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Happening NOW: Black Vultures Soar Across New England

The most painful part of the year for many New England birders is early spring. Taunted by neotropical migrants filtering into southern states, those of us in the northern states sometimes find ourselves impatiently waiting for more than just blackbirds, phoebes, and Tree Swallows to join our lingering winter birds. Imagine my surprise when I found myself on my patio looking at the sky in late March instead of scanning the treetops for arriving Pine Warblers. My skywatch was aimed at a bird much more exciting to New England birders than the first warbler of the season: a Black Vulture, multiple of which had turned up nearby in the past few days. The intrigue behind this species is not only because of its rarity, but also due to its ongoing range expansion.

Although in the southeast they are just as common as their red-headed cousins, up until around 2010 Black Vultures were rare in New England, save for in the southwestern corner of Connecticut. Since then, their historic range has quickly changed. They are now regular residents in most of Connecticut, the river valleys of western Massachusetts, and the Coastal Plain of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. But what is causing this rapid northward push?

This pattern is not unusual among many originally southeastern species; Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, and Red bellied Woodpeckers were all very good finds in New England at one point. The theory is that a combination of a warming climate, large-scale habitat changes, and increasing use of feeders allowed for these warmer climate species to  rapidly spread northwards.

A similar thing might be happening to Black Vultures; rising temperatures and more asphalt covering the ground could be creating vulture-friendly thermals farther north than previously. In the last couple of years, this range expansion has become more noticeable, with Black Vultures spreading up the Connecticut River into southern New Hampshire and Vermont as far north as Walpole. Just last summer a few were seen often in the Lowell area in northeastern Massachusetts, while populations in New York are spreading across Lake Champlain into the area around Burlington, Vermont. This winter an individual even wintered on Cape Ann, making it the first Black Vulture ever recorded on the annual Superbowl of Birding.

This year is already showing signs of breaking lots of Black Vulture-related records. In a warm spell in late March, many started turning up in northeastern Massachusetts and farther north along the Connecticut River. Singles have even been spotted as far north as Bangor, Maine and Ottawa, Canada, and the rest of April is bound to see an even bigger push into more unexpected areas.

This spring, birders throughout northern New England and even southeastern Canada should be on the lookout for strays of this rare scavenger. These pioneers might even form populations, especially around urban areas with ample thermals and good roost sites. Who knows what Black Vultures have in store for us within the next decade if this phenomenon continues. Even if you don’t live in the northeast, recording out-of-range Black Vultures is important—their range expansion is now getting better documentation in New England, but this pattern could very well be occurring in other areas on the edge of their range, too.

So go out on your porch or balcony, look up, and don’t assume all kettles are Turkey Vultures! While the excitement of peak migration may not have set in yet, you might still be treated to a high-flying, pitch-black-and silver addition to your yard list while you wait.

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Tim Swain

Tim Swain

Tim Swain began birding when he was seven and hasn’t dropped his binoculars since. Even though he lives in eastern Massachusetts, he has a particular interest in the American west for its amazing diversity of habitats and birds. He is looking forward to a future of conducting field research on birds, hopefully focusing on how habitat changes affect their populations and movement. In the meantime, he plans on continuing his listing and contributing to eBird.
Tim Swain

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