Sniffing out the Late-Season Chicks

By Lily Kingsolver August 21, 2020
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus

A few quick reminders…

The summer breeding season continues to wind down as more and more migratory species begin gathering in preparation for their southward flight.  As the Atlas project wraps this final data collection season, we wanted to remind our volunteers that the time has come to dispense with regular use of breeding codes.  At this point, a few things about your birding routine should have changed…

  • Most checklists should now being going into regular ‘eBird’ (ebird.org)
  • Only confirmed breeding codes, e.g. recently fledged young (FL) or occupied nest (ON), should be logged and reported through the Atlas eBird portal (ebird.org/atlasva)
  • New Atlas checklists should be entered as incidental, to avoid adding migrating birds to the database

Essentially, we’ve entered the time of year when only a handful of resident or late-breeding species are still actively engaging in breeding behaviors, e.g. American Goldfinch.  So!  Let’s remember to reset our eBird portals to ‘normal’, unless we happen across some strong, late-breeding evidence.

Now!  To illustrate that animals operate on their own schedules, we wanted to share an article contributed by one of our Atlas volunteers late last year.  Check out her tale of discovery, which is a good reminder to keep eyes and ears open anytime we venture outdoors!

-Ashley Peele, VABBA2 Coordinator

Sniffing Out Chicks

By: Lily Kingsolver

I should begin by saying I am a bird enthusiast but a beginner and until recently, I worked in environmental education.  While that has afforded me the opportunity to learn a little bit about a lot of different things, I still have a long way to go. Because of this, I am always eager to spend some time learning from talented birders and other naturalists. Luckily, there are lots of great ones around! Last Autumn, near the end of the peak for Broad-Winged Hawk migration in Virginia, I hiked with my dad Steven Hopp, an ornithologist, to a fire tower near Mendota, Virginia in hopes of catching some latecomers on their way south.  While we did eventually see quite a few, it was one of those mornings with hardly a bird in sight. At mid-morning, Ron Harrington, the site coordinator for Mendota birding district, mentioned that someone had spotted a Black Vulture feeding young a little way into the woods. I jumped at the chance for some action and followed him and my dad down a short path to a rocky outcropping where he’d heard the birds had been seen.

Immediately we spotted the droppings of a large bird and a few big black feathers. On closer inspection we found downy feathers stuck on the rough stone around the opening to a small cave in the rocks, but from above we couldn’t see anything but a black hole. My dad and Ron Harrington, both lifelong and talented birders, discussed how late it was in the season for any chicks to remain in the nest and that they’d probably fledged some time ago. Maybe because I’m new to birding and still naïve or maybe because I’ll never give up on the chance to see a baby, I wasn’t ready to concede. “Do you smell that?” I kept asking them, crouched down to the opening. The cave had the acrid smell of an active nest, not an old site. They agreed that it smelled active, but decided that it must have been recently abandoned.

Still not ready to give up, as the experienced birders turned down the trail to leave, I pressed myself flat against the ground and stuck my head into a space between the rocks. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw first two long grey legs and then the rounded back and dark glinting eye of a baby vulture. He or she shifted (as I would have) farther back against the rock wall, revealing a second muppet-like baby with dark, shiny wings protruding from the still-fuzzy grey body. I exclaimed and my companions hurried back, armed with cameras. I could see my dad forming the breeding codes in his head already. We battled with camera settings and the tiny openings in the rocks until we had a few satisfactory photos for later confirmation and until our unsuspecting hosts looked very weary of our visit. We returned to the rest of the group triumphant. Even if the hawk count was zero, our chick count was two.

As I mentioned before, I am not an experienced birder. I am passionate about birds and other critters, but still definitely learning every day. I will not try to tell you a secret of birding you don’t already know or that I am observant in a way anybody else is not. But I will say that as I thought about this encounter afterwards it made me realize several things I don’t think about often enough. The first thing I realized is something I tell the kids I work with every day, but often forget myself: one of an animal’s main goals in life is to get away from you, and they are good at it. Sometimes you have to stay a little longer, look a little harder, sniff around, and scrape your knees crawling on rocks to see what you’re looking for. Maybe I only saw these vultures because I know less than the talented birders I was with.  I was more willing to suspend the accepted rules of vulture nesting. Maybe sometimes being a little skeptical can provide us with the open mind to discover new things about the world, especially in a field like natural history that is constantly evolving. The last thing I realized is this: you should never give up when you’ve got the chance to see a cute baby.

(Thanks to Linda Millington for submitting the excellent Black Vulture Fledgling photos used at the start of this article!)

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