Turkey vultures have returned to Front Range

Some people watch for the first robin of spring. In Capistrano, they look for the return of the swallows. I know it’s spring when the turkey vultures return to the Front Range of Colorado. (https://amylaw.blog/2013/04/08/it-must-be-spring/)

Turkey vultures are big birds — the biggest you are likely to see, with the exception of an eagle or an American white pelican.

You’re not going to mistake a vulture for a pelican. The others are a little more problematic.

They are big, dark bird with translucent (almost see-through) trailing wing feathers, and a red head.

I have the most trouble telling a turkey vulture from bald or golden eagles. Although golden eagles may hold their wings in a slight “V”, most often they hold their wings flat.

A turkey vulture soars with it’s wings in a slight “V”, often called a “dihedral”.

Turkey vultures are also “tippy” when they fly — they are so light that air drafts bounce them around. Eagles are not “tippy”. It’s beneath their dignity.

And neither a bald or nor golden eagle have the translucent trailing wing feathers.

Swainson’s hawks, or a broad-winged hawks are both tippy and fly in a V. But both these hawks have shorter, broader wings, and are smaller. They also often brownish-red and have white markings on their wings or bodies.

You might confuse it with a black vulture, but black vultures just seem smaller overall — shorter wings, much shorter tail, with a dark grey head. Plus, black vultures are limited to the southern US down into South America. I have to travel south if I want to see a black vulture.

It’s been a long, hard winter. I hope you enjoy your first signs of spring, whatever they are!

Colorado Matters Over Trail Ridge Road

Nathan Heffel and I went over Trail Ridge Road recently. Here is the interview that aired

Turkey hen on Deer Ridge.

Turkey hen on Deer Ridge.

on September 28, 2015. Over Trail Ridge Road with Nathan Heffel

Fall River Cirque, 3/4 mile wide by 1/2 mile deep. The cirque was cut by the Fall River Glacier.

Fall River Cirque, 3/4 mile wide by 1/2 mile deep. The cirque was cut by the Fall River Glacier. The snowfields here are only 800 years old. We may lose them as Colorado returns to it’s normal semi-arid climate.

Bull elk bugling.

Bull elk bugling.

Elk harem in Beaver Meadows.

Elk harem in Beaver Meadows.

Raptor Migration in Full Swing

Migrating turkey vulture

Migrating turkey vulture

The annual Raptor (aka Birds of Prey — eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and vultures) migration is in full swing. The birds of prey are migrating north to their summer nesting grounds. The raptors fly up the hog back for several reasons. First, it is an easy marker for them to follow —  a constant ribbon of rock from New Mexico into Wyoming. Second, the sun warms the rocks and provides up drafts. These up drafts give a little extra lift that the heavy birds of prey use to gain altitude. With the gift of lift, the raptors can soar for more miles every day.

Scientists take advantage of the concentration of raptors. There is a monitoring station perched on top of the Dakota Hogback at Raptor Ridge, just on the east side of Co Hwy 93, just south of the I-70/ Co Hwy 93 interchange. There is a parking lot at the base of the hog back, across from Mathews-Winters Open Space. http://jeffco.us/open-space/parks/matthews-winters-park/

Migrating Cooper's Hawk

Migrating Cooper’s Hawk

Migrating red-tailed hawk

Migrating red-tailed hawk

Scientists from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science initially manned the observation station, but budget cuts took their toll, and the job was passed on to Hawk Watch volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. http://rmbo.org/v2/web/getInvolved/hawkWatch.aspx These hardy folks volunteer to count the raptors as they fly overhead. Not a bad gig when it is nice out, but in wind or cold, it takes true dedication.

But their work pays off, and you can see it in their reports. Since they started watching at the beginning of April, almost 400 birds of prey have been spotted cruising over the hogback. https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups#!topic/cobirds/N7YwWW90D3k

Hawk Watch will continue counting raptors  through May. Go up and see them and spot some hawks flying by.


It must be spring…

… the turkey vultures are back!
As large birds, turkey vultures depend on thermals to work themselves up to as high as 10,000 feet to search for carrion (dead animals). Once aloft, they fly with their wingtips splayed out finger-like for better flight control while soaring.

Turkey vultures are large dark birds. When they soar, they spread their wingtips.

Turkey vultures are large dark birds. When they soar, they spread their wingtips.

Because they need warm air to lift them, you’ll only turkey vultures from early spring through late fall.  During these seasons, you can spot turkey vultures soaring in the air everywhere in Colorado except high valleys and mountains.  They especially like piñon-juniper and mountain shrublands.
How do you know it’s a turkey vulture? TVs are very large birds which, when seen from below, are all dark, except the back edges of their wings which are translucent (allow light through).  Most commonly seen when soaring, their flight is “tippy”, with their wings in a slight “V” when you see them head on.  The head seems almost nonexistent from below.
Because they are meat-eaters, Turkey Vultures have traditionally been classified with birds of prey, but turkey vultures may be much more closely related to storks and flamingos.  They lack the razor-sharp beak and grasping talons of the hunters of the sky, and so cannot catch their own prey, or even tear into a fresh carcass.   Because of this, the Cherokee Nation calls turkey vultures “peace eagles”.
Instead, turkey vultures act as garbage disposals.  Special traits equip them for this job.  TV’s find carrion by smell, but use their excellent sight to find other TVs who have found something to eat.  Turkey vultures can digest truly toxic germs, eating rotten meat with impunity.  Once they find some dead thing, they plunge their featherless red heads in and gorge until they can barely fly.  We owe these and other scavengers a debt, for without them, we would be knee-deep in carcasses.
For a bird, Turkey Vultures are smart, gentle, sociable and, despite their public image, clean. Their Latin name, Cathartes, means “purifier”. The Spanish name for turkey vulture is zopilote (so-pee-low-tay), which is just a cool word to say.