My extended visit to Europe allows me to make some comparisons between the species I am so familiar with in Costa Rica and their European counterparts. Above you see three of the four vulture species found in Costa Rica. The first two, the Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and the Black vulture (Coragyps atratus), are very common, while the King vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) is almost always a rare find, usually in the lowlands. Excluding the condors, it is the largest vulture in the New World, but even so it is significantly smaller than some of the Old World species that I had the good fortune to see at very close range last week, here in Provence, France.
My visits last week to the Gorges du Verdon, Europe’s largest canyon, located here in Provence, France, just north of the area of Draguignan, where we are staying, were most memorable. For the second one, we drove through spectacular scenery to the Point Sublime (which says it all) to participate in a vulture count. This would be unheard of in Costa Rica, save perhaps for the participation of Turkey vultures in the big hawk migrations viewed down on the Caribbean near Puerto Viejo.
At the Gorges du Verdon, however, there are now several carefully monitored species of vulture, some re-introduced. I was lucky enough to observe very closely four of them, one of which is rarely seen in Europe. The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of the two commonest species, the Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) and the Black vulture (Aegypius monachus). It must first be said that the latter is not to be confused with our zopilote (Coragyps atratus, the American Black Vulture, pictured above), as it is a quite different and much larger species. It can have a wingspan of as much as 2.95 metres, which is almost twice the span of our species.
In Spain, where there is much more suitable habitat for vultures than in France, vultures are generally called buitres, although two of the four listed species have separate names: the Bearded vulture or Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) is called Quebrantahuesos (bone-breaker), while the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is called the Alimoche común. I was not able to see the Quebrantahuesos here in France, but I did see, up close and personal, a pair of Egyptian vultures, which are significantly smaller (about the size of our Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), with a distinctive flight silhouette and a yellow head. While the Bearded vulture breaks large bones into bite-sized fragments by dropping them from a height onto stones, the Egyptian vulture is a rarity in that it is a tool user, throwing small stones to break open ostrich eggs.
The hundreds of vultures circling the Gorges du Verdon, however, are mostly Griffon vultures, called Buitre común in Spain. These huge birds, which are practically the same size as the well-named Black vulture (in Spain, Buitre negro), are very pale in colour and easily observable, while the other species are very few in number and hard to find.
My great stroke of luck came about when friend and host Karel Straatman suggested to Sylvain, the young man in charge of the vulture count, that he might take me with him to what is called in French la curée, the assembling of the vultures around a carcass. I know of no exact English or Spanish equivalent for this term. Luckily, I speak French and so Sylvain agreed to take me with him. I jumped into his van and was immediately hit by the smell from the large dead sheep in the back of the van. We were to drive up to a high point and deposit it at the charnier, a term meaning a mass grave, which is exactly what it was. Bones and skin from previous carcasses, some sheep and some goats, were heaped on one side of a cleared area at the very edge of a vertiginous cliff face. Here, Sylvain dragged the defunct sheep to the middle of that area for the vultures’ feast. If only I had a camera! Spectacular sheer rock faces over the canyon, plus the nearby village of Rougon perched spectacularly on a promontory.
It was around 6.15 pm and we were to make counts synchronised with the other groups, all distributed at strategic points but lower down, about every hour until 8.30 pm.
The Griffon vultures were already in attendance, having spotted, so I was told, Sylvain’s van making its way up the mountainside. Unlike our Turkey vulture, none of these European species is able to detect carrion by smell. Two injured vultures that are being rehabilitated were in a large caged area at the side. Their sheer size is truly impressive. One was a Griffon and the other a Black vulture.
Strangely, the dozens of Griffons did not immediately attack the carcass. Instead, they simply sat looking at it, some only a couple of yards away. We ourselves withdrew to a strategic viewpoint perhaps only 50 yards away where Sylvain mounted two telescopes in order to scour the nearby cliffs. He knows each and every cliff face in detail and was easily able to locate both a pair of Egyptian vultures, the only ones in this area, and also the nest of a pair of Black vultures. A peculiarity of this latter species is that it nests in trees.
Only when we opened our sandwiches, perhaps 30 minutes later, did the vultures (coincidentally!) attack the carcass. Attack is the right word, and very soon only frantically scuffling vultures could be seen, their sheer numbers hiding the sheep’s body from view. Almost all were Griffons but soon four Black vultures were among them, neither species seeming to me particularly dominant. The pair of Egyptian vultures sailed by in the background repeatedly without attempting to land, but giving excellent eye-level views.
Some birds have been tagged or banded, many of which in Spain. Some months previously a Rüppell’s vulture (Gyps rüppellii), a species only recently recorded in Europe, as I understand, had been found in southern Portugal in an emaciated condition. This bird had been rehabilitated and released here and he (or perhaps she) now made an appearance. Except for the conspicuous tags, it was not easy for me at first to distinguish it from among the Griffons, for it is of almost the same size and has a similarly long and pale neck. In flight it is said to have white stripes on the underwing, but I could not make these out on the few occasions when it took flight. I believe it is an immature bird. Nevertheless, it fought its way very well through the mass of Griffons and was almost the last bird feeding when nightfall came. Two Ravens (Corvus corax) gingerly picked up scraps. All that remained of the previously very large sheep was its skin.
Other birds soaring along the cliffs that late afternoon were the Short-toed eagle (Circaetus gallicus),
the Crag martin (Hirundo rupestris), and the Alpine swift (Apus apus).
Unforgettable. To see Sylvain and an explanation of his work, click on the following: http://www.lpo.fr/actualite/les-vautours-du-verdon-allies-des-eleveurs-pour-un-equarissage-naturel It helps if you speak French! My final photo brings us back to Costa Rica.