Waiting for the light to turn green at an intersection, I glanced at the sky when two dark birds high up caught my attention. I quickly identified them as turkey vultures based on their mode of flight: Due to the positioning of their wings, which arc up from their bodies in a shallow “V” shape — which is termed a “dihedral” — these vultures appear to wobble slightly in the air. Windy conditions accentuate this characteristic, but they are by no means weak fliers.
The air this day was calm, though, and the vultures’ flight was smoother than I had ever seen it. They were flying on a straight trajectory about one quarter mile distance from each other. They must have just reached the top of a thermal (a rising column of warm air), peeled off from it and set their wings into a glide. This method allows them to travel a considerable distance in nonpowered flight before they loose altitude.
These birds were not just cruising along in search of food; they were getting from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible. The focused nature of their flight generated an intensity that I could feel, even while sitting in a hunk of metal and glass hundreds of feet beneath them.
Vultures, as a rule, are a study in contradiction. Earthbound, they are certainly nothing special in looks and often appear ungainly. Seen up close, they are hideous. The skin of their heads and necks is featherless, wrinkled and, in the case of the turkey vulture, a garish red in color. It is obvious these birds primarily feed on carrion, and that tends to add to their “ick” factor.
In flight, however, they are a whole other story. I will never forget the first time I saw turkey vultures in the air, up close and personal.
I had climbed Park’s Pond Bluff, in Clifton, one spring day, and was resting against a boulder enjoying the view of the pond below. The day was flawless and filled with deep blue sky and the scent of pine in the air — perfect for daydreaming — so I was almost startled when seven of the birds sailed through a gap in the bluff and headed out over the pond, flying almost directly below the level of where I sat.
To say I had a unique view of them seems an understatement. I was actually looking down at airborne birds, instead of up; and a frisson of excitement shot through me. The feathers on their upperbodies were the deepest, warmest umber I had ever seen, and their shadows traced a path over the cliff face and the surface of the pond below.
As the birds had entered through the bluff, they’d spread out, some flying higher than others, a few veering closer to the cliff. Their flight was effortless power and grace, almost nonchalant. They owned the air, and their appearance made an indelible impression on me.
Turkey vultures are one of the first migrants to return in spring, having been sighted in Maine for the last few weeks. I wondered where the two that I saw from my car where headed, and watched them for as long as I could — until the traffic light turned green and someone honked their horn at me to go.