Tracking Vultures

by Jennie Duberstein

May 16, 2014
4:25pm

I am sitting in the Sonoran Joint Venture Suburban waiting for vultures at a dairy in Buckeye, Arizona. We have been here since 6:15 this morning, but it looks like we’re getting bageled today. A big, fat zero.

Nada.

Nada.

I’m here with researchers from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, helping with their New World Vulture Project. We have ten satellite transmitters and we’re hoping to put them on Turkey and Black vultures. Led by Dr. Keith Bildstein, the project routinely monitors seasonal populations of New World vultures in North, Central, and South America. The goal is to prevent catastrophic population declines by sharing information learned with conservation partners and to use Turkey and Black vultures as environmental sentinels of ecological change and environmental contamination, including climate change and heavy metal contamination.

L-R: JF Therrien, Marc Bechard, Jennie Duberstein, and Keith Bildstein.

The Team: (L–>R) Jean-Francois “JF” Therrien, Marc Bechard, Jennie Duberstein, and Keith Bildstein.

Today is our fourth day in the field and so far we’ve been skunked twice. There are vultures around, for sure. Sometimes they land on our bait and start to eat. Sometimes they even get caught in our trap (a line of fishing line foot nooses attached to a piece of p-cord that we stake out over the bait) but by the time we dash down to extract the birds, they shake loose and fly off, giving us baleful, mistrusting glances as they circle higher and higher.

JF revised a paper while waiting for birds to show up.

JF revised a paper while waiting for birds to show up.

I took selfies.

I took selfies.

But fortunately, other times things work perfectly. Yesterday we caught three Turkey Vultures, a great day any way you slice it. I’m in the driver’s seat and JF is my partner in crime, while Keith is staking out a second trap site with Marc. We hadn’t been there long at all when one, two, three…nine birds came in and landed near our trap. One bird maddeningly lay down in the dirt and appeared to be taking a nap while the others pussy footed (vulture footed?) around our trap, getting closer and closer but not actually starting to eat.

Almost there. The trap is to the left of the vultures.

Almost there. The trap is to the left of the vultures.

“We just need one bird to go take a taste and then everyone will come over,” JF says to me.

We sit in the front seat of the Suburban, A/C blasting. We tried keeping the windows open as long as we could, but triple digit temperatures, uncompromising sun, and relentless flies had us rolling up the windows and turning on the air before 9am. (Sidenote: if you are going to sit all day in the smelliest part of a dairy in the middle of the Arizona summer, it is a lot more pleasant to do it with air conditioning. Just in case you were wondering).

Then it happens. One bird begins to pick at something. There is a kerfuffle and suddenly there are nine birds picking at and around the bait.

“Come on, come on!” I find myself muttering under my breath. “Just a LITTLE more to the left, you know you want to. How can you resist that delicious meal?”

If waiting for birds to show up made time stretch out, waiting for one to get caught is almost worse. While of course it is more interesting to watch the birds eating, the adrenaline starts pumping. I can feel my heart beating faster. We make sure shoes are tied and gloves are close at hand. The keys are in the ignition. The anticipation is almost unbearable. Even though we are 200+ yards away and in an enclosed car, JF and I are whispering to each other, as if the vultures might hear us and get spooked.

JF trying to see what is happening at trap site 2.

JF trying to see what is happening at trap site 2.

Suddenly a bird begins to flap, a sign that it has gotten caught. We zip down to the trap, jump out of the vehicle, and grab the bird. JF quickly gathers the feet in one hand and tucks the body of the bird against his torso, preventing it from continuing to flap and potentially injuring itself. He quickly untangles the bird from the trap and thrusts it into a large bag. (If you’ve ever been to a songbird banding station, it works pretty much the same way. When the birds are in bags they can’t see and stay calm. Vulture bags are just a lot bigger than, say, chickadee bags.) As JF puts the bird in the bag, I immediately begin to reset the nooses in hopes that the flock that is now circling over our heads will return as soon as we pull away. Bird in bag, we rendezvous with Keith and Marc and grab all of the necessary equipment. Keith remains behind to monitor the traps, while Marc, JF, and I head over to the banding station, which is about a mile down the road in an old maintenance shed.

By this late in the week the three of us are working like a well-oiled machine. We pull up to the building. Marc immediately beings constructing the hand-made harness that will be custom-fitted to this bird to carry the transmitter. JF puts the bird (still in a bag) in a quiet corner of the building and prepares to get a weight. I pull out equipment for taking a blood sample and testing for lead content (since vultures eat carrion, sometimes left behind by hunters that use lead ammunition, lead poisoning is a very real threat for these birds) as well as to determine sex. This whole process takes us less than 5 minutes.

We look at each other.

“Ready?” JF asks?

“Let’s go,” Marc answers.

Bird in a Bag.

Bird in a Bag.

JF has already weighed the bird, still in the bag, so I record that number in the data book. Then he carefully removes the bird and hands the bag to me for weighing (the official weight of the bird is “bird weight minus bag weight”). Funny thing about vultures: one of their defense mechanism is to vomit on predators. This makes for some interesting experiences when you are handling them. Turkey Vultures are remarkably calm in the hand, though. When JF pulls the bird out, he carefully points the head away and down, letting the small amount of brown sludge coming from the vulture’s mouth to fall to the ground, where I quickly cover it up with some sawdust on the shed floor.

We take a wing area tracing (to be used to help determine differences between subspecies) and then JF moves the bird over to the table and places it on its back. I pull out the left wing, Marc efficiently pierces a vein, and we fill three small capillary tubes with a blood sample. As soon as Marc fills the last tube I am there with a cotton ball, applying gentle pressure to the vein. As I do this, Marc is already putting some drops of the blood into another tube and then onto a test strip for the lead testing. Fortunately none of the birds that we captured had dangerous levels of lead in their systems (some didn’t have any, and the few that did had levels that were very, very low; we had a wildlife rehabilitator on standby should any of the birds require treatment for lead poisoning). By the time the machine is analyzing the blood Marc is ready to put the harness on the bird.

Taking a wing area tracing.

Taking a wing area tracing.

Wing area tracing.

Wing area tracing.

As JF holds the bird, Marc carefully puts the Teflon ribbon harness over the bird’s head and brings the ends around the wings, making sure to not catch the bird’s thigh. Marc is an old hand at this and quickly makes all of the necessary adjustments so that the harness fits like a glove, securely, but not hindering the bird’s movement in any way. The harness weighs 30g, less than 2% of the overall Turkey Vulture weight of about 1100g. He quickly sews the ends of the ribbon together (with dental floss!), adds a little bit of superglue for good measure, and covers the knots with hand-made copper crimps to prevent the bird from picking at the knot.

JF and Mar, putting the harness and transmitter on a Turkey Vulture.

JF and Mar, putting the harness and transmitter on a Turkey Vulture.

We run down the checklist to make sure we aren’t forgetting anything: wing area tracing? Check. Blood sample? Check. Lead test? Check. Marc makes sure he has all of his equipment (we don’t want to leave anything extra on the bird), and then we’re done. Nothing left to do but to take a few pictures.

IMG_5925

A close-up of the front of the custom harness. It doesn’t hinder movement or molt in any way and is designed to stay on the bird for the long-term.

We head outside where the light is better, I take some shots of the bird’s head from various angles, and then JF puts the bird down on the ground and gently releases it. It immediately flaps its wings and flies off, clearly not hindered in the least by the transmitter. Although we can initially see the antenna poking out above the bird’s tail as it circles higher and higher, it joins a flock of other vultures and quickly blends in.

IMG_2359

The release. You can just make out the antenna from the transmitter.

Just as we released the bird, I got a call from Keith—he’d caught another!

We quickly cleaned up and headed back to the trap site to pick up our next client.


Check out near real-time locations of all of the birds (scroll down to “Arizona” to see the ones we’ve trapped this year; you can also view details for all of the birds around the world that have been tagged as part of this effort).

How To De-Vulture Your Suburban

How To De-Vulture Your Suburban.