Black vultures are a rare visitor here on the West Coast, more typically found in the American Southeast and South, and in Mexico. We are in the middle of the migration right now, so you never know what might show up. Though this bird must have taken a wrong turn around Tennessee. We spotted it in a small kettle that had a couple turkey vultures and an American kestrel (small falcon).
Research at this time indicates that this type of vulture finds its food by site (similar to many African vultures), as opposed to the turkey vulture, more common here in CA, which uses its sense of smell to find food. Though they are both considered vultures with dark bodies and bald heads, but you can see that the black vulture has a distinctive wing shape and short tail, combined with a dark head and dark flight feathers that make it easy to differentiate from a turkey vulture. Turkey vultures also have a silvery hue to the underside of their flight feathers, the adults have red heads, and they have slightly different flight styles as well. Very different builds on these birds, and it’s reflected in the way they soar and fly (turkey vulture has a slight “v” when it flies as viewed from head-on, and it tends to rock back and forth more – a less steady looking soar). Often it’s easiest to ID a bird at a distance based on a sillhouette and how it flies.
I was driving down a road in Sonoma County today and noticed a large kettle of turkey vultures flying above an agricultural area – probably numbering almost 40 birds! It was somewhat unusual, and certainly not something I’ve seen yet this year. I pulled over to take another look, knowing that often golden eagles will “hitch” a ride along with a group of vultures. As I was counting the vultures, boom!
I followed the kettle, which conveniently for me also was following the road in my direction! I made a number of stops as I followed it, and during my final stop the Eagle was kind enough to turn around and do a fly-over for me.
Such a beautiful bird – as I observed it I noticed that it lacked any under-wing white patches, but its uniform feather coloring and uniform-length flight feathers indicated that it was probably a first-year hatch bird. It appears it has lost one of its left secondary feathers, which initially made me think perhaps it was older and undergoing a molt, but I still think this bird is a hatch year bird (meaning it hatched this spring).
As it glided back past me and rejoined the group of vultures, a dark morph Red-Tailed Hawk took exception to its presence and launched after the Eagle from its perch among a grove of eucalyptus trees, screaming loudly as it flapped quickly towards the larger bird …
The Red-Tail launched into the kettle and did a few dives at the Eagle, but they were half-hearted attempts – more bark than bite. The kettle of vultures, with the Eagle still flying in it, slowly floated away from the Red-Tail’s territory as it retreated back to a perch in the trees.
Here in the West, especially towards the coast it seems, we have more frequent occurrence of “dark morph” Red-Tails (they have a very diverse variety of feather patterns and tones), and often I’ve seen people mistake these birds for Eagles. To the untrained eye, this is totally understandable. But when you see the two together, there is little doubt about the ID. Golden Eagles are quite a bit larger, have distinctly different plumage when observed closely, different wing shapes, and different shapes/silhouettes when viewed from below. Turkey Vultures are only slightly smaller than Eagles, and both can hold their wings in a slight dihedral shape when soaring – to the naked eye they can appear very similar – but upon viewing them with binoculars, they also have very different silhouettes and feather colors, and an experienced observer can distinguish the two from each other even without binoculars.
It was really fun to see all the Vultures, the Eagle and the dark Red-Tail on this beautiful NorCal “summer” day.
still as breathtaking as ever
brother to Owl
light to dark
day to night
this is a pair of red-tailed hawks, likely mates, soaring over the cliffs in Western Sonoma County CA
one of them had particularly beautiful plumage, with very fine barring that can be seen with a picture enlarged …
also seen was a vulture prowling low along the cliffs over the Pacific
turkey vulture eating gull
Mendocino Coast, CA
turkey vulture tracks in wet sand
Want to get better at shooting birds in flight? Try practicing on tree swallows flying over a river catching insects … in poor light. Everything else becomes much easier, let me tell you! Just to remain standing and not spun around and on my face in the sand or river was a minor success.
The osprey were out and about as well, with two or three pairs fishing and perched in the area. There are many nests around the river and out towards the coast in Sonoma County, always amazing to see these birds in action. They seemed as interested in me as I was in them …
Watching it all unfold was a tree full of vultures, trying to warm up on a chilly and foggy West County morning on the river.