SPOT CALLING THE KETTLE BACK

A lively wind was gusting straight at the window beside my desk, limbs swaying like they wanted to bust loose. (The wind knows it only makes them stronger.) That can be entertaining sometimes, but not when you’re trying to read. For an hour I’d been sitting in my usual spot, feet up, with that window’s splendid distraction at my back, and the end of another chapter made it start to feel like nap time. Lulled to midday slumber by the breathy roar of an ancient Joshua, definition of the good life.

Then, being fundamentally a creature of impulse, I glanced hard, back up over my head out the window, so quick if I’d been standing I might have dizzied. It was involuntary, prompted by no external stimulus I was aware of — until a vulture materialized right where my eyes were cast. It had glided low over the roof unseen, beating into that wind like a long-haul truck up a grade, and the moment it came into sight it entered lift above the wall. While I was gathering to swivel around and follow it, it shot up thirty feet and stalled, then dove out of sight in desert brush beyond.

Two more vultures soon appeared in similar fashion, plus another from around the side sweeping across at eye level. They also paused to absorb energy from deflected wind before diving through it into the bush. Might more be coming?

Tradition bestows insightful epithets for these unfairly maligned soaring avatars, depending what they’re up to. When perched glumly in trees waiting for something to die they’re a committee. Huddled on the ground around a mess of carrion, they become a wake. And flocks of vultures on the wing are called kettles, which unlike kettles of hawks, can number in the hundreds.

As more and more vultures arrived and repeated this performance, I finally grasped the obvious and ran to look out the other end of the house, where they’d been coming from. There, a dozen tail enders were staggered, some still a quarter mile downwind, all merging toward this lone spot while scarcely flapping a wing.

One small house and a few big trees smack in the geographical heart of nowhere amount to a worthy landmark for birds in a wind. Air not pushed up over the obstruction flows around it and sucks in behind, forming an invisible stream of convergence like the wake behind a boat. The well-known Tehachapi shearline is a perfect example on a far larger scale, a turbulent zone downwind of Bear Mountain with the energy to propel a sailplane miles either way, eighty knots at cloud base in the strong stuff! These feathered exemplars had recognized our little bump’s atmospheric significance, somehow, and angled in to score. A rip this size delivers not altitude, but energy sufficient to carry a raptor – at less than one tenth of our wing loading – slowly into the wind and straight at the obstruction itself, where things get more interesting.

Next question, why did they all dive afterward, down between the bushes? No way to know, so we may as well speculate.

First, vultures fly low more than other soaring birds because they have no need of surprise. Their prey is already dead, and slow beats fast when scouring camouflage for detail that’s melting into it. Also, scattered brush around here averages head high, blocking much of any surface wind, and five-foot wings below that height can tease the top of ground effect as well…

So their strategy may have been to absorb the energy where they could, then carry that inertia quickly into the relative calm below and translate it to forward movement. A clever inversion of ‘dynamic’ soaring, you could say, extracting distance instead of speed from an abrupt change in ambient wind. Only long later, far upwind, would each individual pull up when the time came, grudgingly flap those wings again, and resume their endless search for other ways to cheat.

Last question, what do you suppose prompted my lurching glance overhead to sight that first vulture? (Or was it the first?) Could be I sensed not one individual, but the whole blessed kettle homing in like an avian flotilla, laden with knowledge of the sky we can witness and admire, but never possess. I knew they were coming the same way they knew where to come: blind intuition, unwitting awareness, subliminal perceptions no one will ever understand. It’s why this is such a fun planet.

That’s the only time I’ve seen a full kettle of big ominous scavengers disappear into the bush at my particular spot, so it may not happen again for a while. It served them well before, though, so we know they’ll return eventually. My task is to be ready when they do, to observe, report, and honor. One of several reasons there’s a permanent ladder affixed to the roof these days.

Even got a bed up there… Hope I’m not napping when they come!