Nature Notes: The Vultures Are Circling

A palatable cadaver
A turkey vulture, eyes on a deer carcass, circled low over the Culloden Preserve in Montauk. Victoria Bustamante

   On April 22, I drove down to Arlington, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., with my daughter, Angela, who was visiting me from California. It was a bright sunny day with nary a cloud and not much of a wind. From New Jersey through Delaware through Maryland to Virginia, the sky over the highways 60 to 100 feet above the pavement was filled with sailing turkey vultures. We must have seen more than 25, mostly singles, sometimes in pairs.
    What was remarkable about the observation was that not one vulture flapped its wings; they did nothing but glide on wings spread in dihedral angles. When conditions are right, the sun is shining brightly, it is warm, and the winds are light and variable, it is conceivable that a turkey vulture could make the same trip that we were making without using a single stroke of the wing. No wonder a single road kill goes such a long way where vultures are concerned.
    Turkey vultures are black like their siblings, the black vultures. They absorb heat by day through their feathers when the sun is out. All black land birds — grackles, boat-tailed grackles, cowbirds, crows, fish crows, redwing blackbirds, starlings, ravens — similarly absorb the sun’s rays. They can pick other flying blackbirds out visually as much as a mile away. And all American blackbirds are flockers, except during the nesting season. Some, such as grackles, redwings, and cowbirds, travel about in mixed flocks, others keep to their own species. Interestingly, the three species of black waterfowl that ply our marine waters, the scoters, are also flockers, but so are many non-black waterfowl species.
    All black land birds are omnivorous, save for vultures, which are carrion feeders. In general, black birds are very successful in terms of numbers. Only the raven has become rare to the degree that it is considered “threatened” in several states. In New York and on the West Coast, however, the raven is making a strong comeback. Indeed, ravens, absent from Long Island for hundreds of years, have begun to breed here. Last Thursday, I visited the Hampton Bays Water Tower site to see if last year’s pair had returned. They had. The female was sitting on the nest 100 feet up and the male was flying around uttering its hoarse crow call. I could clearly see its scruff of throat feathers and wedged-shaped tail.
    Two weeks ago, Vicki Bustamante saw a pair of ravens contesting with crows near the Suffolk County Water Authority water tower in west Amagansett, north of Montauk Highway. Water towers apparently mimic the high rocky crags where ravens have nested for centuries. Long Island doesn’t have such nesting sites, but it does have lots of water towers and a plentiful supply of roadkill upon which ravens often feed.
    Another black bird making great strides on Long Island, including eastern Long Island, is the fish crow. It used to be a rare visitor from the south. In the last 20 years, it has become a serious breeder here. Sag Harbor has one of the largest fish crow populations around, but they can be found in Southampton Village, Hampton Bays, Springs, and other local spots near the water as well. The fish crow is slightly smaller than the common crow and has a nasal caw, not unlike the sound of a baby common crow. On Saturday I saw one carrying food and heading to the north over the North Haven bridge. It could have been taking it to young in a nest on North Haven.
    On Saturday afternoon, while studying the plants making up the flora of the Culloden Nature Preserve in Montauk, Vicki Bustamante and I were also keeping an eye and an ear out for birds, especially spring arrivals. We flushed a great-horned owl, which quietly flapped its way out of sight, chased by a couple of blue jays, one of which hit the owl in the head. As we approached a high spot overlooking Block Island Sound in the northeast sector of the preserve, all of a sudden a very large black bird sailed over and around, less than 50 feet above our heads. It was a turkey vulture and we wondered why was it circling again and again so low in the sky around this one spot.
    Twenty paces further along we found the answer, with our noses first, then our eyes. It was the remains of a dead deer, pretty much reduced to a few bones and a thatch of fur, but its odor was as foul as an odor can be. We were quickly reminded that unlike almost all other bird species, vultures have a refined sense of smell. The stinkier, the better.
    We wondered if this was one of those that bred and fledged two chicks next to Navy Road and Fort Pond Bay six years ago, a first for Long Island.
    When the trail took us down to the beach, the vulture that disappeared from our view a few minutes earlier showed up and it was not alone. It had a mate, and the two sailed back and forth, circling around and around low over a marshy area behind the beach and may have landed. All the while, more than 10 minutes, not making a single sound, not moving a wing up and down, but holding them at that same 30-degree angle with the horizon, going this way and that.
    They disappeared into that black hole. Maybe they had found a palatable cadaver. A few minutes later, two ospreys loomed a quarter-mile up in the sky to the east. We wondered if ospreys would ever breed in Montauk again. Up ahead, directly under them, was a tall, improvised osprey platform standing at the northwest edge of the Culloden Preserve. A nice lady walking by in the other direction said it had been put up only a few days ago. Could the two ospreys be checking it out?