Birding on the Outer Banks: Vultures and martins abound

By on July 10, 2019

Lone black vulture with turkey vultures (Jeff Lewis photo)

This month, let’s take an in-depth look at our two vulture species, Turkey and Black. They are both large, dark birds, related to hawks, which do an outstanding job of cleaning up carrion, mostly road carnage, helping prevent the possible spread of disease.

There are some differences in the two species, however, that will help you identify and perhaps, better appreciate them.

Before we get started, though, let’s straighten something out. Like many people, I grew up calling these birds “buzzards”. Buzzards are actually old world hawks, similar to our Red-tailed Hawks. “Vulture” is better.

Turkey Vulture is the more common of the two species, here on the Outer Banks, and in most of North Carolina. You can spot them on just about any given (sunny) day, riding thermals high in the sky, as they search for food. Large birds, (4 pounds) and with a wingspan of almost 6 feet, they hold their wings in a slight dihedral (a shallow V shape) and rarely flap. (A Bald Eagle holds its wings flat).

On a good day, Turkey Vultures can soar for hours, usually circling as they rise on the heat waves (from all the barbeque grills?)! They often rock (teeter) from side to side while in flight, especially when low. When overhead, although dark brown, they usually appear black, with two-toned underwings (dark in front, pale gray toward the rear) and a fairly long tail. Turkey Vultures also have a white beak and a red head. The red is the skin color showing through, due to the head being featherless.

It will come as no surprise that Turkey Vultures feed almost exclusively on carrion – we’ve all seen them on the shoulder of the road. But did you know that they locate their food primarily by smell? Although they have keen eyesight, they have an extraordinary sense of smell, able to locate a dead mouse buried under leaves! In the woods! Able to smell a carcass from a mile away!

Turkey Vultures feed mostly on mammals but will eat almost any animal, even invertebrates. And they actually prefer their food fresh. During the past 30 years, I’ve noticed their numbers really increasing here on the Outer Banks, so they must like seafood, too!

Turkey Vultures don’t have the ripping bill to cut through mammal skin, but once inside, their bald (featherless) head allows them to probe deep into an animal while still remaining fairly clean.
Luckily for vultures, they have excellent immune systems and do not contract botulism, cholera, salmonella or anthrax from feasting on carcasses.

Black Vultures, easier to find over on the Dare mainland and farther west, are occasionally seen on the Outer Banks, especially on Roanoke Island. Although large and dark, similar to Turkey Vultures, there are some immediate differences. They are more compact.

In addition to a short tail, the wings on a Black Vulture are shorter and wider and the wing tips are silvery white. Black Vultures fly differently, too. They flap rapidly, like a bat, and then glide, with wings held out flat. This diagnostic behavior allows a Black Vulture to be identified from as far away as it can be seen.

Up close, Black Vultures are indeed black, instead of brown, and they sport a grayish-black head, instead of red. Just be aware that juvenile Turkey Vultures briefly have a gray head, too.

Black vulture (left) and turkey vulture (right) side by side. Photo by Jeff Lewis

Like Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures also eat carrion, but they are less efficient since they locate food by sight only. This means that Black Vultures are best at searching in open areas and are basically shut out of wooded habitats. Turkey Vultures can find food very well in both habitats. Black Vultures will sometimes follow Turkey Vultures to a food source, then join in. When feeding together, Black Vultures are more aggressive and more comfortable on land and will even drive Turkey Vultures away.

Black Vultures will often feed around dumpsters and in landfills. They will also consume reptile and bird eggs and even occasionally kill young or weak animals. In the Florida everglades, I have even seen them eating the rubber trim from automobiles!

Don’t ask – I have no idea why!

Black Vultures are monogamous and maintain strong social bonds with family members. They only allow relatives to share food sources and roosts. They will attack outsiders by biting, pecking, and foot-grappling.

Both vultures roost in trees at night, or on towers or on abandoned buildings. Around here, the Dare mainland is a good place to find roosting birds.

Check the snags along Mashoes Road and the towers along US 64. Come morning, vultures usually sit until the air warms up enough to develop thermals. Often they can be seen during the morning perched with their wings spread open, taking a sunbath.

Both species nest primarily on the ground, in tree cavities, stumps, in thickets or in abandoned buildings. In the western part of the state, they will also use caves and rocky ledges. Potential predators include eagles and Great Horned Owls, who may eat the young; also raccoons and other mammals will sometimes eat their eggs.

Whether you like or dislike vultures, we need them. They do a great job of cleaning up the roadsides and potentially decreasing the prevalence of disease.

The purple martin’s at the “old” Mann’s Harbor Bridge is a major summer attraction. Boat tours are even available. According to  their website, a few tours are open in August aboard the Crystal Dawn ( by Jeff Lewis)

A bird spectacle begins this month in Dare County, peaking in late July and early August – the annual gathering of Purple Martins at the West end of the William B. Umstead Bridge (old Mann’s Harbor bridge).

Each year, after the Purple Martin chicks have fledged, up to 100,000 of these graceful swallows show up in the evenings to roost on the girders beneath the bridge. As they begin gathering, they produce vast flocks high in the air. As the sun sets, they descend upon the bridge in swarms, find their perches and settle in for the night. It is truly a sight to behold!

In the morning they take off for a day of feeding (fattening up for migration), then return again at sunset. This goes on for several weeks until they leave for South America to spend the winter.

See you in the field!

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