Imagine floating like a kite mastering the winds on six-foot wings gliding peacefully and elegantly above the busy, daily lives of humanity, and now you’ve imagined yourself as a Turkey Vulture.
You probably expected me to be describing a Bald Eagle, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, or Osprey.
Nope, I’m describing the birds we refer to as the “gentle recyclers” of the animal kingdom.
That’s not such a horrible thought, right?
For a moment, you felt the breeze on your feathers and the power of flight as you ride the thermals.
There’s something meditative about watching a Turkey Vulture as it gently rocks back and forth with the breeze.
I find myself yearning to be elevated as high as possible to touch the places where these incredible birds soar.
Luckily not far from intoBirds’ office in Rosendale, New York, there is such a place.
Seeing Birds at Joppenbergh Mountain
It’s called Joppenbergh Mountain, and it’s a 500-foot mountain in the heart of the Rosendale village.
The 1.4-mile trail loop is a quick 15-minute, steep hike that gives you a great cardio workout.
But as soon as you ascend to the summit at .07 miles, your sweat quickly dries from the incredible breeze, and you realize it’s worth the effort.
Your reward is the sweeping views across the valley from the summit.
And below you are the Rosendale Trestle, the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, and the Rondout Creek.
And it puts you that much closer to incredible birds like Turkey Vultures, Red-shouldered Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, and Ravens often circling above or resting just below in the caves.
Reaching the Summit
On a beautiful, sunny summer day, Dan and I headed out to enjoy the fabulous early morning views from Joppenbergh Mountain.
No sooner than we started our ascension up Joppenbergh Mountain, I look down and find a beautiful Blue Jay feather in the middle of the trail.
It was as if the bird left the feather for me to find.
Blue Jays are just like New Yorkers.
Loud, bossy, and demanding birds, but they’re incredibly intelligent, and I adore them.
And I have a thing for birds with crests.
This was a sign of good things to come. I could just feel it.
It was so quiet on the hike up, and you can hear the rustle of birds and small mammals around you.
Chipmunks and squirrels darting across the path in front of us, and birds calling at every turn.
Turkey Vultures on the Cliff
Dan reaches the summit first, always 100 steps ahead.
Just as I get to the view, my heart rate is on overdrive after the fast, strenuous climb, and I look over and see three Turkey Vultures preening on the cliff just off the summit.
The vultures look iridescent, glistening in the morning sunlight as their black feathers turn a shimmering purple color reminiscent of a Common Grackle.
We observe the vultures preening just five feet away and are careful not to make noise.
Then one vulture spots us and takes to the sky.
Soon after, the preening session is over, and the two other vultures liftoff, and now it’s time to air dry.
Now we were in for the real treat.
Standing at the summit, watching these birds lazily circling in front of us against the bright blue sky.
Turkey Vulture Culture
It was an incredible sight. Being so focused on the vultures, we hadn’t noticed two young women close to the summit sitting and chatting.
As we follow the birds, the women are in our direct path.
“Hey, do you guys see the birds over there,” Dan asks.
“No, what kind of birds are they,” they ask.
I quickly say Turkey Vultures.
“Oh, no. I hate them. Vultures are so ugly-looking and might have killed us,” one of the women says.
Not to come off like a know-it-all, but I quickly tell them Turkey Vultures don’t kill things. They transform dead stuff into life.
And vultures have featherless heads because they perform a valuable job helping humans by cleaning up roadkill.
And their way of disposing of rotting carcasses from the woods and roads is to consume them.
Who wants to see dead animals on the road or in the middle of the trail, and these birds spare us of making those grisly discoveries.
These birds waste nothing and transform death into life.
I don’t want to get too macabre with my description, but I think they got the point.
“You’re not dead, so you’re safe,” I add with a laugh.
Vultures Get a Bad Rap
Both women admit they don’t know anything about vultures and are glad I explain these birds aren’t as bad as people think.
To get them going, I tell that Turkey Vultures don’t use their talons or beak as weapons as a Red-tailed Hawk does.
Instead, they vomit on anything posing a threat to them.
It’s not the most attractive attribute, but it works.
I think people see Turkey Vultures negatively because they remind us that we are mortal and that life goes on after we die.
Like all living things, something is waiting to consume our bodies after our need for them ends.
Finding a Committee of Turkey Vultures in the Catskills
Last summer, on the way back from the Catskill Mountains in New York, we discovered a committee of twenty Turkey Vultures perched in a tree.
Of course, we had to stop and take a few pictures.
As we got closer to the birds, the smell was quite putrid, but yet we persisted in our quest.
We weren’t sure if the birds smelled that bad, or if a carcass was in the woods nearby, but we took our photos and left quickly to not disturb the birds.
If one Turkey Vulture takes exception to you getting too close, then that one bird summons the flock, and they begin hissing at you.
Trust me on this one. You don’t want to make a committee of vultures angry.
Fitting Name for Turkey Vultures
Native Americans have some of the most fascinating names for birds.
They refer to Turkey Vultures as “Peace Eagles” because their wingspan rivals the eagle. Still, these birds lack the eagle’s sharp talons and killer instinct.
The Latin name for Turkey Vulture is “Cathartes aura,” meaning “breezy cleaner.”
I know, loving Turkey Vultures is counter-culture, and people think of you as being goth or macabre. Still, I’m one of those people that sees the beauty in things that others overlook.
Beauty comes from the inside. Even if they vomit on you.
I find the unicorn in life and praise them.
I love the unloveable.
And we should appreciate these birds because they play an essential role in our ecosystem.
These peaceful, harmless birds cleanse, purify and renew our environment of dead animals and rotting carcasses that can spread disease.
So don’t be afraid to look up at a Turkey Vulture because they deserve our respect for excelling at a glamourless but necessary job.