A Day at the Carcass (On behalf of Corinne)

It is a cool morning in the Masai Mara. I wait patiently almost 100m from the carcass. The skies are empty and I know it will be another hour before the air warms and the birds take flight. In the meantime, I watch the wildebeest as they pass one by one in some sort of strange procession. They walk with such determination and purpose, following the rains and the grass as they continue their long migration. Finally the first bird arrives. He weaves left and right, left and right, circling once, twice, before finally landing. The Bateleur positions himself close to the carcass and is just about to start feeding when the next bird arrives. I can hear the screeches of plovers before I even see the brown mass hurdle itself to the ground. The Tawny Eagle lands right next to the Bateleur. A long stare and a short jump and possession of the carcass has already shifted. The Tawny begins gorging itself as the Bateleur takes to the skies once more. After several beak fulls, the Tawny notices a small loose piece and just in time. As she reaches her talons around the meat, the next scavenger arrives. I know the White-headed vulture is female because of the white secondaries that fan her body. Her size isn’t enough to intimidate the Tawny, but with a piece of food in her talons, the eagle soon takes off and lands in a nearby tree to finish its food alone. This suits the White-headed female just fine and she rips off a piece of flesh with great vigor. Who says all vultures are ugly? Looking at the White-headed vulture I am reminded of the Geishas of Japan – beak unnaturally red, powdered white face, and just a touch of blue and purple to vitalize the face. Even the manners are cool and controlled and the female pauses occasionally to glance around.
Unfortunately her meal is also short-lived as a pair of Lappet-faced vultures come rushing in, their feet hanging beneath them as they hop into their landing. The red-headed pair seem to have an agreement and one Lappet-faced vulture begins feeding as the other tilts its head, eye-looking up and to the sides checking for intruders. Wings positioned to the side, the Lappets move towards the White-headed vulture, pushing her aside with ease. The White-headed vulture backs away peacefully though not without one gentle bite in the direction of the Lappets. As one member of the Lappet pair rips into the carcass, the other occasionally lowers its head hoping for a bite. Then the marital dispute begins and the feeding bird gently bites its mate on the neck, releasing to look her in the eye, beaks touching as they lift their heads in unison. Battle resolved the first bird goes back to feeding.
The first African White-backed vulture seems to have come from nowhere and yet a quick glance to the sky reveals nearly twenty African White-backs and Ruppell’s vultures that have recently found the carcass. After the initial landing, these Gyps vultures seem to pour in one after another. Soon the carcass has vanished beneath a pile of squirming, fighting, and screeching birds. The vultures let out hisses and squeaks as they squabble for position and in the end only about half the group feeds. By this point a pair of Hooded vultures and a single Marabou Stork are hanging around the periphery of the carcass. The Hoodeds grab small pieces that seem to go unnoticed by their comrades and the Marabou steps into the steal the larger pieces of meat as they are dislodged from the carcass by the African White-backed vultures.

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