bald eagles coming back. They actually take five years to get a white head. Then Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. There were protections put in place in 1972 and then slowly it’s been a climb, and two years ago we set a record with 652 bald eagles migrating past our lookout.

“So that’s an example of a recovery story. But data equally shows that Eastern Kestrels, their populations are on decline. The American Goshawk populations are in decline. Ospreys recovered, but recently their populations are starting to dip back down again. So some species are doing well, like the peregrine falcon, like the bald eagle, that recovered. And some species are now sort of starting to slip, one that we’re very worried about right now is the sharp-shinned hawk.”

And when the international trainees go home and apply what they learn at Hawk Mountain, the data stream gets wider-and deeper.

“They want to find the spots in their countries where raptors migrate through,” says Grace. “They want to start count programs or they want to do intensive studies on raptors. They go on to write scientific papers and they work with our folks and oftentimes we match them up with the university. And so not only do we have this proliferation of count sites around the world of trainees around the world, but there’s all the scientific information that’s come out of that as well. And it’s those kinds of data sets that can be used by scientists and feed that information to governments so they can institute protections on behalf of wildlife. And that’s part of the reason why Hawk Mountain has been so successful.”