An Unfortunate Vulture

On Saturday I visited Lingshan, Beijing’s highest mountain, with 吴岚 (Wu Lan).  It’s a long drive – around 100km – but straightforward as it’s all along the G109.  Lingshan was the location of GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) last winter and looking for this species was one of the aims of the visit.  Leaving well before dawn to miss the traffic, it was stunning to see the colours on the mountains change from a dark pink to a bright orange as the sun rose in the southeast..  Beijing’s mountains really are beautiful.

On the way we were fortunate to see a flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS (小太平鸟) by the roadside at Qingshui…

A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui
A lucky encounter: part of the flock of 14 JAPANESE WAXWINGS by the roadside at Qingshui

On arrival at Lingshan we quickly spotted a few GULDENSTADT’S REDSTARTS (红腹红尾鸲) on the sea buckthorn bushes near the peak.  Stunning birds, especially in flight, there were at least 10 present in the area.

The view from the top of Lingshan looking north.
The view from the top of Lingshan looking north east.
A male GULDENSTADT'S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.
A male GULDENSTADT’S REDSTART enjoying the Sea Buckthorn berries at the top of Lingshan.
I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.
I love the deep orange colour of the underparts.

As well as the redstarts, there are also good numbers of PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES (北朱雀) and DARK-THROATED THRUSHES (mostly RED-THROATED 赤颈鸫).  

2013-12-07 Pallas's Rosefinches
PALLAS’S ROSEFINCHES are superb little birds. And Lingshan is probably the best place to see them in Beijing.
There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan.  This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED but not 100% sure....
There are good numbers of Dark-throated Thrushes at Lingshan. This one is, I *think*, a young RED-THROATED (reddish tail) but not 100% sure…. could be some BLACK-THROATED influence.

We had only been on the mountain a short time when we saw a distressing sight – a CINEREOUS VULTURE (秃鹫) that was clearly injured..  It was hobbling uphill dragging its right wing along the ground.

Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..
Our first view of the injured CINEREOUS VULTURE..

The vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires of this nearby communications tower.

The communications tower at Lingshan.  This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.
The communications tower at Lingshan. This unfortunate vulture had almost certainly collided with one of the support wires, badly breaking its wing.

Having previously visited the Beijing Raptor Rescue Centre, they were the obvious people to call for advice and 张率 (Zhang Shuai), the head of the centre, said “please catch it and bring it in for treatment – if not, it will die tonight with an open wound in these temperatures.”  She ended the call with “Don’t worry – you will be able to out-run it.”

It sounded easy.  We just catch it, put it in the boot of the car and drive the 100km back to Beijing to the rescue centre.

At this point I regretted not carrying a large box in the back of the car and, with no prospect of finding one on top of a remote mountain, we decided that covering the bird with my thick down winter coat would be the best way to capture it and cover it for the journey back to Beijing.

We began the walk up the hill to where the we last saw the bird and, sure enough, we soon found it.  It was laying on its back with its legs kicking in the air.. clearly in some distress.

The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.
The vulture was clearly in distress as we approached it.

At this point, 吴岚 (Wu Lan) was brilliant.  She ran towards it and covered it with my coat before it had a chance to right itself and scramble away.

cinereous vulture with wu lan
吴岚 (Wu Lan) just after ‘capturing’ the vulture.

Wrapping it in my fleece and covering its head with Wu Lan’s hat, we were able to calm it and, after a couple of minutes, we lifted it (7kg as it turns out) and began to walk to the car.  It was heavy and we both took shifts in carrying it down the hill to the car.

Me carrying the vulture off the hill.
Me carrying the vulture off the hill.  At this point we were hopeful of the bird’s survival.

We wrapped it gently in my coat and placed it in the boot of the car… It was big enough to sit upright in the backseat with a seatbelt on but, with a broken wing, it was clearly best to be in a dark place to minimise the stress.  And so we began the journey back to Beijing, hoping for the best but fearing the worst.  The injury was clearly very bad, with part of the wing bone protruding and lots of blood.

It took around 2.5 hours to reach the raptor centre and, on arrival, the impressive 张率 (Zhang Shuai) was ready – she had already prepared the operating theatre – and the bird was immediately put under anaesthetic to allow a thorough inspection of the wound.

The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.
The Cinereous Vulture under anaesthetic.
The wound was bad.
The wound was bad.  And the bird was injected with fluids to offset the blood loss and dehydration.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) got to work immediately and cleaned up the wound before taking an x-ray to assess the damage.

2013-12-07 Cinereous Vulture broken wing xray
The x-ray revealed the terrible extent of the injury – breaks on both wing-bones with bad splintering.

张率 (Zhang Shuai) looked at us with tears in her eyes.  We knew immediately what she was going to say.  The injuries were too bad to fix and, with a bird this size, a life in captivity would be miserable for a majestic bird that is used to ruling the skies over the mountains of northern China and Mongolia.  It was emotional for us all.  This poor bird had been doing exactly what it was meant to do – patrolling the skies over the mountains looking for food – when it had collided, badly, with an alien, and almost invisible, structure.   There was no option.  This magnificent bird had to be euthanised.

I can’t help thinking that if the support wires had been marked with flags or even painted a contrasting colour instead of the almost unnoticeable silver grey, this bird might have seen them and taken evasive action.  It seemed such an unnecessary, and desperately sad, death.

RIP.

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