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Living Gargoyles

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Despite the allure of sunny Sanibel and Key West, from whence I just returned, I am doggedly returning to late December in Spain, specifically Monfragüe National Park in Extremadura. 
I may have to take a Key Deer break in here somewhere, but for now, we're gonna look at griffons.
Griffon vultures. Enormous fabulous legendary Old World vultures that somehow manage to nest and thrive in this rugged and forbidding place. 
This is one of their strongholds for roosting and nesting. Spain, in fact, holds Europe's largest single colony of griffon vultures, in Hoces del Rio Duratón National Park, in the province of Segovia. Get this: From a low of just a few thousand around 1980, there are now more than 25,000 griffons plying the air in Spain. And they're increasing in Italy, having been shot out. People are beginning to wake up, even across the Mediterranean, that you don't just willy-nilly shoot everything that flies. Oh, it's so good to hear good news about vultures. However their populations are always at threat. Apparently a ruling that barred leaving cow carcasses out (for fear of transmitting Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) really bit into the Pyrenees griffon populations, and they turned to attacking young and weak living animals, something they normally eschew. 

And another tidbit (sorry) from Wikipedia: In May 2013, a 52-year-old woman who was hiking in the Pyrenees and had fallen off a cliff to her death was eaten by griffon vultures before rescue workers were able to recover her body, leaving only her clothes and a few of her bones. Due to her being the first human to be documented being eaten by griffon vultures, the story brought worldwide attention to the griffon vulture problems in Southern Europe. 

Imagine!! The cleanup crew takes care of her. All of which makes me think about my promise to my kids not to leave myself out for the turkey vultures. Sigh. I won't, I won't. But a girl can dream. 

We watched the great birds cruising around the oak forests known as dehesa. 

The sediment-filled river roiled below the great rock, and a griffon dropped down to perch near its tossing waves. 

It was such a rare privilege to be able to stand on an overlook and look down on a bird whose back one generally never gets to see. It reminded me of Andrew Wyeth's excellent painting of a turkey vulture and the landscape it surveys, from above. 

Some passed at eye level. 

To look into the cool hard yellow eye of a griffon is a fine, fine thing.

Please click on these. You'll see the griffon's great foot coming up to scratch its head!

Thos impossibly long secondaries! The great sails that hold this massive bird aloft! Oh, I can smell those feathers!

Looking more closely at the mountain, we could see it finely crenulated by the silhouettes of vultures.
Use "crenulated" in a sentence today! (I didn't have time to get my pie crust crenulated, dear. You'll have to eat it smooth.)

For a closer look, here they are, wings spread. They can't be sunning. It wasn't sunny in Extremadura. Or Madrid. Or Trujillo. Or anywhere, until we got to La Gomera. Whew. Brr. 

Phoebe, Liam and I were hanging out, watching vultures and other fascinating wildlife. We instinctively knew that it doesn't get any better than this, so we stayed there for a couple of hours at least, wind and cold and all. 

There was a quiet birdwatcher in the parking area with his scope set up pointing up toward a nearby stack. He kind of watched us for an hour or so, and must have decided we were OK, because he motioned for us to come look through his scope. Well I'll be danged. There was a griffon there, and it was tending a nest! In late December! Holy crow!

I had lugged my scope and tripod to Spain. But I  had zero idea there was a griffon nest right next to us. O bless you, Belgian birder who now lives in Extremadura!! I swung my scope over to the nearby nest, and set up my digiscoping rig with the old iPhone 6. 

 I really fought with myself over whether to bring the scope at all, because I knew the kids and I would be traipsing through pueblos and walled cities and Roman ruins, too, not just birding. And the extra weight was a thing.  Had I known what I now know about birding in the dead of winter in Extremadura, I would never have brought it. Except. The ONE time I got it set up on a cooperative bird, this happened. 

I was content watching the wind ruffle the piano-key like feathers of the sitting vulture. And then its mate dropped in.

I do not know what those big round doo-dads are on the birds' upper breast, but I like them a lot. They're decorative, if not somewhat sexy.
Bring the scope. It's always going to be worth it. 



Wow! I wonder if those spots are meant to look like eyes when the vulture's head is down. Maybe to keep away predators? I couldn't help but notice when its head was down that it looks kind of like an owl.

Oh,Earth Mother, you have outdone yourself. These pictures and video are so goooood!!! Thank you for sharing!!

Incredible video....Griffin Cam?

Twelve turkey vultures were circling my house a few days ago. Today they they were two doors north, whew! Leaving myself out for turkey vultures? What an idea......I like it....I’m going to be a cephalopod in my next incarnation anyway! Abby

Wait... what? Your kids don't want you to feed the vultures? I mean, sure, worms and bacteria have to eat, too (which is what gets you when you're buried in the ground), but I just can't cozy up to the idea of bacteria. Being consumed by vultures sounds much more romantic, plus there is the coolness factor. Too bad there isn't an equivalent of The Tower of Silence here.

Posted by mimimanderly January 26, 2020 at 5:35 PM

Would those be brood patches?

Wow. Have you seen "The Last Unicorn"? The griffon vultures made me think of the Harpy. Esp. the doodads. (I did a bit of research, found that their doodads may be for thermoregulation. )

Yes, I wondered if they might be brood patches too.

@Sharon and @Marilyn, these would only be brood patches if the vulture stood on her head to incubate or brood! Positioning all wrong. Brood patches are on the lower belly.
I like @G Spratley's idea and link. It gets wicked hot in Extremadura in summer, so it'd be good to have those bare spots to deploy to dump heat.


Well at least they don’t have to pee on their legs.

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