I struggle to stay upright as I follow Doug up the steep, lose-soil, wooded slope. About two thirds of the way up, tenaciously clinging to a bur oak sapling, we both pause for a breath. Doug whispers “they’re just beyond the top of the hill, won’t be long now.” As I crest the hill, and for the first time in minutes extend my body to fill its full six-foot frame, an overwhelming smell of decay nearly wilts me to my knees. “It’s bad, I know” Doug whispers. Doug’s voice is immediately drowned out by a loud guttural hiss. I’m confused, I don’t recognize this sound, and look around frantically to place its source. Doug points and whispers: “They’re in there; go take a look.” He’s pointing to a gnarly old dead bur oak tree with a large hole about head height. I cautiously approach the tree. The hiss, or maybe hisses, is getting louder.
Doug Hultine invited me over to take a look at his oak savanna restoration and to see his “babies.” Doug is somewhat of a throwback to the old west: a white-hat cowboy with a motorcycle as a horse and the steadiness to hit a dime (that’s a dime in motion, by the way) at 100 paces with any make or caliber of firearm. I was eager to witness his progress in his battle against buckthorn, an invasive species, and my curiosity was piqued with the prospect of seeing his “babies.”
I’m close to the opening in the tree now. Eyes watering, hearing saturated with the loud hissing, I see two baby turkey vultures. One in front with black wings, white fluffy neck mane highlighting its bald, scaly head, and an open hissing beak. And the second, mostly hidden behind the first. Doug leans close and says “that one up front is aggressive, I wonder if his little brother in the back will make it?” As we move closer for a camera shot, “little brother” lunges forward pushing his “big brother” aside and slams his beak shut in a loud audible pop just feet from our faces! Doug looks at me and says “I think he’ll make it!”
The turkey vulture is a migrant to Wisconsin. Every year, I watch for their arrival in the spring, for it’s a sure sign that warmer weather is near. The big powerful birds can be seen flying in the countryside with wings in a shallow V-shape formation gliding effortlessly for seemingly hours at a time. They locate food, mostly carrion, with their keen sense of smell. While they often feed around humans, they are reported to be secretive with their nesting habits. They don’t make nests, and may use a suitable nesting area, such as old abandoned barn lofts or hollow logs, repetitively for years if not disturbed. I have always wondered how baby turkey vultures survive in such easily accessible nesting locations, but after experiencing the wrath of intimidation of these two young vultures, I wonder no more!
Away from the nest site now, Doug points into the air at a circling turkey vulture and says “there’s momma.” I think, that may be mother vulture, but Doug is the Vulture Whisperer. A man who secretly slips roadkill to the baby vultures, has protected this dead nesting tree for years, and has quietly observed the renewal of life for several generations of turkey vultures.
Heading back to the house, we pass through an area of open-grown bur oaks with a lush dark-green carpet of Pennsylvania sedge. Hundreds of dead buckthorn stumps dot the woodland floor. Doug turns and says: “My babies are about six weeks old, and I try to take a photo once a week. It’s amazing how fast they grow. Maybe we should try a diet of partially digested roadkill?”