Watch Vultures to See Eagles

I live in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, a place filthy with bird refuges and sanctuaries.  It’s an easy place to start birdwatching; big, impressive birds like Herons and Red-Tailed hawks are commonplace.  It only takes seeing a few of these charismatic animals to spark anyone’s interest in the whole avian family.

We are lucky enough to live right by the shoreline of one of the Finger Lakes and during the summer we see the same Blue Heron flying north, long neck tucked in on itself, lanky feet trailing out underneath it, and truly remarkably large wings propelling it forward with unbelievably slow wingbeats.  Raptors are also extremely common.  Any car drive before noon over 15 minutes will almost certainly give one an opportunity to see at least one Red-Tailed hawk or possibly, a smaller, dartier Cooper’s.  During the summer one can see ospreys with their gull-like wings and velociraptor-like talons dipping into the lakes and pulling out struggling fish.  At a bird sanctuary a short drive north from our home there are Sandhill Cranes.  Don’t know much about these cranes?  They’re big, some taller than me.  And like all big avians, they are not known for their sweet natures.  Watch this one chase an alligator away.

So there are lots of reasons to watch the skies around here.  My driving has gotten fairly erratic as I scan the tops of trees for these patient hunters or twist around trying to see the edges of the lakeshore between houses to catch a glimpse of ducks.  But you know what you don’t have try hard to see around here?  Vultures.  Between spring and autumn you can see them with little effort.  They soar over fields, forest, and town with their wobbly “V”s.  They are not very exciting to see because they are so common, and because, you know, they are ugly and eat dead things.

But I like to watch vultures.  For one thing, they’re big.  Anything that large that can stay aloft is interesting to me.  Vultures also seem like good candidates for being portents.  I like pretending to be a modern Tiresias, reading the birds to tell the future.   The way their soaring flight dips up and down over air currents draws a map in the sky of winds and temperature changes.  That’s awesome.

So I watch vultures a lot.  I’m familiar with the shape of their wings and tail and how they look silhouetted against the sky.  I know the manner in which they fly, their wings oblique angle and their drunken tilting.  I know where you’re most likely to see them, floating over the gorges and circling the higher altitudes.  I have found the eidos of the vulture, the thing that makes a vulture a vulture.

Ok, you say.  That’s great.  You know vultures.  So?

There is only one other bird in the Finger Lakes that is as big as a vulture.  It is, like the vulture, predominantly darkly feathered.  It usually soars instead of flapping.  But it is much more exciting to see.  There are just over a dozen nesting pairs of Bald Eagles in our area and catching a glimpse of these gigantic iconic raptors is very special.  And telling them apart from vultures, especially juveniles which lack the dramatic white head and tail plumage of adults, can be hard.  But because I am so familiar with the minutiae of vultures that I’ve had the exciting chance to see these birds half a dozen times and feel confident in knowing what they are.

I like the practice of watching vultures so that I can see eagles.  I think it is a good allegory for much of our lives.  When we take the mundane things for granted, when we don’t take the time to appreciate little daily things, it can be harder to appreciate the bigger events.  I want to appreciate all of the great events in my life so I pay attention to the not-so-great events as well.

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