Common but worth watching

“Here comes one,” my friend Jerry Payne shouted as a large turkey vulture soared low overhead.

Payne and I are avid birdwatchers and have seen thousands of vultures in our time.

So why would we be so excited about the birds on this day?

We were with Jim Ferrari, who has studied vultures for the past three years from an observation deck on the roof of the two-story science building. Ferrari’s enthusiasm for vulture-watching spread to us.

Three times a week, Ferrari spends half an hour on the roof peering at vultures flapping and soaring in the sky around him and sometimes landing on a nearby water tower or other structures.

Ferrari, chairman of Wesleyan’s biology department, explained that when the science center opened three years ago, he wanted an ongoing ornithological project for his students. He chose vultures, in part, because they are large birds and easy to spot and identify.

Georgia has two vulture species, the turkey vulture and the black vulture. Both are permanent residents, although their numbers swell in winter when migratory vultures from up north come to Georgia for the season.

Turkey vultures, the larger of the two, are common statewide. They have pinkish-red heads and longer, narrower, two-tone (black with gray lining) wings that are held in a shallow V-shape when soaring. They feed almost entirely on carrion, mostly dead mammals.

Black vultures occur in most of Georgia but are less common in the mountains. Their heads are gray; wings have silvery tips. They are more aggressive and will drive off turkey vultures when feeding on road kill or other carrion. They also will prey on small live mammals and reptiles, eat other birds’ eggs and feed at garbage dumps.

Ferrari and his colleague Soluzo Ekenta have learned that:

● Turkey vultures are more likely to forage alone and at lower altitudes than black vultures, which often forage in flocks at higher altitudes.

● Turkey vultures have a stronger sense of smell and thus are more able to detect carrion. Black vultures have weaker olfactory powers. By flying higher, however, black vultures may be able to keep an eye on turkey vultures and follow them to food.

In the sky: The moon will be full tonight — the wolf moon. It was so-named because January was when hungry, howling wolves boldly ventured close to pioneer settlements for a meal of pets or livestock. We don’t have wolves now, but we have hungry coyotes.

The moon will be last quarter Friday, rising about midnight and setting about midday, said David Dundee, astronomer with Tellus Northwest Georgia Science Museum.

Mercury is low in the east just before sunrise. Mars rises out of the east just after sunset. Jupiter is in the west at sunset and sets about three hours later. Saturn rises out of the east about two hours before midnight and will appear near the moon Tuesday night.

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