Birdswatching Tour – Vultures

New World vultures are familiar carrion feeders, with bare, unfeathered skin on the head and neck. Most often seen in soaring flight. Black Vulture locates food sources entirely by sight, but all Cathartes have welldeveloped sense of smell and can detect carrion that is hidden in vegetation. The largest and most impressive vultures, King Vulture and Andean Condor, are on plate 28. The flight profile of Zone-tailed Hawk closely mimics Cathartes vultures; see account on plate 40.1


Birdswatching Tour – Vultures:

BLACK VULTURE Coragyps atratus 60–65 cm (231⁄2 –26 in); ws 133–160 cm (52–63 in) Common and widespread below 1200 m, locally up to 2900 m. Frequently seen in towns, cities, pastures, and other open country, and along rivers; not found in closed-canopy forest. Formerly present in southwest, but largely disappeared from that region in early 1960s; now may be staging a slow recovery there. Soars with wings held flat (in same plane as body), alternating with short bouts of relatively rapid (“choppy”) wingbeats; also, body does not rock from side to side while soaring. May soar to great heights, and often congregates in large groups while soaring or at roosts. Bare skin of neck slightly less extensive in juvenile. Black Vulture stands more upright than other vultures and is more agile on its feet; occasionally overtakes and kills small animals (such as lizards or nestlings). Despite smaller body size, may dominate Turkey Vultures at carrion. Often seen at relatively large carcasses, as well as in garbage dumps, where may congregate in large numbers. Shorter wings and tail and flat wing posture lend a different flight profile from long-winged and longer-tailed Cathartes vultures. Immature King Vulture is larger, always has some white in plumage, especially on underwing coverts, and lacks white near wing tips. Dark hawks have feathered (not bare) heads, different plumage patterns. Co, E, Br, Bo, Ch
TURKEY VULTURE Cathartes aura * 60–70 cm (231⁄2–27⁄2in); ws 160–182 cm (63–72 in) Widespread and common in coastal lowlands, interior valleys, and Amazonia, up to 2200 m; only a 21
vagrant to the high Andes. One of the characteristic vultures of open habitats, such as beaches (along
seacoasts and rivers), fields, and pastures; but less common than Black Vulture around cities. Usually
seen in flight, singly or in small groups. Flight profile distinctive, with wings held notably above horizontal in a “dihedral”; also often “rocks” from side to side as it soars. Flaps wings infrequently, with rather slow, deep strokes. Bare skin of head and neck of adult red (coast and Andes), or red with contrasting whitish band across the nape (Amazonia; sometimes also on northern and central coast). Head of juvenile dark, gradually lightening during first year. In Amazonia, cf. yellow-headed vultures. Co, E, Br, Bo, Ch 3
LESSER YELLOW-HEADED VULTURE Cathartes burrovianus 55–60 cm (21 ⁄2 in); ws 150–165 cm (59–65 in) Uncommon and local in Amazonia. More widespread in north; in south probably once was confined to Pampas del Heath, but now may be spreading as more areas are deforested. Found in open habitats, usually marshes on margins of large rivers and lakes, also (Pampas del Heath) over drier grasslands. Forages singly or in small groups, usually gliding low over marshes and grasslands; rarely soars high, unlike Turkey and Greater Yellow-headed vultures. “Rocks” from side to side as it soars, as does Turkey Vulture. Distinguished from Turkey Vulture by yellow head of adult (visible only at close range), white shafts on dorsal surface of outer primaries, blacker plumage, and by differences in foraging behavior; cf. also forest-based Greater Yellow-headed Vulture. Co, E, Br, Bo 4
GREATER YELLOW-HEADED VULTURE Cathartes melambrotus 68–75 cm (26 ⁄2in);
ws 166–178 cm (65–70 in) Widespread and common in forested areas of Amazonia, up to 1300 m; largely replaces Turkey Vulture in continuous forest. Flight steadier than Turkey Vulture’s, and wings are broader and held flatter, not as high above horizontal as in that species. Undersides of inner primaries are dusky, contrasting with pale secondaries and outer primaries (all remiges are pale in Turkey and Lesser Yellow-headed vultures). Also has white shafts on dorsal surface of outer primaries, and plumage is blacker than Turkey Vulture. Yellow head of adult visible only at close range. Co, E, Br, Bo


King Vulture and Andean Condor are the largest New World vultures; indeed, the Condor is the largest flying bird in Peru (and one of the largest in the world).
KING VULTURE Sarcoramphus papa 70–75 cm (271⁄2–29⁄2in); ws 170–200 cm (67–79 in)Uncommon but widespread in humid forested areas in Amazonia, locally up to 1300 m. Also rare11
in northwest up to 800 m. Rarely seen perched, except near carrion, where may perch in forestcanopy; typically does not perch in the open, unlike smaller vultures. Dominant over Black andTurkey vultures at carcasses. Usually seen singly or in pairs soaring over forest. Soaring flight issteady, with no “rocking” from side to side and little flapping. Adult distinctive: no white-bodiedhawk or eagle has as much black in wings (but cf. Wood Stork). At close range, also note white orwhitish iris, multicolored bare skin of neck and head, and fleshy wattle at base of bill. Juvenile largely dark-bodied, with duller soft part colors, but always shows at least some white mottling on underwings; cf. smaller Black Vulture. Amount of white in plumage and brightness of head and neck colors increase with age, but note the entire underparts are white (aside from the dusky neck ruff) before any white appears on the upperparts. May take 5 or 6 years to reach full adult plumage. Co, E, Br, Bo
ANDEAN CONDOR Vultur gryphus 100–122 cm (39–48 in); ws 274–310 cm (108–122 in) Uncommon and declining; increasingly, this spectacular bird is confined to more remote parts of 2 Peru. Occurs from coast to highest parts of Andes. Most common on west slope of Andes, but also ranges over uppermost elevations (down to ca. 3000 m) on more humid eastern Andean slopes; appears to be very scarce or absent, however, from east side of Andes in central Peru. Usually found in relatively open habitats, especially near high cliffs (where roosts and nests). Usually seen singly or in small groups. Often soars at great heights, but occasionally drops to low over the ground or beaches (where feeds on carcasses of sea lions and whales). Soars on long, broad, rectangular wings, held horizontal to body or in a slight dihedral. Outer primaries usually are well separated when soaring, and tips may bend upward. An immense raptor, larger than other vultures and all hawks and eagles (although the great size may be difficult to appreciate at a distance). Adult is entirely dark from below, other than distinctive large white neck ruff, but upperwings are extensively white on wing coverts and on inner remiges. Male has large comb over bill and on forehead; female lacks the comb and has duller facial skin (grayer, less pink or pinkish orange). Juvenile is mostly smoky brown, with paler wing coverts (particularly contrasting on upper surface). Takes several years to attain adult plumage; note size, shape, and flight behavior. Co, E, Br, Bo, Ch

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