Saturday, September 18, 2010

Black Florida Vulture Adventure

Black vultures fluffing their neck ruffs against Florida's amazing and constant clouds.
On Wednesday, I was driving up Page Mill Road and saw a group of turkey vultures flying high in the late summer sky.  I wanted to stop and watch them but I had 40 people waiting for me to make a presentation.  Durn!  Don't these people have better things to do, like watch vultures fly?  Obviously, I am still obsessed with TVs.  Last summer, I was obsessed with deer.  The natural world keeps giving me new things to discover, kinda like those constantly changing Happy Meal toys.

Sabal palms from below
After weeks of being honored with close-up visits by turkey vultures, I keep thinking about a long ago encounter I had with a vulture in Florida where there are both turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and black vultures (Coragyps atratus).  I was a budding young botanist at the time and didn't know much about wildlife.  We were backpacking out to a remote section of Myakka River State Park to camp and see the much ballyhooed Halley meteorite shower of 1986.  As we crossed the saw palmetto prairie with the intense summer sun drilling into our eyeballs and unwrinkled skin, I thought about the news headlines that said this was going to be the best meteorite showers for decades.  My next chance would be when I would be in my fifties.  Would I make it?  I didn't know, so I decided a backcountry camping trip would provide a sky show I couldn't miss and would be worth the 6-mile hike to Bee Island in the height of the summer heat with Florida's mosquitoes and snakes.

Sabal palms from Myakka's canopy walkway
As we finally crossed the humid open prairie into a shady oak and sabal palm hammock, I got that dizzy feeling from too much sun exposure and wobbled down the trail half hallucinating.  I saw a dark shape alongside the trail.  A fallen oak limb?  It was sticking up and a flat black color.  In my dizziness, I kept walking closer until I made out a still figure hunched in the sand.  It was a completely dark vulture perched upright with its wings folded and eyes squinted.  (I realize now it could have been either a black vulture or possibly a juvenile turkey vulture.)  I was frightened to be suddenly within five feet of this witch doctor in a haze. My brain said this vulture must be sick to pay no heed to my dangerous human presence.  My body said the vulture knew exactly what it was doing in the heat of the breezeless day, resting, while I was foolishly hiking in the afternoon sun and carrying a heavy pack.  We trudged on too tired to ask the sage any questions.

Black vultures at the beach in Myakka.
Sunning in the horaltic pose, this black vulture clearly shows the whitish underwing tip patch,
 whereas on turkey vultures, the entire back half of the wing appears silvery from underneath. 
We set up camp, ate and pretty much fell asleep before the stars even came out.  That night, we never woke to see Halley's comet, but 24 years later I still remember that black vulture meditating in the shadows.  That's kinda how Florida is - nothing fancy, but simple moments of earthy truth which subtly creep up on you later. 

Black vultures on dead manatee on river in northern Florida.  We saw this while canoeing.
Unfortunately, slow and submerged manatees are often hit by motorboats which can lead to their injury and death.
I slept right through the Perseid meteor shower again this year, but I continue to look skyward for vultures.  Silly as that adventure sounds, I keep it as a fond memory of my early naturalist days in Florida, and I am pleased to have cycled back to a relationship with vultures.  If it takes me a quarter of a century to slowly move from plants to wildlife, I guess I might be doing stars in another lifetime because there's an awful lot of insects out there.  In the meantime, I just read Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood with its intimate descriptions of the piney flatwoods and an amazing story about the indigo snake which I also saw once in Myakka River State Park.  If you are thinking about visiting Myakka, I recommend fall or winter when the temperature and humidity are more moderate and the migrating birds are passing through or visiting.  Canoeing with the alligators is fun anytime of year.

Visiting Myakka in 2007 with a fellow New College alumna.
I made it to be a 50-something, intact, currently on a vulture quest.
See also:
Hilarious vulture quotes at 10,000 Birds blog


  1. I like the new look of your blog, Cindy!

  2. Thanks, I'm getting lots of inspiration from the natural world and the blogosphere. Just got back from Grand Tetons National Park and, jeepers, it's a beaut of a world we got.


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