A few days ago I was thinking it was a very quiet beginning to 2013. Then I noticed several large black shapes among the trees 100 yards away and all of sudden the new year became very interesting.
It was early morning and I was driving on Highway 36 near the Dunkin Donuts in Atlantic Highlands, a small bayside town in New Jersey overlooking Sandy Hook Bay, with New York City in the distance. There I spotted about two dozen large dark birds jockeying for position on tall locust tree branches. A few others were drinking from a puddle of rainwater in the parking lot. What commotion was this I thought?
It wasn't clear at first if these were Golden Eagles, juvenile Bald Eagles, really large crows, or something else. It turned out to be a Black Vulture, a nasty and ugly looking bird. Certainly not one of the most appealing of birds.
I had never seen a Black Vulture up close before. Sure, I had seen plenty of Turkey Vultures in my time with their turkey-like face. Black Vultures, on the other hand, have bigger, darker heads and have been less common in Lower New York Bay than the Turkey Vulture. Black Vultures are familiar birds south of the Mason-Dixon Line with the sight of their white wingtips a common identify feature.
Here before me, though, was living proof that Black Vultures have been extending their range northward. A large flock was watching me with their dark eyes, some with their wings outspread, drying them off. It looked like a scary scene straight out of the legendary Hitchcock film, The Birds. The sky was gray, the air was chilly, and a large group of bald-headed scavengers were nearby sounding off an occasional harsh hissing sound. It was crazy!
Why were they there? I didn't see any dead animals lying on the ground as food, so why so many Black Vultures?
Author and famed bird expert Kenn Kaufman in his book, Lives of North American Birds, provided some quick answers. "Black Vultures may gather in large communal roosts at night," he writes, "with anywhere from a dozen to hundreds of birds sleeping in a grove of large trees. After sunrise, before setting off on their daily rounds, the vultures often hold their wings spread out to the sun to warm themselves before flying."
This was exactly it. Black Vultures are sociable birds and were using the freshwater wetlands near Dunkin Donuts as an evening roost. It looked like a good place to take refuge. The site was high to spot nearby trouble, there were plenty of trees to provide protection from the wind and to crowd together for warmth, and there was water nearby so the birds would not become dehydrated. The adjacent highway might have also provided a quick morning meal. Not a bad place to dwell at night.
Black Vultures love to eat the remains of dead animals, and in a metropolitan area that often means road kill. The birds are efficient at what they do and play an important role in nature's decomposition, a clean-up crew within an ecosystem. Evolution has helped along the way too. Black Vultures have strong beaks and featherless heads in order to put their entire head and neck easier inside a corpse of an animal to eat the entrails, bones, and intestines without getting their feathers funky or filthy.
The black vulture was virtually unknown around Lower New York Bay and surrounding urban environment only a few decades ago. In fact, famed ornithologist, Witmer Stone in his two-volume classic, Bird Studies at Old Cape May in 1937, wrote that the only New Jersey record of a Black Vulture in New Jersey at that time was one "shot at Sandy Hook during the spring of 1877. It was feeding upon a carcass of a pig, and was easily approached." A few years later a lone Black Vulture was found dead at nearby Coney island in 1881.
The shortage of sightings did not last, and the population of Black Vultures increased during the late 20th century. In 1999, New Jersey Audubon noted in their census bird book entitled, Birds of New Jersey, that the Black Vulture was a recent addition to the list of breeding birds in New Jersey, with the first nest recorded in 1981 within Hunterdon County. After that, the bird quickly moved northward. Black Vultures are now fairly common and at times can outnumber the more familiar Turkey Vulture which, itself, preceded the Black Vultures in progressing northward.
So it seems, though eerie in appearance, these bald-headed vultures have formed a group and are here to stay. And why not! With plenty of roads and crazy drivers in New York and New Jersey, there shouldn't be a shortage a food to sustain these scavengers. Still, if Black Vultures had any intelligence they would be in sunny and warm Florida rummaging for road kill instead of cold dark streets near a Dunkin Donuts downstream from New York City.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com