Vultures, thousands of them, pack the limbs of the pine and cypress trees at Reed Bingham State Park, their menacing beaks and shiny black feathers forming one of the nation's eeriest natural spectacles.
California has its swallows of Capistrano, Washington State offers bald-eagle watching on the Upper Skagit River, but at Reed Bingham it's vultures.
Hundreds of them live year-round at the park in south-central Georgia, but the population soars into the thousands each winter when migrating vultures arrive from the North.
The park offers opportunities for fishing, boating, camping, mini-golf and swimming, but some visitors come just to see the vultures, said Sam Williams, the park's assistant manager.
"We have a lot of people within a 50- or 60-mile radius who hear about the buzzards and come," he said. "We also have travelers coming off the interstate."
The best times to see the birds are shortly after the park opens at 7 a.m., while the vultures are lounging in the trees and on the banks of the lake, or about an hour before sunset when they return to roost, Williams said.
Swooping in by the Hundreds
In the morning, it helps to have a boat to travel upriver to their roosting trees, but a boat is not essential because many of them bask in the morning sun on the banks, a short distance from a road.
"In the evening, you can park anywhere around the lake and watch them come in the hundreds," Williams said.
The park get about 250,000 visitors a year — about 25,000 of them to see the vultures, according to Williams.
Also known as buzzards, the large black birds perch in the trees or lounge on the grassy banks of the park's 325-acre lake, waiting for favorable updrafts. Then groups of them spiral high into the sky to search for their favorite food — road kill or other decomposing animals.
While their diet may seem distasteful, they help rid the countryside of dead, rotting flesh that could spread viruses and bacteria.
The odd-looking birds are often depicted in movies and cartoons circling above thirsty souls stranded in deserts.
"If you ask most people what they think of a buzzard, they'll probably make a face and make a negative comment," said Chet Powell, the park's summertime interpretive ranger. "But they're very necessary and they perform a vital function."
Road Kill Not Enough
Sometimes road kill just isn't enough for the vultures, though.
They'll eat windshield wiper blades and rubber gaskets around windshields. They pluck out the rubbery strips between sections of a roadway that crosses a dam at the park and they peck holes in the park's foam life preservers.
Reed Bingham has two of the three vulture species found in the United States: turkey and black. California Condors, North America's largest land bird, are the third species. They used to range over much of the West, but now they're endangered and found mostly in Southern California. Turkey vultures, recognizable by their bald, red heads, are found across the United States into Canada.
Turkey vultures and condors have to eat dead animals because their talons are too weak to kill prey.
Their ability to soar on updrafts with little effort impressed Wilbur and Orville Wright, who studied the flight of vultures before making their historic first flight 100 years ago. The brothers concluded the birds twist their wing tips to steer and maintain level flight and borrowed that feature for their plane.
Black vultures, which have gray heads, also eat carrion, but they have stronger talons and sometimes attack small animals. They range from New Jersey to Florida and west to Texas and Arkansas. Less adept at soaring, they have to flap their wings more often than turkey vultures to remain aloft.
Bill Kohlmoos, president of the 800-member Turkey Vulture Society, wonders how the birds survive on contaminated food that would sicken or kill humans.
"There is something in their digestive system that kills virus and bacteria. If we can find out what that is, it could be of tremendous value to human beings worldwide," said Kohlmoos of Reno, Nev., who is seeking funding for a study of the birds' digestive systems.
Turkey Vultures' Sense of Humor
Kohlmoos has also prepared a 10-page pamphlet to teach search-and-rescue teams how to use buzzards for locating victims.
Black vultures often tag along with turkey vultures to take advantage of their superior intelligence, their keener vision and their acute sense of smell, which is capable of detecting odors in parts per trillion, Kohlmoos said. At Reed Bingham, they perch side-by-side.
Turkey vultures are playful, gentle and seem to enjoy living close to humans, Kohlmoos said.
"They have a sense of humor," he said. "Before roosting at night, they play tag, soar into the air and play follow the leader. As the wind dies, they settle in trees."
When severely threatened, they play dead and on rare occasions have been known to spew vomit at attackers, he said.
"It's true, but it's not common," he said. "They can become a pet like a dog, but they can also become a nuisance."
Kohlmoos said he gets e-mails from people who enjoy watching turkey vultures, but complain that they're "rooting on my roof and pulling shingles off."
The Friends of Reed Bingham State Park usually host a Buzzard Festival in February, before the transient birds fly North to nest. This year the plans went awry, so there won't be a festival.
However, Hinckley, Ohio, about 25 miles south of Cleveland, will celebrate the beginning of spring with its traditional buzzard festival in March, when 50 to 60 birds return to nest. Organizers will watch for their arrival around March 15 followed by a larger celebration March 21.
"They're the trash collectors of the air," said Jane Christyson, director of Cleveland Metroparks, which owns the park where the buzzards nest.
If You Go…
GETTING THERE: Reed Bingham is located 6 miles west of Interstate 75 near Adel, which is about 192 miles south of Atlanta. Take exit 39 west on state route 37. Park entrances are well marked. REED BINGHAM STATE PARK: Visit http://gastateparks.org/info/reedbing/ or call the park office at (229) 896-3551. THE TURKEY VULTURE SOCIETY: Visit http://www.accutek.com/vulture/. BUZZARD EVENTS IN HINCKLEY, OHIO: Annual Return of the Buzzards, March 15 beginning at 6:30 a.m., and Buzzard Sunday, March 21, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Both events at Buzzard Roost, on State Road and West Drive in Hinckley Reservation; call (216) 351-6300 for details or click on the buzzard events listed at http://www.clemetparks.com/events/index.asp.