Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An Ugly Beauty

To paraphrase Casey Stengel on baseball, if you hang out in the great outdoors long enough you’re bound to see something you’ve never seen before.

That happened to me one early Saturday morning.

I usually walk up to Collins Road and into the Greystone - sorry, Central Park of Morris County - property. At the other end of the road, just beyond where Collins joins Central Ave., there is a large tree overlooking Thompson Pond.

Usually this tree is covered with turkey vultures.

The turkey vulture is a very ugly bird. It has a red, bare head, giving it only the slightest of resemblances to Ben Franklin’s choice for national symbol. The head is bare because the vulture eats dead meat and you don’t want to be messing up feathers sticking your head into a bloody, rotting carcass.

When the turkey vulture sits in a tree above you and spreads its wings you know it is a very big bird indeed. Usually you will see one or two hunting together but at dusk they form big roosting flocks, like the one at Greystone.

So when I took my walk the first surprise was the turkey vultures were not in the usual tree but in a number of big trees along Central Ave. The usual tree was filled with black vultures.

Black vultures are an interesting story. They used to be seen only south of the Mason-Dixon line but have been gradually heading north, perhaps as the Earth warms.

These vultures are smaller and have white “fingers” at the wing tips, unlike the border of white trailing feathers on the turkey vulture. They are also stockier and can be mistaken for redtails and other buteos in flight.

Unlike the turkey vulture it dips its wings while flying and usually travels in flocks. It is an ugly bird with a silver-gray head, also bare for eating dead meat. I was driving on a back road once and about 10 of these were on a dog carcass, a revolting sight.

Then again, if people are going to let their animals loose, what do they expect? Once it is hit by a speeding car, a vulture will make quick work of it.

And there is plenty of dead meat to go around, as the dead deer and squirrels and woodchucks and possums and cats and even bears on New Jersey’s roadsides can attest.

You might ask, what were these two types of vultures doing that cold morning of my walk?

They were drying their wings from the night’s dew and warming themselves as they waited for updrafts that would keep them aloft.

Ever feel stiff on a cold morning? Well, on cold, calm mornings vultures and other daytime raptors have to wait until their wings are light and buoyant enough to fly. You don’t want to be weighed down as you seek your breakfast.

Besides the surprise of finding two types of vultures within a block of each other, the next surprise was discovering many of the turkey vultures were also on a sandbank in the pond. Vultures don’t eat live fish and they don‘t swim. I can only guess all the other prime spots - the very large, strong trees or the nearby building roof to support their weight - were taken.

I walked on, but there was one last surprise in store.

I came home the way I went out, and when I got to the pond most of the vultures had left, or so I thought. But I found them on a sunny grass field up Central Ave., chasing each other around like Canada geese.

I’ve never seen this type of vulture behavior. Try to imagine a green field black with very large vultures spreading their wings to dry, chasing each other away, making grunt calls.

It was an ugly sight, but a natural one. After all, vultures have their place in the world. They are Nature‘s sanitation crew. As my husband says about critters that interfere with my bird feeders, they gotta eat, too.

We may not like what vultures represent - the end of life, disposal of the body, the subsequent decay - but that’s the balance of life and death.

By the time I got home some of the turkey vultures were already circling in the clear, blue sky, and for a moment even these ugliest of birds looked beautiful to this Earth-bound creature.