Fort Resolution residents spot American Black Vulture ‘way, way out of its range’

Ornithologist says the unusual sighting tied to climate change 

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Half a continent away from its natural habitat, an American Black Vulture recently visited Fort Resolution.

Residents posted photos of the bird on social media this week, remarking on the unusual sighting and sharing pictures of the animal perched and in flight. The bird, known for its dark plumage and black, featherless head, is typically a southern species, concentrated around Mexico, parts of Arizona, Eastern Texas and the East Coast. It’s rarely spotted in the Midwest or West Coast.

The rare sight caught birder Gary Vizniowski’s attention.

He joked that travelling the 155 km from Hay River to Fort Resolution would “prove that (he) was a true ‘birder’. He did — though it some time to find the animal, he told News/North over email. Asking around town, he received hints that it was hanging around the dump, where he discovered a “large bird in the trees surrounded by ravens.” Binoculars revealed it was a vulture.

The bird flew away and only returned when Vizniowski was watching some gulls. He caught the vulture in mid-flight with his camera.

Residents have spotted an American Black Vulture this week in Fort Resolution — a far distance from the bird’s natural range of South America stretching to the southern United States.
Photo Courtesy of Gary Vizniowski

“Not sure what brought it up here as it is thousands of kilometres out of its normal range,” he wrote.

Weighing in, Ornithologist Robert Bromley confirmed the bird was an American Black Vulture that was “way, way out of its range.”

Vultures take advantage of the wind, Bromley said, which can sometimes lead to sightings outside of bounds in locations like Ontario. NWT, however, is a rare case.

Aside from the unusual sighting Bromley said turkey vultures have previously been spotted, including notable reports in Yellowknife, Fort Reliance in the early 1990s, and a possible one in the Mackenzie Delta.

The rare occurrence of a Black American Vulture north of 60 could be attributed to a changing climate, he said.

“With climate change, there’s so much energy in the atmosphere, the winds are doing crazy things,” he said.

As the atmosphere warms, it has more energy. That results in more unusual or extreme climate events. Windier, stormier, and more unexpected weather patterns are more likely to throw the birds off course.

“That really influences this particular bird because it’s so efficient at getting places without putting out much effort,” he said. “It just takes advantage of moving air.”

“It could be it just got caught up,” he said, explaining a jetstream looping up and down meant it was very possible the bird was caught in a weather system.

On top of being a long way from home, the bird may face additional challenges in the territory.

Vultures typically hunt by smell— except for the American Black Vulture, which depends on other birds like turkey vultures to lead it to sustenance. Turkey vultures also often hunt alone, whereas Black Vultures work in groups as they scavenge and eat carrion.

That’s another reason the sighting is so odd: The bird spotted in Fort Resolution was alone. That said, any bird out of normal range — one caught in a strange habitat, and unfamiliar with local predators and efficient food gathering — is at risk, he said.

“What (this bird) has got going for is it is efficient at migrating long distances simply by soaring,” he said. “If it decides to move, it can.”

He emphasized that climate change has affected the distribution of bird species and weather events have increasingly thrown the animals into unusual settings.

“We’re seeing more unusual sightings generally, and across North America, for sure,” he said.

“As the environment changes, it’s important for us to stay plugged in on what those changes are. For things like birds it’s also enjoyable and fun to – when you see something like this – find out more about it and read up on the species.”

However, it’s important to ask “what that means,” he said.

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