BIRD WATCH: Look to the skies to see who’s on the wing


That has a nice ring to it doesn’t it? At the least, it would make a good title for a science-fiction or horror movie production.

Just a simple phrase, but it calls to mind visions of a darkened sky and countless winged creatures flying closer and closer.

Good imaginations are sometimes difficult to live with.

Vultures are winging their way across our skies, but for many of us, they are more proof that spring really is here.

Birders on the Olympic Peninsula were the first to spot the turkey vultures, but they were also seen at the northern end of the Kitsap Peninsula few days later.

Most of the population moving through this region will be crossing the Strait and continue northward.

Small numbers of nesting birds have been reported on the Olympic Peninsula

Identifying birds on the wing is one of those challenges all bird-watchers struggle with.

The old adage “Practice makes perfect” definitely applies in this situation.

Turkey vultures have a flight style that is one of the easiest to learn. There are a few simple things to keep in mind when one of these large black birds is spotted overhead.

They are eagle-sized, but their heads look small compared to their bodies. That is because it is featherless.

Turkey vultures have red skin on their heads. Black vultures have black skin.

Black vultures are not inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest.

Vultures “float” on the wind currents. Their wings are held in a flattened “V” position, and as they float and glide, they “rock” on these wings.

This rocking, hovering and gliding tells you that is a vulture overhead.

During the spring and fall migration, there are usually more than one bird in the skies above.

When one is spotted, it’s a good idea to pause and scan the sky. Other vultures may be near or off in the distance.

Seeking out winds

These traveling birds seek out the winds that carry them to their final destination with the least amount of effort on their part.

Early morning on a warm day can be good for vulture spotting. As the ground warms and the air moves upward, it creates thermals. These are the winds the birds have been waiting for.

One by one, they will spread their wings and let these currents lift them higher and higher. Where there are cliffs or hills, the birds pick up this wind more easily.

Once aloft, they spread that 6-foot wingspan and in slow circles begin climbing higher and higher into the sky.

After the desired elevation is reached, they begin moving forward, most of the time in spiraling “kettles” that glide higher while slipping forward.

Several kettles stacked to the horizon are sometimes seen — an experience never forgotten and one that occurs in this region.

Hundreds if not thousands of turkey vultures migrate up the West Coast. They spent the winter in southern California and Mexico.

Some may have come from as far away as Central America.

If you are traveling the coast when these large birds are on the wing, it almost feels as if you are traveling with them.

Turkey vultures can be one of the most seen birds you will see as you drive north or south.

Special trip

Having experienced this only once, it was a special part of the trip.

You may not be traveling the coast or the interior for long distances in the coming weeks, but wherever you do travel, don’t forget to occasionally look skyward.

You never know who may be traveling with you.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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