Last weekend, I got to travel with one of my students to the Tishomingo NWR, about 3.5 hours due south of Stillwater, but still not into Texas. We were taking part in the annual spring meeting of the Oklahoma Ornithological Society and Arbuckle-Simpson Nature Festival.
One one of the morning field trips, Andy and I found ourselves in the company of another birder and with our invited speaker for the banquet, woodpecker expert Dr. Jerome Jackson from Florida Gulf Coast University. The four of us were spending a delightful morning of birding and botanizing along one of the refuge’s trails.
At one point, we came upon two black vultures sitting rather tight (i.e., not easily flushed by our presence), and Jerry remarked that the birds were keeping watch over their nest – somewhere in the “deepest, darkest part” of that tangle we would find two fluffy, buffy, musty-smelling black vulture chicks.
Adult black vulture, keeping watch over chicks below.
Andy and I barely hesitated before crashing though the tick-infested greenbriar/honeysuckle tangle. About a half hour later we were rewarded with the find of a lifetime (for us, at least): two fluffy, buffy, musty-smelling black vulture chicks! It seems Dr. Jackson’s expertise extends well beyond the woodpeckers.
We called the other two over to where we were, and a few minutes later all four of us were standing at the nest site; the two chicks huddled together about 10 feet away in an impenetrable tangle.
Did I say “impenetrable?” Not for the intrepid Jerry Jackson! He stripped away his heavy camera packs and squirmed his way into the tangle emerging with, a few moments later, a slowly vomiting black vulture chick. The birds let out a threatening hiss as Jerry got close, but their main defense was to smell like something dead – which they did, though a “musty” dead, not so much a putrid dead – and to vomit their last meal at their assailants. This wasn’t projectile vomiting as I had assumed it would be, but rather a slow expulsion of bones and fresh meat through the bill. At one point, there was a perfectly intact skink ejected in this manner, though the lizard was both head- and tail-less.
Jerry’s going in!
Next Jerry showed us a fascinating anatomical anomaly of New World vulture chicks – a claw on the alula. It’s not articulated like a hoatzin chick’s claws, but it was really there, and it might very well help these fat, flightless chicks clamber up into vegetation, and relative safety.
John Shackford holds the bird (carefully) while Jerry finds the alular claw.
Now part of a tiny brotherhood of people who’ve seen and touched the deciduous alular claw on the wing of a baby black vulture, we all had to pose for pictures:
A face only a mother (or a birder) could love.
Andy’s feeling paternal toward this little guy.
I don’t feel a need to hold this thing any closer to my body than this – its funk stayed with us for hours!