In the Flesh: Griffon Vultures
As soon as I knew that I was heading to Spain, my mind jumped to Lammergeyers. In fact, I believe that I may, possibly, have sent my boyfriend a chat message containing just that one word and and exclamation point. Then I sent him a picture to explain my excitement. I still don’t think he quite got it, but that didn’t matter. Lammergeyers!
Alas, it was not to be. By starting the pilgrimage in Leon (necessary as that was) I cut myself out of the prime Lammergeyer-spotting region of the Pyrenese. Tragic was the moment that I realized this.
Of course, Spain is home to other vultures. They’re not the Lammergeyer – they’re not even close, as the Lammergeyer dwells alone in the genus Gypaetus – but the Egyptian Vulture and Cinereous Vulture are worthy birds in their own right.
And then there’s the Griffon Vulture. Ultimately, this was the only vulture I was to see on my Spanish adventure. And while it is sadly beardless, there was nevertheless something special about the moment when I spotted the first of these birds soaring over a crest of the Cantabrians, covering the landscape I had trudged over without even a flap of the wing. No doubt in ages past, when times were harsher to pilgrims, the vultures sometimes got a good meal out of the devotion or curiousity that drove my predecessors.
Griffon Vultures look like vultures should, to me. That is to say, they look like the vultures I used to see on nature programs, those iconic shots of birds squabbling over a deceased wildebeast or zebra. The fact that these birds, and not the Turkey Vultures in my own back yard, made up my mental picture of vultures perhaps says something sad about our media-saturated age; in my defense, though, the Turkey Vultures usually soared over too high for a little girl to form an impression of them outside of a pair of dark, tilted wings.
Like the Eurasan Griffon Vulture, the ur-vultures of the nature programs were members of the genus Gyps. They share bald but slightly fuzzy heads, ruffed collars at the bases of snaky necks, heavy beaks, and an overall more robust appearance than the cadaverous New World Vultures. A Turkey Vulture might be an avatar of death come to call, while a Griffon Vulture is heartily alive and looking to mug you for your meat.
So no, I cannot dismiss the Griffon Vulture, cannot regret its place on my life list and in my heart as the first Spanish vulture I had the good fortune to see. That said, on my next trip, I’m seeing a Lammergeyer, even if I have to walk a hundred more miles.
Lammergeyer by Norbert Potensky
Griffon Vultures by Calo Bescos