Turkey Vulture Tracking


In 2012 Coastal Raptors and other partners initiated an avian scavenger study on coastal beaches in Washington and Oregon, an effort that involved capturing and wing-tagging Turkey Vultures for individual identification. We collect blood and feather samples from the birds, sending the samples to labs for contaminants and disease testing. The wing tags allow us to identify individuals for sampling purposes. We want to avoid the mistake of catching the same bird on more than one occasion without realizing it was an individual we had sampled earlier. Wing-tags also allow us to learn about Turkey Vulture movement patterns as tagged birds are sighted after release.

 

Why wing-tags and not bands? Turkey Vultures defecate on their legs to cool down in hot weather and to kill bacteria (their poop is acidic). If Turkey Vultures were banded, the poop would collect between band and leg, leading to abrasion, wounds and infection.  Consequently the USGS Bird Banding Lab, the federal authority with oversight over banders in the United States, restricts vulture marking to wing-tags.

 

We tagged 58 vultures between 2012 and 2018. From 2012 to this writing, May 31, 2020, 57% (32 of 58) have been sighted at least once, primarily by people not involved in the research effort who reported their observations online to the US Bird Banding Lab. These sightings, 241 in all so far, reveal that many of our tagged vultures are long-lived and site faithful, many returning in spring and summer to areas where they were tagged.

 

Here's an example of site fidelity and longevity among our wing-tagged Turkey 

Vultures. AY was tagged on June 13, 2013, on the north side of Grays Harbor, 

WA (3 miles west of Hoquiam). He's been sighted each summer in the same area, 

2015-2019. At the time of tagging, AY was at least two years old, and so in 2019

he was at least age 8. Dan Varland photo. 

 

Most Turkey Vultures summering in Washington and Oregon are migratory. As of May 2020, we have information on the wintering locations of four Turkey Vultures tagged over the years.

 

Wing-tag Code

Capture Location and Date

Winter Location and Date

Observer

BO

7 mi N of Ocean Shores, WA; Feb 14, 2012

Tokeland, WA; Jan 13, 2013

Andrea Grad

AN

Hoquiam, WA; June 1, 2014

6 mi E of Winters, CA; Feb 28, 2017

Linda Pittman

EP

1 mi NE of Toledo, OR; July 22, 2014

8 mi S of Sacramento, CA; Jan 17, 2018

Jennifer Albright

EP

 

Sacramento, CA; Jan 3, Jan 27, Feb 27, 2020

Dan Airola

AT

3 mi N of Port Orford, OR; Aug 21, 2013

80 mi NE of Guadalajara, MX; Feb 25, 2018.

Juan Cruzado Cortez

 

 

Turkey Vulture perched in a pine tree in Mexico. Photo by Juan Cruzado Cortez. 

Sombrero added by Tom Rowley.

 

In June of 2018 Coastal Raptors and the Pennsylvania-based Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association (https://www.hawkmountain.org/) initiated collaborative research using solar-powered GPS satellite transmitters to more accurately determine movement patterns and site fidelity of Turkey Vultures. Hawk Mountain began this research in 2003 and as of May 2020 has monitored by telemetry 79 Turkey Vultures captured in Pennsylvania, Saskatchewan, California, Arizona, Venezuela and, last but not least, Washington.  Our collaboration provided a first opportunity to monitor the year-round movements of Turkey Vultures captured in the Pacific Northwest. Four Turkey Vultures were fitted with wing-tags and transmitters in Washington in June 2018 (https://coastalraptors.com/NotesfromtheField/fieldnotes18summer.aspx). 


Turkey Vultures wing-tagged and satellite-tagged in Washington in 2018 in a collaborative project between Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association and Coastal Raptors.

 

Name 

 Age (years)
at Capture

Wing-tag code

Date

Capture Location

 Name Derivation

Coy

 1

CV

June 1

North side of Grays Harbor, three miles west of Hoquiam

 Captured with a Coyote carcass as a lure

Grayland

 1

CC

June 2

On beach one mile north of Grayland

Captured on the coast near Grayland 

Airy

 At least 2

EE

June 5

Airport at Ocean Shores

Captured at the Ocean Shores airport, the name Airy is a reminder of the capture location as well as the soaring, circling, airy flight exhibited by Turkey Vultures. 

Artful Dodger

 At least 2

HN

June 6

Airport at Ocean Shores

Artful Dodger was also named in recognition of his capture location. In the Charles Dickens book Oliver Twist, Artful Dodger was a pickpocket. We hoped the name would give him luck as he dodged the occasional plane at the sleepy little airport. 

 

 

Sexing

There is no difference in plumage coloration and little difference in size between male and female Turkey Vultures. While Turkey Vultures can be identified to gender with certainty by a blood test, we opted not to pursue this option. In the paragraphs below, all vultures are referred with the pronoun “he” even though some likely were females (it’s just easier that way!).    

 

Aging

We assign vultures captured to age class, based on beak color; younger-aged individuals have gray on the upper beak.   

 


Airy receiving a transmitter. The ivory-colored beak with no gray indicates he’s 

at least two years of age. Dan Varland photo.

Coy receiving a transmitter. The gray color indicates he’s a one year old. Dan 

Varland photo.    


ONLINE TRACKING

Instructions for following their movements in detail, using the tracking site Movebank and Google Earth, are available here.

 

MOVEMENT SUMMARIES

Below is a summary of the movements of Airy, Coy, Grayland, and Artful Dodger since they were trapped and outfitted with transmitters in June of 2018. 

 


TURKEY VULTURE "AIRY"


Airy flew north to Quinault Indian Nation lands after release, spending two 

months making short range movements on the reservation. The map above 

shows Airy’s overall movement pattern, starting from the Ocean Shores airport 

where he was tagged and extending north. During the first days of August the 

transmitter began to function erratically.  On August 6, the transmitter ceased 

functioning after 62 days.


The last transmission came from a location just north of the bridge over the 

Quinault River at Tahola (map above). Coastal Raptors volunteer Glenn 

Marquardt and I (Dan Varland) visited the area 16 days after the last signal was 

recorded.



We were accompanied on site by technicians from the Quinault Tribe’s Division 

of Natural Resources. Glenn Marquardt (right) shares a map of Airy’s last 

known location.



 

Debris pile alongside the road north of the bridge. Elk carcass remains were 

among the items piled.


 

 

Glenn spotted a dead vulture in a roadside ditch about 100 yards north of the 

debris pile. One of the technicians said to us “They shoot vultures around here”. 

With no transmitter and no wing tag, we were uncertain whether this was our 

vulture Airy.


TURKEY VULTURE "COY"

After release in 2018, Coy flew southeast to the Columbia River near Camus, Washington, then south to Oregon before flying north to spend most of the summer 15-20 miles east of Grays Harbor. In the fall he migrated to an area about 200 miles west of Mexico City. In the spring he returned to Washington, spending the summer of 2019 mostly north of Grays Harbor on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula. In the fall of 2019 Coy returned to the same area west of Mexico City that he had wintered the year before.  

 


In the spring of 2020 Coy returned to Washington. The map above shows his 

movements between March 1 and May 20. The south-most points, in a single 

north-south line, mark points of his migration path from Mexico. He continued 

north, first to the western Olympic Peninsula, then south to southwest 

Washington and south again to northwest Oregon.

 


TURKEY VULTURE "GRAYLAND"


After release in 2018, Grayland spent several weeks to the north on the western 

Olympic Peninsula before crossing to Vancouver Island, British Columbia (BC; 

map above). Aside from a foray to the “Sunshine Coast” of mainland BC, 

Grayland spent the summer on Vancouver Island.. The middle yellow pin shows

 his location on September 19, 2018, just before he crossed the Strait of Juan 

de Fuca on his southward migration.




Six days earlier, on September 13, Grayland was sighted by Tanya Debroux and 

her boyfriend while they were kayaking in Hudson Rocks Ecological Reserve off 

the coast of Vancouver Island.. Photo of Grayland by Tanyu Debroux.

 


Tanya in her kayak.

 

In the fall of 2018 Grayland migrated to a location about 180 miles southeast of Mexico City.  In the spring he returned to Canada; this time he avoided Vancouver Island and summered near Squamish, a town in the Cheakamus River valley about 40 miles north of Vancouver, BC.


In the fall of 2019 Grayland migrated south to the same location he had spent the winter before in southeast of Mexico City. In the spring 2020, Grayland migrated north, and, as of May 26, 2020 has returned to the area near Squamish where he had summered in 2019.


TURKEY VULTURE "ARTFUL DODGER"

Artful Dodger spent the summers of 2018 and 2019 on the north side of Grays Harbor before migrating both fall seasons to Mexico. His transmitter signal began to fail in December of 2019 and stopped altogether on March 10, 2020, 643 days after the first transmission. Artful Dodger’s story ends with the recovery of his transmitter and wing-tag ...read on!

 


Artful Dodger migrated to Mexico for the winters of 2018-2019 and 2019-

2020. His wintering area was about 20 miles northeast of Mexico City. 

 


In December 2019, we began to get transmitter signals at irregular intervals. 

They were coming from a farm field. 



 

The yellow pin is centered on Mexico City. The red arrow points to Artful 

Dodger's wintering area. Kashmir Wolf, Veracruz River of Raptors Monitoring 

Coordinator, traveled to Artful Dodger's last known location with his wife Diana 

Balbuena to check out the situation. They drove more than four hours from 

their home in Xalapa at the request of Laurie Goodrich, Hawk Mountain 

Sanctuary's Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science.  

 

Sadly, they found Artful Dodger's remains.  

All that was left were feathers and bones, 

with no clue as to the cause of death.  

 

One piece of very good news is that they 

recovered the transmitter and wing-tag. The 

transmitter will be returned to Hawk Mountain 

Sanctuary Association for deployment on 

another vulture.

 

Kashmir and his wife Diana. We greatly appreciate their efforts in solving the

mystery of what happened to Artful Dodger. 

 

 

Panoramic view of the cactus farm.