Turkey Vultures and (Raptor) Friends

by Dan Weisz

On a morning driving through Santa Cruz Flats, I came across a few Turkey Vultures.  While these birds are nobody’s favorite, they have some very attractive features.  Turkey Vultures are common in Arizona in the summer.  They are also present in the winter, but those winter birds are more likely to be birds who have traveled south from Canada to spend the winters here.  We should be very grateful for these birds.  By cleaning up the carcasses of dead animals, they act as the sanitation department of the natural world.

Just a few seconds after I took the first photo, I took this shot of the same bird whose eyes now look opaque.  No, this is not a turkey vulture Zombie!  It is caused by the bird’s third eyelid, the nictitating membrane.  In some birds, this membrane is translucent, so the bird can still see through it.  In the Turkey Vulture, this eyelid is opaque.  I imagine this is to allow better protection when the bird shoves its head deep into a rotting carcass.

And its bare, featherless head is a decided advantage when the bird is involved in the messy business of tearing open dead animals.  The word “vulture” may come from the Latin ‘vellere’, which means to pluck or tear.

I usually don’t like to post photos of birds taken when the sun is at their backs, but this wing spread makes it worthwhile this time.  Turkey Vultures pose like this in the mornings to increase the surface area of their bodies so that the sun can more easily warm them.

Another scavenger is the Crested Caracara.  Usually, these birds have begun to migrate south by mid-April so I was pleased to run across a pair that was investigating a dirt field.  Caracaras are opportunistic feeders and, besides eating carrion, they prey on small rodents, small mammals and insects.  Those long legs allow them to run after prey in the field.  Their bare face aids them in scavenging just as the Turkey Vulture’s face does.

Two Red-tailed Hawks were busy building a nest in a palm tree right next to the road.  It looks like this spot will offer some privacy along with a good view of the neighborhood.

The smallest and cutest raptor of the day was an American Kestrel.  There seemed to be quite a few perched on wires, poles, and fences along the road.

Another kestrel has a perch on an old telephone pole.  Those “slate-blue” wings tell you this is a male.

I usually don’t share photos of birds with wires or obstacles in front of them.  That doesn’t make for a good photo, but this was the first Swainson’s Hawk I’ve seen this season.  Swainson’s Hawks are less shy around humans and don’t fly off as quickly as many other hawks do.  Swainson’s Hawks winter in Argentina, so this one’s likely glad to be back on or near its summer home.  Its “executioner’s hood” is a distinctive feature for most Swainson’s Hawks.

And here is another Swainson’s Hawk soaring off.  The light underwings (in front) contrast with the dark flight feathers at the rear of the wings- another typical pattern for Swainson's.

I’m going to be out and about almost daily this week, so don’t be surprised to see one email after another this week.  I hope to have some good adventures to share.