A chance to peek into a nursery of vultures

My enthusiasm for outdoor photography has furnished me with some unique experiences and mini-adventures over the years.

From crawling through patches of poison ivy and itch weed to get a shot of a butterfly to facing off with a rutting bull elk at 15 paces to huddling in a blind for hours waiting for deer, turkeys or other wildlife to show up, I’m always on the lookout for a new or different photo opportunity. When one of those opportunities pans out, the result is usually some interesting images as a lasting record of the incident.

Most of my friends are well acquainted with my dedication to photography and often help me locate interesting subjects. Last Thursday morning was one of those occasions as I accompanied Ralph Filer and Bill Carter to Bill’s hunting camp in Huntingdon County, a location that has produced all sorts of great images for me on dozens of previous visits there. The week before, Ralph had located a nest of turkey vultures in a small cave on top of the ridge behind the cabin, and I was eager to get some pictures of the baby vultures.

I had my camera focused and ready as we cautiously approached the rocky outcrop where the birds were living in case one of the adult vultures flew out of the den, but neither parent was on the premises at the moment. Both the male and female turkey vultures share the duties of incubating the eggs and then tending the hatchlings, which are mostly helpless and require lots of care early on. Vultures, of course, are primarily scavengers that feed on rotting carcasses and other carrion. The adult birds feed their young by regurgitating some of that partially digested mess back to them.

As nasty as all that sounds, however, vultures are simply filling an important niche in the food chain.

As we neared the opening to the vulture nursery, I kept a watchful eye for the return of the adult birds. When annoyed or threatened, vultures will regurgitate on their tormentors as a defense mechanism. I’m pretty sure buzzard puke would have to be about the most putrid substance imaginable, so I was positive that is one experience in pursuit of a photo I had no desire to endure firsthand.

Given their overall lifestyle, I suppose it’s no surprise that vultures aren’t great housekeepers. Vultures do little or no nest building, especially in an underground cavity such as the one we were investigating. And yes, the place had a foul smell all its own, sort of an indescribable mixture of vulture vomit and feces that hung thick around the site in the damp morning air. Even under those conditions, however, the smell was not that pervasive and you had to be relatively close to get whiff of it, otherwise I suppose predators would easily home in on the defenseless young birds.

Unlike most birds, vultures have no voice box and can only utter low-pitched hisses or grunts. When the baby birds finally detected our presence, they began making a prolonged hissing noise, almost like someone deflating an air mattress.

Mindful that I didn’t want to cause any undue stress on the nestlings, I slowly crawled into the smelly little grotto until I saw the two baby vultures hiding in one corner of the den. Even baby bluebirds aren’t much to look at until they are almost fledged and ready to fly, but baby vultures are ugly, really ugly. About the size of a ruffed grouse, they were covered in bright white down with dull gray heads, a stark contrast to the nearly black plumage and red head characteristic of an adult turkey vulture.

After taking a few quick shots of the birds, I backed out of their lair, and we returned to camp, leaving the juvenile vultures to the care of their parents for a few more weeks. If nature selects either of those two young vultures for survival, they will grow much larger with a wingspan of nearly 6 feet that will allow them to soar so gracefully with others of their kind above the ridges of our region.

And while it is easy to think of turkey vultures simply as ugly and repulsive creatures, they are really a specialized species that is highly adapted for its place in the natural world.