Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A dark encounter

with 48 comments

On August 24, 2011, well into that year’s terrible drought, I went to the prairie in northeast Austin to see if I could find some early occurrences of the aptly named snow-on-the-prairie. While I did locate some, my biggest find of the day was accidental, and it was at the opposite end of the brightness scale. At one point in my driving around I caught a glimpse of a large structure looming in the woods on the north side of E. Braker Lane where nothing of that size had a right to be. What was it? I turned around, drove back past the place, then around the corner onto Pioneer Farms Dr., where I parked so I could go exploring. No sooner had I gotten out of my car than I noticed two vultures in a nearby tree. As you’ve heard me say before when I’ve encountered birds, I put my longest lens on the camera and proceeded to take pictures, in this case of the vultures singly and together.

Click for greater clarity.

Most of the pictures I took during the session show one or both birds sitting in static poses. There came a moment, though, that I managed to record, when the vulture shown here seemed to get leery of me and made a move as if to fly away, but in the end it didn’t and settled back down. In photographing such a dark subject against a bright sky, I exposed for the bird—actually overexposed slightly, knowing that the sky would appear somewhat washed out, but the important thing was to retain details on the shaded body of the vulture.

As best I’ve been able to determine, this is a turkey vulture, but an immature one that hasn’t yet developed the red head that explains the common name. Cathartes aura is probably the largest species of bird in central Texas, with an adult wingspan up to six feet (two meters). It’s impressive that an animal so large can fly.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 20, 2012 at 5:42 AM

48 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. We saw some vultures in Botswana and they scare me. They just look intimidating–like your photo.


    March 20, 2012 at 6:13 AM

    • The large size of these birds can be a little scary, but I found that they’re more wary of me than I ever was of them. I guess it’s also human nature to have an aversion to an animal that eats carrion.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 7:30 AM

  2. Really an impressive capture! It looks ready to eat the viewer! I really enjoy your excellent photography and the lessons on a natural environment that is foreign to me, a man who lives in the tropics!


    March 20, 2012 at 7:17 AM

    • The long lens makes it look like I was up there in the tree right in front of the bird, but I was safely on the ground some distance away. And what I was safe from was falling rather than being devoured, because vultures live on dead and even rotten animals; I can confirm that we who are reading and looking at this post are still alive.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying learning about central Texas, which has been almost tropical this season. You who live in the real tropics must have all sorts of things to see in nature. What an opportunity.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 7:43 AM

  3. I love seeing large birds like this one fly. It’s so fascinating. 🙂


    March 20, 2012 at 7:28 AM

    • It is. I continue to be impressed every time I see it. I even got to see it very close: stay tuned for tomorrow’s post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 7:46 AM

  4. Hi Steve .. what a superb photo .. and how amazing to be able to ‘catch it’ .. what a lovely sighting .. cheers Hilary


    March 20, 2012 at 7:53 AM

    • Thanks, Hilary. I was fortunate to get one picture more dynamic than the rest, though some of the others are okay in their own right. I’ve occasionally seen birds of this type in my neighborhood, where I’ve photographed them a couple of times atop street lights.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 8:09 AM

      • Hi Steve .. we had a BBC film on wild turkeys – where the scientist had imprinted with them in Florida .. it was amazing – it’ll come out in your neck of the woods sometime .. but should you want to look at my post about it .. it is here:

        Amazing creatures .. we used to have vultures in Southern Africa .. they’re incredible how they can spot kills from miles away and above …

        Cheers Hilary


        March 20, 2012 at 8:37 AM

      • And thanks for the link. I read and enjoyed your detailed post.

        Steve Schwartzman

        March 20, 2012 at 9:32 AM

      • Glad you enjoyed the read .. cheers Hilary


        March 20, 2012 at 9:35 AM

  5. WOW! Spectacular shot! I love this!

    We’ve had turkey vultures and black vultures just move into our neighborhood recently. They’ve been circling and circling high above for weeks and roosting in our tall pine trees and on a water tower nearby. We wondered what brought them into town (I live in a small college town), when we finally discovered that their trees on the outskirts of town had been cut down. 😦 I’m not sure how much they really like hanging around our neighborhood, but the birds at our feeders are very unhappy about it.

    Lemony (Gr)Egghead

    March 20, 2012 at 8:52 AM

    • Happy enthusiasm for the picture, but too bad about your trees getting cut down. The wooded property where I found these vultures is in a part of Austin that has seen lots of new subdivisions in recent years, including two tracts adjacent to it. It’s only a matter of time before this property gets built on.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 9:15 AM

  6. Great photo, Steve. Turkey vultures look so beautiful when they fly, but are quite shocking when you focus in on them with your binoculars or zoom lens!

    Mind Margins

    March 20, 2012 at 9:07 AM

    • Thanks, Angela. You’re right that when you zoom in you can see things you might wish you hadn’t, like pieces of leftover food clinging to feathers. But c’est la vie, that’s the life of a vulture.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 28, 2012 at 3:45 PM

  7. Amazingly beautiful. The feathers, The blue beak, I find I keep going back to the photo and each time I see something new.

    Bonnie Michelle

    March 20, 2012 at 9:07 AM

  8. Impressive capture. He certainly looks mean and intimidating.


    March 20, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    • These birds may seem intimidating because they’re so large, but I don’t know what their disposition is like. The ones I’ve encountered have been wary of people.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 9:25 AM

  9. WOW this one stopped me in my tracks. Impressive photo Steve and perfectly exposed. Well done!!!


    March 20, 2012 at 9:36 AM

    • Thanks, David. You can appreciate the difficulties of photographing such a dark subject against a bright background. The sky was indeed overexposed and washed out, but I always shoot in RAW mode, so in processing the image I was able to get the sky closer to its normal appearance. I was pleased that I managed to keep both the beak and the eyes in reasonably sharp focus at an aperture as large as the f/5.6 of this image.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 10:01 AM

  10. Great capture. He looks really mean.


    March 20, 2012 at 2:11 PM

    • I can see why you might find this vulture mean-looking, Edith, but I’ll add that I didn’t perceive it that way in person.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 2:16 PM

  11. I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to get a shot. You did a great job.


    March 20, 2012 at 3:27 PM

    • Thanks, but I don’t think it was dangerous. The telephoto makes things look close, but the vulture was in a tree and I was some distance away on the ground.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 4:20 PM

  12. Having been attacked by an Arctic Skua I would want to keep my distance from this monster!


    March 20, 2012 at 3:51 PM

    • I’m sorry that you got attacked, but I never felt in any danger. The vultures were wary of me rather than the other way around.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 4:21 PM

  13. This is an awesome photograph, Steve!

    Turkey vultures have been given a bad reputation. They are carrion eaters and wouldn’t think of attacking. They are not true vultures either. True vultures will attack their prey. I managed to catch one with its wings spread in the large oak tree at the end of our road one day. Even from over 100 feet away the guy was huge. Interestingly, I read that when you see them circling it isn’t necessarily because they have found their next meal. They may just be playing and riding the thermals for fun!
    PS: your photograph obviously is better than mine, but nonetheless I was thrilled to have gotten any at all!


    March 20, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    • And thanks for your link too, Lynda. As you point out, turkey vultures don’t attack people: we’re bigger than they are, and they take off if we get too close. It is fascinating to watch them glide. Tveten’s The Birds of Texas says they have a high ratio of wing area to weight.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 6:58 PM

      • Oh dear, I misspoke! Turkey vultures ARE vultures, what I should have said was that they are often called BUZZARDS but they are not.

        Sigh, brain cells, synapses… what was I talking about again? 😉


        March 20, 2012 at 7:14 PM

      • Okay, thanks for the clarification. I’ve certainly heard vultures called buzzards, but now I see that buzzards are in the genus Buteo.

        Steve Schwartzman

        March 20, 2012 at 7:21 PM

  14. That long lens is impressive – great capture of the vulture. It looks as though it’s right in front of you.


    March 20, 2012 at 5:30 PM

    • I use my long lens by far the least of the three I usually carry with me, but there are pictures like today’s that I could never get without it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 7:00 PM

  15. The way he looks at you, you must have looked tasty ! 😉
    Great shot !


    March 20, 2012 at 6:42 PM

    • Actually the bird was keeping its eyes on me not because I’m a tasty morsel but because it wanted to make sure I didn’t get close enough to do it harm. You can read about another instance of a vulture’s fear in tomorrow’s post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 7:04 PM

  16. Actually, on the ground these birds can be quite humorous. Startled away from a carcass, they’ll often hop rather than fly, and I’ve seen them run into one another. I’m assuming they’re like coots and cormorants, in the sense that they need a little runway space to get going.

    And it’s true. Eagles and hawks are true birds of prey, and will go after their dinner. These guys are like the brother-in-law that always shows up after the fish are cleaned or the oysters shucked. They just want dinner, and easy is better than hard. 😉


    March 20, 2012 at 7:41 PM

    • I’ve also seen them hopping around on the ground, though never running into one another. In the brother-in-law you’ve come up with yet another good analogy. Now we’ll have to wonder if the vulture will take offense at being likened to a lazy brother-in-law.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 20, 2012 at 7:50 PM

  17. Awesome photo! Love bird pics!


    March 21, 2012 at 5:28 AM

    • I take pictures of birds when the opportunity comes my way, which isn’t that often. I think I’ve showed seven bird pictures in this blog in the close to ten months I’ve had it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 21, 2012 at 6:55 AM

  18. Great angle for a shot; must be nice to be in the right place at the right time. We get black vultures here in the Houston area, no shortage of photo ops.

    Thanks for giving this guy his time in the spotlight. Hawks and owls? They steal all the photography glory these days. Vultures are nature’s thankless heroes, the real clean-up crew for the bigger messes when the predator party’s over.


    March 21, 2012 at 11:52 AM

    • I’ve found that if I keep putting myself out there enough, then every so often I’m in the right place at the right time.

      You’re right that vultures have a thankless role as clean-up crew in the scheme of things.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 21, 2012 at 3:35 PM

  19. I don’t have anything to add that hasn’t already been said – thanks for sharing this. It is a great photo.


    March 24, 2012 at 11:00 AM

  20. Awesome shot! I once was walking a path in a mangrove area in a FL state park and could smell fish (there had been a huge fish kill due to cold weather). As I rounded a corner, there was a flock of turkey vultures feasting on the the fish that had been cleared from the beach. Of course all of the vultures flew away, some within a few feet of me as they took off. I was so disappointed that I didn’t have my camera ready. A good lesson about being aware of your surroundings and your senses! I see some of these from time to time near where I live and I hope to one day be close enough to get a decent shot.

    Anne Camille

    April 29, 2012 at 10:13 AM

    • Thanks. I’m sorry you didn’t have a camera handy during your encounter. I did have my camera with me last week when I was driving and spotted a group of vultures near a deer carcass at the edge of the road. I parked a little ways away, put on my telephoto lens, and walked back closer to the birds. Even though the passing cars hadn’t scared them away, my presence did. I managed only one picture, and it wasn’t a good one. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don’t, even when you’re prepared.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 29, 2012 at 10:24 AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: