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Sunday, October 9, 2011

One Very Wet Vulture

Upon my arrival at Lime Kiln this afternoon, I was greeting by my first of the season mixed species flock of woodland passerines: chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, and both golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets. After trying and failing to photograph the kinglets for a bit, I continued down to the shoreline where I sat in the surprisingly warm sunshine for a while. There were no fewer than five gull species foraging in Deadman Bay: glaucous-winged, Heermann's, mew, California, and, the biggest surprise, ten or so juvenile Bonaparte's gulls.

I walked down to the lighthouse and was talking to some visitors when someone said, "What is that?!" I turned around and saw something waving in the air above the water. My first thought was that it was a flipper, like that of a sea lion, but as soon as I got my binoculars on it I saw that it had feathers. It was a bird!

It's not unheard of for bald eagles to end up in the water when they go after a fish that's too big for them to carry. Since their talons lock onto the prey, they find themselves having to swim to shore. In some cases they end up drowning. I haven't ever seen this myself, but I assumed that's what we were witnessing. As the bird tried to make its way towards shore these kayakers came by and looked at it. The bird seemed surprisingly calm.

I walked down the shoreline towards where the bird was heading to take a closer look. As it approached shore, I realized it wasn't an eagle at all - it was a turkey vulture! How in the world does a turkey vulture end up in the water? I don't know.

It did some "swimming" with its wings, but also seemed to be paddling with its feet somehow to get closer to the coast. It hopped up on a piece of kelp for a moment, then made it a little further to this rock just offshore.

Needless to say, I was concerned about it. Turkey vultures aren't designed for getting wet, and it didn't seem to be making any attempts at first to dry itself off. I called Wolf Hollow, the local wildlife rehab facility, to see what they thought. They wanted to make sure I wasn't looking at an eagle, but no, it really was a vulture! They decided to come out and take a look at it. Shortly after I got off the phone, the vulture started moving up the rocks a little further. It got off its little rock to the main part of the shoreline.

Then, much to my surprise, it kept hopping its way towards me! By now I could see it was a juvenile vulture, lacking the bright red head of the adults. Most vultures seem to have left the island by now, heading south for the winter. A few birds stay in the area during the winter; usually one or two are reported during the Christmas Bird Count. But I wonder if this bird was migrating, and tried to fly across the strait from Vancouver Island to San Juan Island? Maybe if it didn't quite have the strength it crash-landed into the water? The only other thing I can think of is it was investigating a carcass or something close to the shoreline and got caught by a wave or somehow got too low to the water.

The person from Wolf Hollow arrived, and despite the fact the bird was holding one of its wings a little bit strangely, she thought it was okay - maybe a little sore, but no breaks in the wing from what she could tell. Luckily it seemed to figure out the best way to dry itself off, and turned its back towards the sun and spread its wings. What a sight!

We decided to wait to see if it would try to take flight. It looked like it was thinking about it. Sure enough, about 45 minutes after it had climbed out of the waves onto the rocks, it took flight! My camera was in hand but unfortunately I didn't get a photo - it took off right towards me and wasn't gaining altitude very fast, so I ducked instead! But here's proof it ended up in the trees behind me:

What a strange thing to witness! But I'm sure glad this story had a happy ending - this vulture should be safe from dogs and people up in the trees, where hopefully it can dry off the rest of the way before flying on its way.


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Great story with a happy ending, what a thing to witness.
Missing loads of year birds and even a lifer or two being confined to barracks here :(

Does the the rescue centre have the need for feeding teats for infant animals? If so can you ask them to have a look at my mates excellent product from Maroo Wildlife Refuge in Australia - Many thanks


The K said...

Incredible good luck for you to be there and document this story. Great photos. I've never seen/read anything like this.

Ingrid said...

Monika, what a fantastic story. I've been missing my regular Turkey Vulture sightings from the Bay Area. This photo series exceeded any previous experiences I've had with these birds. Just awesome. (Your photos are stunning, btw. Have been looking through your galleries.)

Ann Nightingale said...

Awesome story. We watch huge kettles of them string out to cross the Juan de Fuca Straight, then turn around and come back if they don't feel they can make it. I'm sure a large number of them end up in the water. It's good to know that some of them can survive a dunking!

Monika said...

Dave - I know they feed infant animals, but I don't know how they do it. I'll mention it to them if I get a chance! And here's hoping there's a lifer waiting for you when you're set free again!

The K - Not such good luck for the vulture, but I'm glad it turned out all right!

Ingrid - Thank you so much! This was definitely the closest encounter I've ever had with a vulture. They're very cool birds to observe up close.

Ann - Thanks for sharing your observation about the kettles crossing Juan de Fuca. It's really interesting that you've seen them turn back sometimes - makes me think a failed crossing is indeed what happened to this guy. I was amazed he could fly so soon after getting that wet!

Traveling Osprey said...

Hi Monika,
Thanks for posting these photos and sharing the story! My husband and I are the kayakers in your photo. We are so glad to know that the wet vulture is ok! We approached because we thought for sure it was drowning, and couldn't quite tell what was happening form a distance. As we kayaked by, we considered trying to help it to shore, but it seemed to be paddling well with its feet at that point and got to some kelp. We hoped it would be ok after that and are glad to know that it was! Thanks for your additional concern by calling Wolf Hollow!