Hundreds of birds of prey migrate to Weslaco each year

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Turkey Vulture, photo by Brian Plath

Hundreds of Turkey Vultures spiral downward over South Texas Boulevard in Weslaco every evening in fall and winter, creating a funnel effect that looks like a slow moving tornado of soaring birds.

“It’s quite a spectacle to watch them come in for the evening,” says FAS president and neighbor Jim Chapman, “To see the sheer numbers of them roosting in nearby trees is kind of mind-boggling.”

These magnificent birds of prey glide slowly down to their night roosting spot in the tall trees at the Frontera Audubon Society (FAS) nature preserve and surrounding areas. The public is invited to view the phenomenon during “Frontera’s Thursday Evening Vulture & Hawk Watch” on Thursday evenings beginning February 21st at 5 p.m. at FAS, located at 1101 S. Texas Blvd., for as long as the vultures remain in the area. A video about Turkey Vultures will also be shown in the Historic Skaggs House.

About 150 or so Turkey Vultures have made the 15-acre urban birding center their home for the last three years, from November to late February. But what are the raptors doing in the heart of the city?

The Turkey Vultures roosting in Weslaco are not all permanent residents. They migrate from the northern United States or Canada for the winter, and some migrate as far as South America. It is believed that part of their habitat was destroyed near the Mexican border, so they moved northward to FAS’s patch of urban forest.

“You can get close enough to see how large they are, but if you get too close and flush them, you can hear the swishing sound their wings make when they take off,” Chapman says.

The Turkey Vulture’s head (like the head of its namesake, the wild turkey) is bald and red, and its plumage is primarily dark brown. Their wings measure 25 to 32 inches long, with a wingspan around 6 feet.

Each morning they ride the thermals, pockets of warm air, to gain momentum for flight. Throughout the day they will search out food in places like nearby landfills.

Although they’re known as birds of prey, they do not kill. Their sharp beaks tear the flesh of dead animals, and their bald heads help to hygienically scour the carcasses.

Some have called the Turkey Vultures “Sanitation Engineers” for their ability to clean the environment by removing carrion from the landscape. Their keen sense of smell enables them to locate dead animals even while soaring.

Despite the Turkey Vultures’ benefit to the environment, they are often viewed as a symbol of ominous doom, greed, and anything else that implies scavenging. But scavenging is what makes them useful members of the animal kingdom.

Charlie Flores, a nearby resident, says he doesn’t mind the vultures too much.

“They’re fascinating to watch. I love the way they kettle,” he said. “The only thing I don’t like is the stench when they land.”

Flores, also a member of FAS, is referring to the odorous droppings and regurgitated carrion that litters the north part of the preserve’s Thicket trails.

“Many of our birders have complained about the unpleasant smell in certain parts of the Thicket,” says Sarah Williams, FAS executive director, “but I think a majority are cognizant of the Vultures’ need for habitat just like any other bird species.”

She adds that sometimes hawks or other vultures can be seen with the venue of Turkey Vultures.

“Many have spotted Black Vultures, and we have two Zone-Tailed Hawks that have been of recent interest,” Williams says.

Watching them from his own backyard, Flores says he welcomes the nightly showcase.

“They’re part of nature, part of the whole web of life,” he says.

Frontera Audubon Society is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the environments of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and offering opportunities for all people to enjoy and discover nature. FAS is located at 1101 S. Texas Blvd. in Weslaco Texas. It is also the home of the Skaggs House, a Texas Historic Landmark built in 1927 by R. Newell Waters. For more information, call 956-968-3275 or visit http://www.fronteraaudubon.org.

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