I got a fantastic, beautiful and rare lesson in birding last year in May. I hope to relieve it again this May.
Below you see two pictures of an old "run in" shed on the 366 acres that backs up to where I live. It was in that shed that my daughter and her friend found turkey eggs. They brought two of them home and I nearly came unglued with "never take eggs, where did you get them, we're taking them right back...". When we went to return the eggs there was no nest and no hen turkey anywhere around. The girls swore on a stack of bibles that that's where they'd gotten the eggs. They had been warm when they brought them home, so I knew they'd been attended to by a hen very recently. Maybe I just didn't know about turkey nests or lack thereof??? We replaced the eggs exactly where the girls found them and left. I returned daily with my camera to hopefully catch a glimpse of the poults before they disappeared. Baby turkeys are up and out as soon as they are born. Momma turkey and babies would be on the run as soon as the babies dried. I didn't want to miss it, though I knew my chances were slim in catching a photo of the occassion.
Two weeks later, I returned and found these fair creatures. Suddenly it all made sense. I had seen a vulture retreat from this humble dwelling every time I would sneak up on it with a camera. The girls hadn't brought home turkey eggs but turkey vulture eggs. I was thrilled beyond words! A once in a lifetime opportunity to document the fledging of turkey vultures. I went back about every 10 days to catch a photo or two.
I worried about them the entire time. Amazingly, these babies, that were hatched on the ground were unable to get around. They didn't even fully stand until they were nearly three weeks old. Fire ants were my first concern, quickly followed by coyotes, opossums and raccoons. How on earth could they protect themselves? Fire ants alone have been the death of thousands of ground dwelling babies of all sorts of species. Despite my worry, they continued to grow. The one on the left below was the braver of the two. The other would hide it's head every time I came around.
Here they are, finally standing. Able to get away from things on the ground.
Here's the more timid of the two. He'd run out of the enclosure and then peek back in to see if I was still there. Wing feathers are starting to come in. One thing they did to protect themselves was get "very big" and hiss like snakes. One protective measure they had was to vomit their last meal. I tried very hard not to make them get to that point. One thing I remembered from my volunteer time at Wildlife Rescue was, "If you have to rescue an adult vulture that's been injured, make sure it's thrown up before you put it in your car or you'll never be able to use the car again." It seems vomited roadkill has a particularly pungent odor. Ya think?
This is the last picture I took before I left for church camp as a counselor. They were about 7 weeks old. When came home I went straight out with my camera. What I discovered sunk my heart. Dead babies. I'm a "why" sort of person so I sorted through the remains to see if I could discover what had happened. One was in the enclosure and the other outside. I was looking for telltale signs of particular predators. Coyotes and foxes carry off their kill. Wasn't them. Raccoons are known for simply tearing off the heads and then walking away. Head were still there, so it wasn't them. Opossums would have been out of this fight because the babies were quite large at 7 weeks. The only conclusions I could come to were two--they either starved to death because of the death of the mother, or were poisoned. Sometimes ranchers will poison an animal carcass in order to kill off coyotes. Of course, the vultures get in on the deal.
Either way, the babies were gone. I felt so sad. It had been such an amazing opportunity and I really came to love their ugly little leathery faces.
And so, I continue to check the old shack for signs of "turkey eggs". If the mother was killed last year, it's unlikely it will happen again. I so wanted to see those babies through until their giant wings carried them off the ground and into the warm thermal updrafts of summer skies.