Let's talk about identifying large dark birds soaring high in the sky. They often circle in thermals. These are pockets of warm air which usually rise about the middle of the morning. Birds, especially the big ones, take advantage of these. They can simply coast from one updraft to another.
I think the turkey vulture has a face only its mother could love. After all, mothers everywhere think that their babies are cute with no hair. This vulture has no feathers on its head. However, that's hard to see when it soars. I can't tell you the number of times I see a bird flying and hope that it might be an eagle. However, on closer inspection, the bird that I'm viewing often bends its wings or flies with them held up to form a slight v. Unlike the eagle, it tilts from one side to the other as it circles in the sky. Also, the vulture often flies in groups.
If you see these birds closer up, you will notice gaps between the feathers at the ends of their long, broad wings. Also, their tails hide their feet when they fly. They are dark brown with pale back feathers and tips on the wings. The bill is also light-colored with a prominent hook.
A turkey vulture can easily be confused for an eagle as it soars high above in the sky.
Photo by Dave Cooney
How can one distinguish between a turkey and an eagle when they are way up there in the sky? Turkey vultures are often seen soaring closer to the ground than the eagles. That is when they might be trying to smell carrion, which has to be at least 12 hours old for them to be able to do that. Their keen eyesight is used for spotting the fresh road kill that they prefer.
Where might you see vultures when they're not in the sky? They hang out a lot by roads, just waiting for a car to provide road kill. A friend of mine sees them feeding on deer carcasses at the landfill.
Look also for these big birds roosting on poles, towers, dead trees and fence posts. Twice, I have had vultures spend the night in spruce trees between what is now my garden and a wild woodsy area in the corner of my property. When I walked down the driveway, I waved my arms and yelled, "I'm alive. I'm alive!" Ha, ha. When the sun warmed the air the next morning, they headed to a field across the road and spread their wings to warm up. That's sunbathing, vulture style.
In the same family is the black vulture. It is more common in Ohio. However, we should not take it for granted that we would not see it in Chautauqua County. It has been seen on Wolf Run Road in Allegany State Park. The black species has shorter, mostly dark wings than the turkey vulture. Only the wing tips are lighter in color. The head is dark and also featherless. The bill is gray with a lighter tip.
There is one more large bird that might be confused with the vultures, because of its dark color. The Golden Eagle's head is dark brown with lighter, yellowish brown feathers on the back. The legs are completely covered with yellowish-brown feathers. However, unlike the vulture, it flies with its wings straight out - not in a V.
Hey, wait, you think. What about the Bald Eagle? These other birds are mostly dark. The Bald Eagle has that white head.
Every year I go over to the Ripley Hawk Watch from March to May. The experts there can identify the big birds riding the thermals. Those folks are amazing. Often, before I even find one of these large birds in the distance, they have identified it. Amazing.