The chill of the night begins to lift as the red dawn unhurriedly wraps up the nighttime stars in its warm embrace. The vulture raises her sparsely feathered head from beneath a dew speckled wing, blinking in the dawn light. She cranes her head one way and then another before spreading her mighty wings to the rising sun, dew running in rivulets down oily, iridescent feathers, mingling into sparkling drops at tattered wing tips before finally tumbling into the abyss below. The remaining moisture steaming off as the sun climbs higher, the sky’s reds and oranges giving way to an azure blue.
From her perch on an old dead Leadwood tree, amidst a throng of her contemporaries, the vulture peruses her surroundings. She watches as the last of the nocturnal creatures slink back into their daytime homes, into mound and den and cover. She sees a hyena running purposefully over a distant hilltop, and notes this for later inspection.
She hears the dawn chorus as it serenades the rising sun, as hundreds of her smaller relatives pay homage to its life-giving rays, calling out their mark on their tiny territories, calling out to potential mates. But she listens past all of this, she listens for a number of very particular sounds, for any potential clues as to her next meal; the “pha-pha-pha” alarm calls of a disturbed herd of impala, the shrill whoop of an excited hyena, the trumpeting of a herd of elephant, perhaps welcoming a newborn (afterbirth is always a welcomed freebie), the deep bass growl of a pride of lions fighting for a piece of a carcass… she listens for clues.
She watches as the diurnal creatures stretch and emerge, rise from their grassy beds, emerge from their burrows, welcoming the safety the sun brings. But still, she holds to her perch. Energy is not to be wasted in this world and she must wait for her time to soar. She eyes the rising sun, black eyes glinting, waiting for the earth to warm and for the thermals to form.
And then, it is time.
Her broad wings rip outward as she vaults forward, the branch whips upwards as her weight is released. Gravity pulls at her weighty frame and she plunges downward before her powerful wings beat down once, twice, three times. And then she is climbing, the landscape dropping away beneath her.
She peers downward as she soars, probing the currents around her for any upwelling of warm air. And there, she finds one, feeling the lift pull to her left and she banks into it. Feeling the pressure on her mighty chest muscles as she locks her wings in place, correcting only subtly to bank back into the thermal as she feels that pressure release upon finding the edge of the updraft. Soon she is joined by a myriad of her brethren, forming a feathered tornado being pulled high into the atmosphere.
Her huge eyes comb the landscape kilometres below as she sweeps her great head back and forth. Her vision, incomprehensibly acute, picks out the finest of details. She sees a herd of elephants cavorting unashamedly in a waterhole, mud spraying from their trunks to coat their broad backs. She sees a journey of giraffe marching in a single file through a clearing, their shadows stretching far into the west. She sees the black backs of a family of warthog as they shuffle about, spading the earth with their stout snouts. She sees a family of Dwarf mongooses sunning themselves on the side of their termite mound home; the late risers. She sees all this and so much more, the day unfolds beneath her.
Hours pass, the day wears on, the sun rises higher and the temperature does too. Still, she soars. Her eyes scanning the ground as those below seek sanctuary in the shade of the thickets. And then, something grabs her attention! A hoofed leg sticks out from a Guarri bush flanking a dry riverbed. It rocks slightly, shuddering occasionally, as some hidden predator feeds on the torso. She banks from the thermal and raises her wings higher, allowing the wind to pass unhindered, dropping earthward in a lazy spiral. Her behaviour is noted and those around her drop smoothly out of the sky alongside her.
It is a slow journey. She doesn’t dive bomb like an eagle, she’s too heavy. She floats patiently downward, eyes fixed on the prize that awaits her, knowing she may still have to wait for her chance to feed. But she is patient, she will wait. She spirals onward.
Only a hundred metres up and she can finally discern the shape of a leopard hidden below the thick Guarri bush, ferociously tearing into the carcass of an impala ram, too heavy to be pulled into a tree. The leopardess knows her time is limited and she must gorge herself while she can and, if she’s lucky, maybe even lighten the kill to the point where she can hoist it into the nearby marula tree.
But it is not to be, the twisted helix of feathered scavengers descending from the heavens has drawn the eye of a roving hyena. The vulture sees the miscreant loping directly toward the unsuspecting leopard, a large animal moving with purpose, slavering jowls parted in anticipation.
The vulture settles on a dead Knobthorn tree to watch the drama unfold beneath her, watching the hyena beelining directly for the leopard and carcass. It ambushes the leopard, barrelling in in a cloud of dust. The young leopardess, already unnerved by the spectacle above her, flees the scene. The hyena snatching at the carcass mid-run, powerful jaws clamping down on the carcass, neck muscles strain as it heaves the entire carcass into the air, dragging it out into the open. As the hyena heaves at the mass of the carcass, it rips in two, a section dropping to the ground. The vulture’s keen eyes see it all but still, she waits. The hyena pays no heed to the dropped leg and begins to feed.
The vulture’s time has come. She swoops to the ground alongside myriad others, mainly her White-backed brethren. But she is the alpha here. She is Lappet-faced; the largest of the feathered scavengers, and she has first rights to the kill. She hits the ground and wades through the throng, hissing and snapping as they part in front of her. The hyena spares the horde only a passing glance before lowering its head back into the belly of the impala.
She saunters up to the leg lying in the grass and wastes no time. Her massive, hooked bill plunges downward and tears into the meagre meal. Tough skin shears beneath it exposing the tender flesh and, as the vulture begins to gorge herself, the masses encroach around her, their confidence growing with each step.
Soon they descend on her and her prize, too numerous to hold off despite her best efforts. She snaps and claws at them but there are too many. The scene devolves into utter chaos as the feathered mob devours the remains in a cacophony of caws, hisses and guttural growls. The fray lasts only a minute or two, but every scrap of meat is torn from the bone in that time.
And then barely having even started, the feeding frenzy is done. The scraps the vulture has managed to secure for herself are nowhere near enough but will have to suffice for now. It is the fuel that will power her toward her next full meal. She takes a few lumbering steps, spreading her mighty wings once more, and takes to the sky.