We awoke early. Today had to be the day. After so many near misses, I couldn’t imagine us going another day without trapping a Lappet-faced vulture. The evening before we had managed to stag an adult Lappet, but with its brute strength (and probably poor snaring), it had been able to pull the noose and get away before we could grab it. With one unit left, at least from our initial delivery of five (10 would arrive later in the week), I really wanted to get this one on this most elusive of vultures.
So we started the day as we had for the last week. I always feel a bit of tension on trapping mornings. An early morning carcass could be the best possibility for catching a Lappet as the birds are more likely to be hungry, and therefore, aggressive. But these are also the hardest to find. Birds are likely to fly in low in the early morning and thus be more difficult to detect. So as is so often the case with trapping we were relying on luck.
We got lucky. With the sun just rising over our shoulders we found ourselves at a carcass with two aggressive Lappets and only a handful of the more numerous Gyps vultures (i.e. African white-backed and Ruppell’s). A bit more luck and the traps were set on a rather smelly wildebeest carcass, but the Lappets were still on the ground. But that was where our luck ended. A few moments later we had caught two juvenile African white-backed vultures. With the Lappet still on the ground, despite its struggling snared comrades, we decided to grab the birds but leave the traps on. So with one bird in Matt’s lap and another in my own, we drove slowly away. My bird began regurgitating as vultures so often do when stressed and I loosened my grip. Before started, I had been unsure how I would handle all the vulture vomiting. But with time, I had grown used to it and generally found it more worrisome for the bird (who was now giving up his last meal) than for myself. With one final wiggle of its head, the bird finished its regurgitation and I went to re-tighten my grip only to find that with this final jiggle the bird had freed its head from my hand. In an instant, the vulture was standing on my lap, searching for the nearest exit. Though I desperately tried to re-grab the head, it was clear my momentary lapse had meant the total loss of control. I can only imagine what the passing tourist vehicle must have thought as our car slowed (with all passengers now a bit panicked as a vulture on the loose is not an ideal guest in a vehicle) and then a small vulture leaped out the window. From inside, I watched amazed as the bird tucked in its wings to fit through the small opening and then unfurled them in their full five foot glory to take to the skies.
After taking blood from the other bird, we returned to the traps which remained Lappet-free. Clearly it would have to wait.