Author & artist Keith Hansen knows a thing or two about the birds of California, read below how a Leica logo helped him see an amazing bird!
Whatever title you give it, that red dot connected me to a wonderful, rare and bewitchingly ghoulish treat from the southland.
I first became aware of this avian gift on the dim morning of Feb. 1st. 2015, well before the sun had crested the forested peak of Marin county’s, Mount Tamalpais. In the small coastal hamlet of Bolinas, I stood in my pre-dawn „fog“, waiting in line for my first cup of coffee, eager to set my jaw straight at the local Coast Café’s kiosk. Little did I know that was about to happen WITHOUT the aid of a strong “cup of Joe”.
Allow me to back up and set the stage. On January 18th, I was birding the productive farmlands of Bolinas’s Gospel Flat with an old high school buddy, Bruce Williford, where we found a subtly plumaged but deliciously rare Vesper Sparrow. Somberly cloaked in the colors of grass, this bird’s cryptic finery requires an appreciation of „the subtle“ to grasp its full beauty. This was the first occurrence of this denizen of the Great Basin, for the Bolinas-Stinson Beach area. Many locals have beheld and appreciated this feathered ally, just one of many interesting species, gifting us with their presence this past „winter“.
Back to my day’s, first cup of coffee. I found myself standing in a short queue of two and happened to notice that the chap in front of me had „binz“ slung over his shoulder, displaying a distinct field mark. A red spot. These were not just regular binoculars but a nice pair of Leica. Whenever I see folks with great glass, I typically start up a conversation that sounds something like, „Are you a birder?“ The kindly gentleman replied, „Yes“. I responded saying, „I guess you’re here to see THE BIRD.“ He perked up saying, „OH Yeah!“ I quipped, „Yeah, Vesper Sparrow, HOT bird and the first record for the Bolinas area!“ Looong silence. With a pause and somewhat quizzical stare, he politely said, „Well, uh, I “probably” will look for the Vesper as well.“ I thought „As WELL?“ He added, „No, I’m here for the VULTURE!“ LOOOONGER silence. I softly replied, „The vulture?“ not quite grasping the weight of his words. He reached into his front pocket while quietly saying „Hold on.“ Slipping out his cell phone, he deftly tapped the screen and up popped an image lifted off the Internet. He held up the magic glowing screen, illuminating my face as well as my day’s plans. „That was HERE?“ my voice cracking like a teenager. „Yes, yesterday at Agate Beach, taken by local birder Ryan DiGaudio.“ „OH MY GOD, I’ve NEVER seen one of those in California!“ was about all I remember saying. I was stunned and a bit caught off balance. All I could do was wait for the sun and its thermal-providing heat.
Let’s meet or get reacquainted with the Black Vulture. Three species of New World Vultures call North America their home, the California Condor with a wingspan of over 9 feet, the familiar and common Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture. The Black Vulture is identified by its slightly smaller size, naked black head, blacker plumage, long, pale gray legs and when in flight, the bold white „Frisbee’s in the hand” of each wing. The tail is short compared to the Turkey Vulture and the cadence of its flap is choppy and much quicker than the labored flopping of our Turkey Vulture. The Black Vultures global range is confined to the Americas stretching from central Argentina and southern Chile in the south, north throughout South and Central America as well as Mexico, excluding Baja. In the eastern United States they range from Texas, north and east to Ohio and Massachusetts. In the western US, they grace the extreme southern border of Arizona and New Mexico.
In California, Black Vultures are extremely rare. The Golden States VERY FIRST record was a bird found in Apr. 1972 in Chico, Butte County. It was not until Sep. 1993 when the next one was discovered, of all places, far to the north in Arcata, Humboldt County. That individual had an extended stay, departing half a year later, in Feb. 1994. Curiously, the third record was ALSO from Arcata, but in Oct. 2003, 10 years later!
There were no more observations until one appeared in Goleta, Santa Barbara County in Sep. 2009, and was later observed in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo Counties through 2015, settling finally between Morro Bay and the Cal Poly campus in San Luis Obispo. This bird was recognized as the same individual by molt patterns, age, and notches in the primaries. On Mar. 6th 2011, a Black Vulture was recorded at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, followed by a one-day appearance east of the Sierra Nevada, in Lone Pine, Inyo County!
Now, another bird comes on the scene with a one day sighting in Ferndale, Humbolt County in late Feb. 2014. This occurred while the other bird was still in San Luis Obispo. Curious. One month later in mid Mar. 2014, there was a sighting in Sonoma County, followed a month after by a sighting at Bodega Bay in mid April. 48 hours later it was spotted near the Sonoma Raceway by Josiah Clark. FINALLY, a Jacumba, San Diego sighting in early Aug. 2014 (a different bird), brings us to the Bolinas bird.
As of the writing of this article, the Black Vulture in Southern California continues in Morro Bay. So, it appears that we are talking about at least two different birds and possibly 4 (Inyo and San Diego sightings). Likely, the Bolinas bird has soared here from the north being the “Feb. 2014 Humboldt bird”. This species, while rare outside of its normal range has wandered as far north as British Columbia, 4 times, and the Yukon Canada, once!
In my tiny town there have been many great stories from local town folk and wonderful personal experiences linked to this particular bird. My favorite came when two young ARDENT birders, Max (9ish) and Jonah Benningfield (12ish) stopped in at my gallery to “see what was around”. This dynamic duo was having a great day and had seen many wonderful birds, BUT they were crestfallen when I informed them that the Black Vulture hadn’t been seen in many days. We stepped outside the gallery and gazed skyward in a “Hail Mary” attempt to catch a glimpse of this illusive bird. Right about then, my phone rang tearing me away from helping these boys, who REALLY wanted to make this bird acquaintance. I picked up to hear the voice of a local woman-friend who is a fellow artist. She asked if she had “reached me at a bad time” and I said, “Well…that’s fine, whatzup?” She called to tell me that she and her son were watching, “This funny black bird” that was following her husband around the garden while he was composting the innards of a Sturgeon that he had just gutted. When I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said something articulate like, “Uuuuuh…Really, NOW? Would you mind if I brought a couple kids and their mom up?” “Why no, come on over” my friend offered. 240 seconds later we cautiously crept into her backyard garden where we were delighted to see the chicken, uh, I mean Black Vulture, casually walking and rooting through the rich soil of a lush vegetable garden. I lay down motionless in the grass while the unconcerned bird walked within a few feet as I obtained “crippling footage!” I glanced up to see excitement, glee and utter satisfaction washing over the faces of two, very happy kids.
After an utter dearth of sightings, the Bolinas bird has “risen from the dead”, perhaps coming up for air from a bloated Seal carcass washed ashore on some isolated beach up the coast. This resurrection was beheld by Peter Pyle and his flock last weekend during the annual, “Point Reyes Bird Festival”!
The Bolinas Black Vulture is typically encountered circling over the Bolinas School / Bolinas Nursery area in the morning when the thermals begin to build offering the Vultures, a free „elevator ride” up and away to lofty heights, where they look for deceased critters. If you see Vultures around the area, give them a looking over and you might be pleasantly surprised. Feel free to report any sightings that you have of this bird to me at my Gallery.
Special thanks goes to the California Rare Birds Committee for the breakdown of the dates and locations for California’s Black Vulture records and to Peter Pyle for the photo of the BolinasBlack Vulture, Feb.1st 2015.
As well known California ornithologist, William Leon Dawson once wrote of the California Condor, (the Black Vulture’s goliath cousin),
„I am not ashamed to have fallen in love with so gentle a ghoul.“