Friday, October 30, 2009

A VENUE OF VULTURES

One of the "buzzard trees" across from the cottage.
One morning soon, I'll look out one of the living room's river-view windows, and the tops of the big sycamores on the island across from the cottage will be empty. The last of the resident turkey vultures, with whom I share this stretch of stream for most of the year, will have packed up and departed for milder climes. I'll be buzzardless until next March.
When I moved here four summers ago, I didn't know one of the riverbank's bonus features was a clan of turkey vultures who roost nightly in the trees directly across the channel. I also didn't know I'd come to so enjoy their habits and company.
Turkey vultures are one of two vulture species in Ohio, the other being the black vulture, which is similar in appearance in overall shape, but a bit smaller and has a dark, rather than a red, turkey-like head. Another difference between the two is that black vultures hunt by sight, while turkey vultures find their meals of the recently deceased via their keen sense of smell—one of the few birds to possess such a highly developed ability of odor detection. A big turkey vulture has a wingspan of six feet and weighs upwards of 6 pounds. Their lifespan in the wild can exceed 16 years, and at least one captive bird passed the 33-year mark. They lack a voice box, so the only sounds they utter are hisses and grunts.
Lazing around, taking some sun, discussing breakfast.
There's simply no charitable way to put this…as looks go, turkey vultures are ugly. Not "cute" ugly, just plain old whupped-with-an-ugly-stick ugly.
But only on the ground. Put a turkey vulture in the air and there's no bird more capable and beautiful in flight. The blue sky was made for the soaring turkey vulture. To watch them tilt and turn, wheel and dip, almost never flapping their wings, yet holding aloft with grace and elegance and absolute mastery of form, it makes you believe bird and sky are nothing short of complementary elements, each created to showcase the other.
I can't begin to tell you how many hours I spend each year just watching those buzzards fly—riding the wind as if it were their's alone. More than any other bird I know, turkey vultures seem to delight in flying, to take great pleasure in their prowess—to experience a sheer joy while ignoring gravity.
Time and again I've observed them coming home in the afternoon. They appear high, little more than dark dihedral smudges against the bright sky canopy. Sometimes they wheel outward in great loops, spiraling, lifting, then swooping down—coming closer and closer to their roost trees. Before settling, they might make make only a single low pass, barely clearing the treetops, or they might elect to make several. They then often land and sit on a limb for while, only to abruptly leap back into the air and swoop and soar a bit more before sitting down again. They seem to take turns doing this—three or four or a dozen birds in the nearby air at once, circling, showing off, landing…to be replaced by other birds who do the same thing; trading moves like teenagers on skateboards: Look at me! Bet you can't do this! Oh, yeah…just watch!
Masters of the sky…
Buzzards are not early risers. They hang around the roost tree until midmorning, perhaps spreading their wings and catching a few rays of sun. When the spirit finally moves them to get their feathered butts in gear and head out to reconnoiter a bite of brunch, they take off in twos and threes—though if the weather is rainy, they might hunker down for most of the day. In the afternoon, several hours before sunset, they begin returning. Definitely not workaholics.
The first year I lived here, when the buzzards and I were just getting acquainted, I kept trying to estimate their numbers. Have you ever tried to count turkey vultures on the wing—coming, going, circling, soaring, swooping, constantly trading places? Or for that matter, buzzards finally settled in on their evening roost—dark shapes, like some sort of feathered fruit, glimpsed here and there within the dense cover of leaves and limbs?
Here's the one-word answer: impossible. My best count—what I, toward the end of that first season, figured to be a pretty good guesstimate—was somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five birds. Then autumn's leaves began to fall. Talk about surprise! The count rose from twenty-five to thirty, then forty, then fifty. Down the leaves came, up the count went. Sixty, seventy, ninety…a hundred! My Lord, just how many turkey vultures were sitting over there in the denuding sycamores? I hadn't been harboring a clan, I'd been harboring a legion!
The final tally, taken on the last morning before their disappearance, was 177 turkey vultures! And I'd be willing to bet that even with most of the leaves down, I still missed a few birds—possibly more than a few.
Home before the storm.
Alas, it's again getting to be about that time of year. Too soon my beloved buzzards will up and depart. It's like losing a bunch of old friends without getting to see them off and wish them well on their journey. I'll miss them every day until they return.
And the trees and skies along the river will be palpably empty, diminished by their absence.

26 comments:

Carolyn H said...

I had a friend who used to say she wanted to be reincarnated as a vulture. Her argument was that their lives were "easy" compared to humans. A vulture doesn't really have to fly. It just opens its wings and glides around. A vulture doesn't have to hunt. It just waits for something to die. And some always dies. And you don't have to fight anything. Just throw up on it.

Carolyn H.

giggles said...

177 WOW!!!! I wonder.... Do they congregate at your place until they hit a critical mass and then all fly south together??? And then do they all return on the same day every year? (Don't they return somewhere on March 19th every year?)

Also, I learned on my most recent trip to Hawk Mountain, that black vultures are slowly growing in numbers moving north.... I've seen quite a few this year and once you get the hang of it, they are quite easy to tell apart, even high in the sky! (DIdn't know the sight/smell difference, though!!)

Au revoir...a printemps!

Wanda said...

On this warm windy day that we are experiencing here, I could be back outside enjoying it, but I chose to read your last three posts...I would tell you how great they are, but I don't believe my comments can do your writing justice. Your posts make me want to be outside even more than I am!

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

"There's simply no charitable way to put this…as looks go, turkey vultures are ugly. Not "cute" ugly, just plain old whupped-with-an-ugly-stick ugly."

Noooooooo!

I must differ with you on their appearance. I really do find them beautiful in form- from their bare knobby red heads and their pearly white beaks to the crystalline silver wing linings- quite simply gorgeous! But- your description of them in flight is the best I've ever read. I could watch them soar and swirl for hours. I watch them at Hasty Brook fly to the northeast every eveing toward what I assume is their communal roost. I hope to find that roost some day.

Maybe when your readers take in your words (except for the ugly part) and photos about these amazing birds the ranks of the "Turkey Vulture Appreciation Society" will grow!


Thanks for the post. I've been sick with the flu all week and this was better than Advil!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Carolyn…

Well, you're friend has it pretty well nailed…vultures are a gregarious, lazybones lot. And other than hop and a glide off the limb, flying is pretty much a case of spreading your wings and allowing wind and lift and something akin to magic to catch you in its arms and send you soaring to the envy of even a red-tail hawk.

I'll even agree it might be great fun to puke on your tormentors.

But…there is that rather disgusting buzzard habit of defecating on your own legs to keep them cool in hot weather. Your friend might want reconsider that reincarnation wish.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Giggles…

More likely 200 plus…but whose counting? The tree in the photo with this post, taken a few days ago, is just one of a half dozen the turkey vultures favor on the island, all adjacent to one another. I could count 141 among them that morning—and I couldn't see all trees due to leaves.

And yes, so far as I can tell, they all leave here at the same time. Buzzards one day, none the next—or none I can spot, anyway. I don't think they congregate much beforehand, though. This is pretty much the full-season gang.

The spring return is not quite so dramatic…one day there are no vultures, then you see a half-dozen or a few more the next, and the full contingent is in residence in maybe a week or a bit more. They return about the first week of March.

There are black vultures around here—a very few—more on the southeast side of the county, and onward in that same direction to the Ohio River. Ohio's hill-country is great black vulture territory.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Wanda…

I'm flattered, humbled, and hope with all my heart my writing comes anywhere close to deserving even half so much praise. I hope too that you'll always go outside first and read my posts later. We won't have many more unseasonably warm autumn days.

Thank you, truly.

madcobug said...

Sounds like those buzzards give you a pass time counting and watching them. I will admit the two in the blue sky look beautiful in flight. Once several years ago a neighbor saw several in the road eating, he assumed they would all fly and didn't slow down. Busted his windshield all to pieces. Smelled awful on top of that. Helen

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Lynne…

Better than Advil? Well I should hope! You can't get a turkey vulture fix from a bottle.

Now I'm just going to put your Beautiful Buzzard defense down to a lingering viral delirium. A fizzing in the blood that makes an otherwise rational birdwatching woman see beauty where ugly is a charitable understatement. Are you sure your temperature is under control?

Now, having said that, let me also state that in the buzzard's case, ugly is only skin (and feathers) deep. They are beautiful in flight, useful in their lifestyle, fascinating to watch, and in a funeral sort of way, like a gaggle of dour undertakers, curious and friendly. I never do anything outdoors without at least one or two vultures soaring over to see what I'm up to. I like my buzzards a lot. I wouldn't kiss one on the beak, though.

GET WELL!

Debbie said...

You're right about the beauty in motion of the flying turkey vulture. They seem to enjoy flying. You can't help but enjoy and envy, just a little, the fearless soaring so far above the earth. They seem to be playing when they fly in groups.I see quite a few here in town too and once in awhile they end up in our tree for a short time. I make sure I move often if I'm sitting outside:)
Deb

Gail said...

HI GRIZZ-

Great, great post and wonderful pictures. I learned so much about turkey vultures. And to learn how they own the sky and just glide on the wind I found so lovely. I so love that you always say how you share the river with whomever, whatever, and how rspectful you are of their survival and living habits. And such appreciation for their unique styles. It is all so wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing.
And Grizz? the post before my last one over at my bog has some photos of a sunset I captured - and I sure would appreciate your thoughts. thanks.

Love Gail
peace......

KGMom said...

I knew Lynne would be by to protest! ;-)
Just the other day, I saw this large bird with a tremendous wing span--black feathers, partial light underside. Oh yeah, turkey buzzard.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Helen…

Never assume! NEVER!

Buzzards can fly like the wind's grace-notes to the sky, but they are slow and clumsy on the take-off.
When your neighbor failed to swerve or brake, he doomed them to violent death.

I really feel bad for those poor turkey vultures.

Robin said...

177.

My husband would be in AWE. He has a new job that takes him into Wisconsin where he's just become acquainted with them. ( I think they make him think of the Thunderbird.....)

I think they are beautiful, and want my own river and my own trees filled with them.

Today I discovered I had missed some big news that baseball player Moises Alou peed on his hands in order to maintain a better grip on the bat.

He might be out there, but he's got nothing on your vultures. Thanks (I think) for the 'defecation information'.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Debbie…

I'm convinced they fly in play. I've watched them too many times, leap off a limb, sail around over the river and cottage, tilt, swoop, flare and just hold in place against the wind…then go back to their limb, sit another spell, and do the same thing all over again.

Absolutely they're enjoying and having fun—playing. And there's nothing whatsoever anthropomorphic about that statement.

Re. those vultures you see in town in your tree…what's the deal with shifting your seat often? You figure they can't hit a moving target? :-)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

Thank you, as always, for being such a lovely, positive fan. I'm always glad when you enjoy a post.

As to why I'm respectful—and I am, and I hope that always comes across—I'm respectful because this is their home, too. I know it sounds trite, but it is the simple truth. The living creatures of the riverbank and I are neighbors. We share this stretch of stream. And they provide for endless fascination. I care for them—feed, provide, watch out as I'm able.

Finally, I will come by read, gaze, enjoy, comment. probably tomorrow morning, though. Promise. I'm about to head to bed.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

Oh, yeah…Lynne loves turkey vultures. I ran this post with her in mind. I knew if she had to drag herself on bloodied fingernails to her computer, she'd write. Didn't think she'd defend their beauty (NOT!) though. You just never know about folks, do you? Why, I'd rather kiss a moose than a buzzard!

(Just kidding, Lynne. Besides, you're sick and not supposed to be reading this. Now go back to bed!)

Hey, that big, dark, feathered, funny-colored flying creature you saw the other day was either…

A.) A plain old harmless turkey vulture.

B.) Mothman.

(I'd stay away from Gallipolis/Point Pleasant for awhile, though.)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Robin…

One never know when such information might come in handy. (I'm betting that Moises Alou never had any trouble with other players borrowing his bat.)

You'll have to find yourself a river cottage with a nearby buzzard roost somewhere south of Ohio if you expect your vulture to hang around all winter. Of course, if you can convince them they're genuine thunderbirds, and not scrap eaters, you might talking them into staying most anywhere.

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

LOL!
cough-cough-cough-

turning off the laptop now and pulling up the covers...

hoping for sweet dreams of smoochable Turkey Vultures...

Bernie said...

They are a beautiful creature as they fly....again Grizz I have learned something new from your post.. thank you.....do you get trick or treaters at the cabin? I wouldn't think so but thought I'd ask, sounds kind of nosey doesn't it, sorry......:-) Hugs

Robin said...

Re: I'm betting that Moises Alou never had any trouble with other players borrowing his bat.

Probably not.

But the thought of high fives all around?

How many, do you think, are still washing their hands?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Lynne…

More rest—you obviously need more rest!

Smoochable buzzards, indeed! I don't think there's an avian version of kiss-a-toad-find-a-prince.

But…√† chacun sa chacune.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

I'm glad you liked the vulture post—they are lovely, amazing fliers.

And, yes, if I leave a porch light on, I'll get a few trick-or-treaters, though this being a dead-end road with only a handful of houses, there aren't many little kids hereabouts. I imagine any kid who wants a candy haul goes elsewhere.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Robin…

Hadn't thought about those high fives! But how many pop-up flies do you suppose got missed or dropped because an outfielder was trying to calculate the degrees of separation between the hand that held the bat, high-fived the teammate, who tossed the ball to the catcher who then tossed it to the pitcher who threw it at the plate where it was hit by the batter and…oooouoo…is that nasty thing now coming through the air at me! Should I catch it? Naaaah. Momma didn't raise no fools.

Jayne said...

What a great post about those very maligned and misunderstood birds. They are so very graceful when they fly. I did not realize the differences in their hunting skills in terms of sight vs. smell. So interesting. Can't even imagine seeing hundreds of them in one place! Lucky you!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jayne…

I've really come to appreciate turkey vultures since moving to this riverbank cottage with a buzzard roost a couple hundred feet away. Especially since I get to see them flying close and low—often with a dozen yards of where I stand.

They fly so effortlessly! Almost never flapping, even when they've just hopped off their limb and taken to the air. They simply spread their huge wings and find lift—as if invisible hands were carrying them aloft. Just amazing.

I'm now a serious buzzard fan, very proprietary about my turkey vultures.