Offside: Vultures at the seaside
We’ve all seen some unusual things, from seabirds to lovebirds, in the dunes of the Flemish coast. But one thing you’d never expect to see is an Egyptian vulture, spotted by a half dozen bird watchers over the polders of Zandvoorde near Ostend last week and reported on the website www.waarnemingen.be.
The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is a small Old World vulture, sometimes called the White Scavenger or Pharaoh's Chicken. It's one of the few birds that uses tools, in this case dropping rocks on the eggs of other birds, which it then eats. It's also special for being the only surviving member of the genus Neophron.
"The bird in flight can be confused with a stork," explained Dominique Verbelen of Natuurpunt. "But unlike the stork, vultures don't have a long neck and do have a typically wedge- shaped tail. The photos taken on Friday show an unmistakeable Egyptian vulture."
The vulture's usual habitat covers Southern Europe and North Africa to South Asia and into the Indian subcontinent. So what was it doing in West Flanders?
According to Natuurpunt, winds blowing from the southeast have carried birds far beyond their habitual breeding grounds in southern Europe. There have also been sightings of such oddball visitors as the whiskered tern (in Zoutleeuw and Tienen), the marsh sandpiper (in East Flanders and near De Haan), the gull-billed tern (in De Haan and Ostend) and the charmingly named red-rumped swallow (in Zeebrugge).
For ornithologists, one of the most exciting windswept wanderers was the sociable lapwing spotted in Merelbeke, East Flanders, some days ago. That rare wading bird is an endangered species and usually spends its time in places like Israel, Eritrea and Sudan.
As for the Egyptian vulture, it's not a danger to lost children at the beach. Its main diet is, like all vultures, carrion, but it also has a taste for animal (and human) faeces. One of the places you're most likely to see it is hanging around landfill sites or rubbish dumps.