Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 28, 2007

Vulture Culture

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:17 am

   Officially, there were nearly 8,000 Turkey Vultures crossing over the Detroit River into S.E. Michigan on Oct. 25.  “Unofficially,” there was a whole bunch of ‘em.  It was a beautiful blue October day with puffy clouds riding on moderate Northeastern winds.  The vultures have been cruising south since the beginning of the month with nearly 60,000 recorded to date.  At the Hawk count site at Lake Erie Metropark hawkwatchers click them off on their counters as the birds glide over the river from the Canadian side.  This particular day wasn’t a record day, but to folks like Mike and Jim that didn’t matter in the least. 

   Mike isn’t a birdwatcher or a hawk counter, but is a keen observer of nature.  He cuts grass and does general grounds maintenance at the Metropark. When he rode up behind me in his huge mowing rig, about mid-afternoon, I stepped to the side to let him pass. His machine pulled up alongside and he beckoned me over.  “You wouldn’t believe what I saw today,” he yelled out.  After pulling out his ear plugs, his voice lowered to an excited twitter. “While you were inside earlier, the sky was full of vultures – I mean full.  They were everywhere.”  He enthusiastically waved his hand in an arc that spanned from horizon to horizon. “They were coming in and they’d circle, you know, and it was like they were waiting until the other ones caught up – like they were saying ‘come on let’s go.’ I‘ve never seen anything like it before.  Gerry, I kid you not; I had to stop the mower because I kept looking up. Don’t tell anyone, but I didn’t want to run anything over, you know.  I can honestly say that I saw over 2,000 birds in that short time.  It was incredible.”

  While we talked, vultures were still coming over in a living stream and kettling off in the distance.  Dozens of Red-tailed Hawks were mixed into the stream (722 made the official daily count), along with a few Sharp-shinned Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks (126 were sighted).  We talked a few moments about these other birds as they were sighted, but the vultures definitely stole the show.

  Mike’s whole demeanor was like that of a kid in a candy store and he’s no kid.  I just returned from a short walk and saw several hundred of the birds flying over, but missed the big flight earlier in the day.  I too was excited, but not nearly to the degree that Mike was.  His animation and wonder reminded me that these kinds of things should never be taken for granted.

  Jim, a regular park visitor with an intense interest in all things natural, wrote me an e-mail later in the day.  He’d seen a big group of birds circling over a nearby park in the vicinity of King Road and was curious where they were landing.  Toward evening, vultures seek roosting spots to spend the night since they don’t fly without the aide of the sun’s warmth.  Jokingly he said “I expected to find them over a Wildebeest kill,” like the African vultures on the Discovery Channel.  Instead, he found them roosting in a tree and was shocked that the nearby kids weren’t paying any attention to them at all.  “As a kid, you couldn’t keep me away (from something like that).” Jim, like Mike, is no kid. Again, I am prompted to tip my hat and declare my admiration for curiosity well rewarded. Both of these gentlemen are here to remind us why we look up into the sky.

  No photo can do justice to our fantastic autumn vulture flights, but here’s one that will at least give you an idea.  In the air, there is no more graceful a figure than a Turkey Vulture (see a more detailed view here).  As masters of the wind they need only minor flicks of their 6 foot wingspan to maintain aerial suspension.  What makes all this even more fascinating is that up close and personal, there is nothing uglier than a Turkey Vulture.  One look at this picture will confirm this observation. Either way, whether in reaction to their supreme ugliness or to their unrivaled aeronautical beauty, take some time to join Mike, Jim and I in simply saying “Wow.”

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