The day the Turkey Vulture came to visit

As we were leaving the Falkland Islands a huge bird landed on the control panel on the bridge wing outside. We often have birds landing on ships, but normally they are small diving petrels or prions which are attracted to the lights on ships. Well, I was in for a surprise when I was called to the bridge to see the latest bird that had landed on our ship, it was none other than a turkey vulture. These birds normally soar with thermals (air that heats up, becomes less dense and starts to rise, giving the bird the lift it needs to fly without using too much energy). There was a strong wind blowing that day and the bird had obviously been blown away from the islands where it normally lives. I took some photos from inside the bridge, but when we were close to him, he flew to the other side of the bridge. He could clearly fly, but was using us as a resting platform before trying to get back to the Falklands. The next day he was nowhere to be found, so we can only surmise that he left us and made his way home.

I am putting in two photos that I took of the vulture and I have taken some really cool facts from a couple of websites which will show you what an amazing bird this is.

 

Look at the bald head which can get into carcasses and the hole through the nose to smell so well with

Turkey Vulture on the bridge wing

You can see how widespread Turkey Vultures are, right to the Falkland Islands which are just East of the tip of South America

Scientific Name: Cathartes aura
Population Status: Least Concern
Body Length: 25-32 inches (63-81 cm)
Wingspan: 5-1/2 to 6-1/2 feet (1.6-2 m)
Weight: 2 to 4-1/2 pounds (0.9-2 kg)

Did you know?

  • The word vulture likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear. Its scientific name, Cathartes aura, is far more pleasant. It means either “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze.”
  • Not everyone sees vultures as a creepy harbinger of death—many see them as sacred for their cleanup role. Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” where animals, usually vultures, consume their dead. Similarly, Zoroastrians offer their dead to be consumed by vultures on a raised platform, called a dakhma. They regard vultures are precious animals that release the soul from the body. However, in parts of urban India, where vultures have become scarce because of accidental poisoning by a livestock anti-inflammatory drug, not enough vultures remain to meet the demand and some people have turned to burial.
  • In cowboy movies the bad guy usually threatens to leave the hero in the desert for the buzzards, meaning the vultures. Although buzzard is a colloquial term for vulture in the U.S., the same word applies to several hawks in Europe. In fact, the Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus) of Europe is the same species as the Rough-legged Hawk of North America

Amazing sense of smell

  • The Turkey Vulture is one of the few birds able to use its sense of smell to locate food. Though Turkey Vultures have a lot in common with other New World Vultures (vultures found in the Americas), they do have a very unique characteristic that is all their own. They have an amazing sense of smell, which they use to detect dead animals, sometimes from quite far away. Look at a Turkey Vulture’s nostrils, or nares, and you will notice that their nasal passage is completely open on each end. This is a characteristic New World vultures share, which other raptors don’t have.
  • The part of its brain responsible for processing smells is particularly large, compared to other birds. Its heightened ability to detect odors—it can detect just a few parts per trillion—allows it to find dead animals below a forest canopy.

No voicebox

  • Turkey Vultures don’t have a voicebox. They can’t sing or call. Their vocalizations are limited to hisses and grunts.

Flight

  • Though they look awkward and ungainly on the ground and must work hard to gain flight, they are graceful and elegant in the air, soaring in beautiful teetering flights across the sky. They rarely need to flap their wings.
  • They say “the early bird catches the worm” so it is lucky that Turkey Vulture don’t rely on worms to survive. Turkey Vultures are not early morning fliers, which has more to do with their flying style than anything else. When vultures fly, they tend not to flap their wings very much. Rather, these large birds spend most of their time soaring on rising air currents, called thermals, in search of food, or simply traveling from one place to another. Thermals are caused by warm air rising, which occurs later in the morning after the sun rises, so Turkey Vultures have the perfect excuse for “sleeping in.”
  • Once a Turkey Vulture is up and soaring, it is almost unmistakable due to its distinctive flight pattern. These birds are easy to identify as they teeter gently from side to side with their wings held open in a slight “V” shape.
  • Vultures in the Americas look a lot like the vultures in Europe, Asia, and Africa, with broad wings, bare heads, and the habit of eating dead meat. But surprisingly, they’re in different taxonomic families, meaning they’re not particularly closely related. They evolved many of the same features as they exploited the same kinds of resources in different parts of the planet. This process is known as convergent evolution.

Feeding and their featherless heads

  • Turkey Vultures have featherless heads. When feeding, vultures sometimes need to stick their heads deep into the cavities of dead animals to get to the juiciest bits! At times like these, a bald head is very useful – otherwise bits of flesh, blood, or other fluids might get stuck on their feathers, creating quite a mess. Though vultures spend a lot of time preening, or cleaning their feathers, it would be impossible for them to clean their own heads. A Turkey Vulture’s bald head also makes it easy for us to identify. a bright red head and pale beak are distinguishing characteristics of this species.
  • Turkey Vultures are almost entirely carrion eaters, which means they feed on animals that are already dead. They have been documented killing very weak or very sick animals, but this is rare. They are not a threat to livestock or pets. Though the vultures prefer to feed on medium to large animals, such as deer or sheep, they can be found in roads feeding on road-killed animals as small as squirrels and lizards.
  • When searching for a meal, they often fly low over an area, using their sight and acute sense of smell to find food. Vultures are social feeders, which means many vulture species might join together to feed on a large carcass. Other scavenger birds, such as eagles and ravens, might join the feast as well.

Keeping cool – would you pee down your legs?

  • In addition to their bald heads, Turkey Vultures have other unique adaptations. To keep cool, Turkey Vultures will sometimes pee on their own legs! This is called “urohydrosis” and they do it for two reasons. First, because Turkey Vultures don’t sweat like we do, they need a way to cool off in hot weather. When the urine evaporates from their legs, it has a cooling effect. Second, their urine contains properties that might help kill any bacteria on their legs and feet that they may have picked up when walking all over their dinner. Though it might seem gross to us, it actually helps keep the vultures clean.

I took this information from two very good websites which can be accessed using the links below

http://peregrinefund.org/explore-raptors-species/Turkey_Vulture#sthash.iU6hZsxg.dpbs

 http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/turkey_vulture/lifehistory

Having a Whale of a time

We are in the privileged position to see numerous whale species during our expeditions and here is one encounter. Humpback Whales had been doing amazing displays. We have had the opportunity of seeing plenty of humpbacks and they show their flukes when they dive, they have been breaching (leaping out of the water) spy hopping (sticking their head out of the water to look around) flipper flapping (splashing their 5m long flippers on the water), as well as bubble netting (this is where they swim in tight circles and blow bubbles which corral the fish and krill into a tight group and then the whale comes up with its mouth open and collects all of the food.) We were asked how the krill reacted to bubble netting. The expedition team in their brilliance answered “Bubbles, flee for your lives, flee!” of course we cannot actually tell the guests this but we do walk around going “Bubbles, flee, flee”

Humpback whale fluking

Humpback Whale Tail Flapping

Humpback whale lying on its back flipper flapping

Crossing the Drake

We have to travel through the Drake passage from Ushuaia, the most Southern City in the world to get to the Antarctic Peninsula, this is the shortest distance to the Antarctic and is the body of water between South America and the Antarctic. It is where we have to cross the Antarctic circumpolar current, which is 5 times stronger than the Gulf Stream and contains 5000 times more water than the Amazon. This current goes around the Antarctic with no land mass to slow it down, when it reaches the Drake passage, however, it is
squashed between two continents and this bottleneck causes any waves or swell to be compressed and increase in height, leading to this being one of the worst sea crossings in the world. Many passengers are terrified of crossing the Drake as the waves can be as much as 15 or 20m high, although we try to avoid such big seas.

The Drake Passage is between South America and Antarctica

On the last trip we were close to the Antarctic and we had to take in the stabiliser fins in as we were now in an area where we could encounter icebergs. Without stabilisers it means that the ship tends to roll greatly from one side to another. Well, we hit a massive low pressure system with winds of 55knots (1 knot is 1 nautical mile per hour which is 1,852km per hour (so about 102km/h) this ranks as a force 11 on the Beaufort scale which is a 12 point scale. The waves were about 10m high and we were getting hammered. The beds have straps (like seat belts) but the beds themselves were not chained down, this meant that people would strap themselves into bed but then would roll to one side and the whole bed would flip on top of them (This happened to 3 passengers). The Grand Piano flipped over, it broke off its one leg which was bolted to the floor and came crashing down (fortunately nobody was injured). The ship was listing badly to the starboard side and the waves were crashing against deck 4 leaving some of the cabins flooded. So we had an exciting time.

What was good before it became that rough was that we had over 15 Royal and Wandering Albatrosses following the ship. These birds are huge, the Wandering Albatross has a wingspan of 3.5 m making it the bird with the widest wingspan in the world. They  were flying mere metres away from the ship. Here is an exercise for you. Get a piece of string and measure out 3,5m and you will have a real idea of its size. Get a longer piece off string and measure out 15m and that is the length of the average humpback whale, double that to 30m and you have the length of a Blue whale.

Young Wandering Albatross (He is still dark in colouring)

The Drake Passage may be notorious, but it is only one in 10 times where we hit such bad seas. It is the place, though, where we encounter the magnificent Albatrosses and Giant Petrels, and get our first taste of Antarctic Wildlife.

Too white or too black – different coloured penguins

Something we see occasionally is odd coloured penguins. Penguins are normally black on the back and white on the front, but odd variations cause them to look washed out or completely black.

Leucistic (white) Adelie Penguin. Look at the penguins next to it for comparison.

 One trip in the 2011/12 season was very special because we had the opportunity to see 2(!) Leucistic Gentoo penguins. Leucism is a genetic abnormality where the melanin in the body does not deposit on the feathers, so they are beige where they should be black, but their bare parts, including feet, bill and eye are their normal colour. In an albino the body does not produce any melanin at all, so the eyes are red (from the blood supply) and the bare parts are a pale pink. The opposite of albinism is melanism, where the body produces too much melanin and deposits it on the feathers, causing the white feathers to be black. Only 1 in 40 000 Gentoo penguins and 1 in 80 000 Adelie penguins are recorded as being leucistic. Interestingly, both the penguins we saw (and they must be related as they both occur on the same island), had normally coloured chicks, so being a different colour, doesn’t affect their ability to find a mate, and it shows that this is a recessive gene.

Melanistic (Black in front) Gentoo Chick