On our trip from Dibang Valley to Jeypore, we spotted a group of vultures feeding on a carcass. It turned out to be an amazing opportunity for us to observe them and get good pictures. For someone like me, whose closest encounters with vultures were with the Long-billed Vultures and Egyptians in Ramnagar, it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to learn more about vultures. It was almost like an offline workshop for Vulture identification for me!
Here’s how I went about identifying these vultures. Be warned that I am a dunce with identifying raptors (I will probably find telling one Chinese from another easier!). So if any of you spot an error in this, give me a shout, I will get it corrected.
I have numbered them – they are in a parade ready for identification!
The most obvious identification traits are for #2. It’s near black plumage overall is a clear indication of a White-rumped Vulture. While the overall plumage is black, the secondaries are slaty-grey. The bare skin on head and neck is dark brown-grey with pink or maroon tinge. It also has a whitish ruff.
The indistinct smallest vulture in the group (#8), is a juvenile white-rumped vulture. The key to identification is a dark brown plumage, but apparently it can be a medium brown plumage (darker than slender-billed vulture). Also it has very few streaks on the upper wings and coverts (very much like the adult). Both the bill and cere are completely black. Unlike the adult WRV & the slender-billed, it has a light brown sparsely feather neck.
Moving on, the next obvious feature that captures the eye is the near whitish feathery necks of #1, #3, #6 and #7 (some of them don’t show the neck clearly in this frame, but other features are distinct). This clearly makes them either Griffon or Himalayan Vultures. What distinguishes them as Juvenile Himalayan Vultures, is the dark-brown upperside with prominent whitish streaks.
The lesser and median coverts are almost white in sub-adults, because of the prominent white streaks. These look more like Juveniles, since you can still see some brown in the lesser and median coverts. The flight feathers of a juvenile also end in a sharp point, which can be observed here.
For the records, the overall body plumage of the Adult Himalayan Vulture is a very pale buffy-white. The sub-adult is more of a gradient between the juvenile and adult.
The flight shot given below shows the upper side of the juvenile Himalayan vulture. Note that the overall plumage is very dark. You can clearly see the prominent white streaks in the upper wing coverts.
Another distinguishing feature of the Himalayan vulture is the Uniform dark brown underside with very prominent white streaks. This flight shot of the underside shows how majestic this bird looks from down in flight!
Moving from here, we have 4 similar looking vultures – #4, #5, #9 and #10, all of them having blackish, sparsely feathered head and neck, slender-billed vultures. Out of these #4 and #10 look like Adults, with pale brown upper side and mantle (compared to dark brown with distinct white streaks in the Juvenile). The lesser and greater coverts have broad pale tips, which is very distinct in these cases.
#5 and #9, have darker upper side and mantle, Darker lesser and median coverts with pale streaks. But I noticed that the bill and cere are black with pale culmen (similar to an adult). The also have broad pale tips to all upperwing coverts. They also have prominent white down feathers on the nape and upper neck. So I think these two are sub-adults.
That ends the Identification Parade! However there is another factor that helps in identification quickly in the field – the size. Out of the three species we have seen here, the White-rumped vulture is the smallest (75 to 93 cm) followed by the slender-billed vulture (80 to 95 cms). The Himalayan vulture is among the largest and heaviest bird found in Himalayas (103 to 115 cms). The difference in size is obvious in the following image, even though all the Himalayan vultures in this picture are juveniles!
The #1 Himalayan vulture looks bulkier than the #2 White-rumped vulture. The #3 Himalayan vulture looks clearly taller than the #4 slender-billed vulture adult.
As a final note, I want to clear up the confusion created by the renaming of the Gyps vultures in the recent past. The following table gives the old and new names.
|Old Name||New Name||Scientific name|
|Eurasian Griffon||Griffon Vulture||Gyps fulvus|
|White-rumped Vulture||White-rumped Vulture||Gyps bengalensis|
|Long-billed Vulture||Indian Vulture||Gyps indicus|
|Sub-species of Long-billed Vulture||Slender-billed Vulture||Gyps tenuirostris|
|Himalayan Griffon||Himalayan Vulture||Gyps himalayensis|
The Indian Vulture and Slender-billed vulture were earlier put together as a Long-billed vulture. The slender-billed has recently been classified as an independent species. They look very similar, but can be told apart by a trained ornithologist (not me 🙂 ). But we don’t need to bother to try and tell them apart, since they have non-overlapping distribution ranges. Though there is no telling that confidently, since some juvenile Himalayan vultures have been seen in Hesaraghatta this year & some were seen even in Kerala recently!
1. Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org
2. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, Second Edition by Richard Grimmett, Carl Inskipp, Tim Inskipp
3. Field Identification of Asian Gyps Vultures – OBC Bulletin Number 25