Where’d That Carcass Go?

Turkey Vultures and a juvenile Bald Eagle perched on the beach about three miles north of Ocean Shores, Washington. Tom Rowley photo.

On April 21, 2024 Tom Rowley, Pam McCauley, Dianna Moore and I conducted a raptor survey at Ocean Shores (see Surveying and Banding for more on Coastal Raptors’ survey efforts). We tallied 16 raptors in all, 10 Bald Eagles and 6 Turkey Vultures. All of the vultures and one of the eagles were perched close together on the beach (photo above).

This behavior is almost always a signal that a carcass is nearby. However in this case we were unable to see one from inside the vehicle. We decided to walk the beach for a closer look. Vulture tracks were everywhere, the odor from rotting flesh was strong, but still no carcass.

Turkey Vulture tracks. Dan Varland photo.

Where’d that carcass go? It suddenly dawned on me that I had seen a dead Gray Whale carcass in this area the week before while on survey with Dave Murnen and Tom Rowley. That day we saw three Bald Eagles near the whale.

After our search Steve Hill pulled up in his vehicle to chat. An avid photographer, Steve lives in Ocean Shores and patrols the beach for photo opportunities on most days. Steve confirmed that the whale carcass had been there but was buried several days earlier by Washington State Parks due to the extreme odor.

Ocean Shores photographer Steve Hill. Dan Varland photo.

A closer look revealed lines in the sand where the whale had been dragged up near the dunes for burying.

Dan Varland photo.

Turkey Vultures have a very keen sense of smell. They use it to great advantage in locating food. So strong is this sense that they are able to find carcasses by smell alone under a tree canopy (photo below).

Turkey Vultures feeding on Black Bear remains about five miles northeast of Bandon, Oregon on June 28, 2014. The vulture wearing wing-tag AC was trapped and tagged by Coastal Raptor on May 11, 2012; the location was the Oregon coast 3 miles southwest of the location shown here. Photo by trail camera (courtesy of Jeff Sutherland).  

Of the 23 species of vulures worldwide, only two other species possess this exceptional olfactory capabililty: the South American Greater-yellow Headed Vulture and Lesser-yellow Headed Vulture.

Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, Ecuador. Photo courtesty of the Maccaulay Library, Cornell University.
Turkey Vulture. Avian scavengers take advantage of Turkey Vulture’s food finding abilites, following them to carcass sites. Tom Rowley photo.

We concluded that the Turkey Vultures that we saw were asking themselves the same question as we had: Where’d that carcass go?

If you’re interested in learning more about vultures, the best source out there today is Keith Bildstein’s Vultures of the World.

Note: If you would like to see more of my Blog posts on Turkey Vultures, click on Tracking Turkey Vultures below.

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