I'm breaking chronosequence today* to bring you this important report from the jungles of Campeche. I've been working with Mauro Sanvicente, a veterinarian turned burocrat turned wildlife vet, to capture and place a radio transmitter on a King Vulture in the area around the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Mauro's been at this for three months, but he hasn't captured any of these elusive beasts. In fact, no one has ever captured a healthy adult specimen in Mexico. Until today.
We've been at the Ejido "Veinte de Noviembre," just north of the Reserve, for three days with no luck. Mauro says it takes a couple of days for the roadkill & cowguts to get stinky, so the third day is usually when they take interest in the bait.
Our trap consisted of a net laced with tiny nooses meant to snag a foot or a claw, placed on the ground and with the meat in the middle. We had almost given up and were talking about what to do tomorrow when I mentioned, in passing, a sound I had heard last time I went over to check the trap. It was kind of a low roar, a sound I thought was associated with a wild boar or a howler monkey.
Mauro asked me to describe the sound, and as I did he got excited and headed to the little tent from where we check the trap. He came back with images of a juvenile checking out our bait, but decided to give them some time (they're extremely cautious) to explore the trap and get their
talons caught in it.
After lunch, we headed back with Mauro in the lead, practically tiptoeing through the forest. Mauro went to the tent, looked out the screen, and immediately signaled me to stop. An adult King Vulture was snared in the trap. Mauro has reached this point twice (one of those times was yesterday) but both times the vulture broke the fishing line noose and got away. We ran over, quickly putting our gloves on to avoid being slashed by a beak designed to cut flesh.
Mauro grabbed the bird, which immediately became completely limp as it began to play dead. I put a tiny hood over its head and Mauro picked it up. The rain began an instant later. We ran to the little space Mauro had set up to work with the bird, and he sent me to get the boxes of stuff we would need out of the car. When I came back, Mauro told me to grab the bird's head and talons so that he could place the radio backpack on it. Feeling the limp bird in my hands, I alternated between worrying that it was actually dying and worrying that it would suddenly come to life and bite my hand off.
It was still raining on us, so Mauro quickly threw a tarp over the stick frame he had built beforehand and made us a tent. He came inside, and we suddenly realized we had done it! For the first time in Mexico, Mauro and I had captured and were about to place a radio collar on a specimen of the King Vulture. We were at the cutting edge of science, and it felt good.
A minute later, I felt the bird begin to heave its chest. It had been holding its breath the whole time! We had not been expecting the bird to play dead like this. In fact, we had been expecting it to fight us viciously and without remorse.
We tied on the little radio tracker backpack, being careful to allow the bird full mobility of its wings. Then began the samples. I held the bird and moved it around for Mauro while he took samples of its parasites, pulled out a few feathers, and measured its wings. Luckly it was very serious about playing dead, because the sampling only got more invasive. As I looked on with a mix of fascination and pity, Mauro took an anal swab, then a mouth swab, and proceeded to extract two vials of vulture blood from the animal's legs. If we were into that, we could cast a really mean spell on someone right about now.
Once the sampling was done, we weighed the bird in a towel and then released it. Well, releasing might be too strong a word, because it continued to play dead even as we walked away:
Once we were far enough away, I filmed this whispered interview... you better turn the volume up, and I hope you speak Spanish!
Over and out
* CHRONOSEQUENCE RESTORED! BOOYAH!