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The King Vulture at Laguna del Lagarto

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

“I’m not driving there” our driver said. “Too bumpy.” So she handed the task off to her older sister who drove us 4-hours on a 50-mile trip to the border of Nicaragua on the rockiest, most pot-holed, unpaved, little-used road to a lodge called Laguna del Lagarto "the lake of the alligator", where most of the guests are robust Germans. It did not disappoint.

The lodge was started 40 years ago by a German man who found this remote spot in the rain forest where he tried to make a living growing crops and raising pigs but was unable to thrive in farming. Some of his German friends came for a visit, enjoyed the remoteness and said “if you build some rooms we’ll bring friends and vacation here”. So he built rooms to house twenty people, and they did come, reveling in the experience, and thus began an eco-tourism business for the owner.

Large open-air covered porches allow unrestricted views into the rain forest. Here, giant Red macaws fly in to announce each morning with raucous voices, and flocks of little Brown-headed parrots arrive early to sit in the trees and natter at each other most of the day, or clusters of Aracari arrive to entertain.

Aracari are common at Laguna del Lagarto

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all served on the wooden porch in air that changes from hot to cool through wet wafts of misty rain. Every meal is served with fried plantains and rice with black beans. The facilities are not air-conditioned, or fancy at all, but each room opens onto its own veranda overlooking the forest where you might be surprised to see a group of coatimundi meandering below.

One day the guide said, “Do you want to see the King vulture for $75?” Having stumbled on this unique bird on the internet, I did not hesitate. “Yes, let’s go”. “No, we must wait,” he said. What I did not know was that the guide had to put a skinned cow head on a nearby hill to attract the vulture. We waited for a few hours. Then suddenly, there was no mistaking the 6-foot black-tipped wingspan as the great King Vulture flew into view and spiraled down onto a nearby hill where its breakfast was waiting. “Pack up your gear now, let's go!", said our guide. Off we trekked down rain soaked red muddy paths and up even muddier hills to go inside a 15-foot long stone-box blind that was dug into the hill so that we could photograph this carrion-eating bird at ground level.

My good guide kindly carried my camera bag up the hill to the blind.

His name is perfect, for indeed he is KING. He has a real Royal PRESENCE and took control of the hill and the cow head, ripping off meat as his crop began to bulge out of his chest, while other regular vultures, little minions half his size, were sneaking in and snatching small bites when they felt safe. He strutted on his stage, Mick Jagger-like, commanding attention. Like most vultures, its head is featherless, minimizing bacterial growth, and it has a bright red "beak wattle" that flaps about, meant to attract the ladies. It was both disturbing and mesmerizing at the same time: carrion eaters doing their life’s work.

King Vulture
The King Vulture standing beside a black vulture.

Sweat dripped off my body in that box, but I was so entranced with the behavior and incredible runway-designer look of this King, the 4-foot tall creature, that I remained totally silent, working, almost in reverence. For me, this bird is as beautiful as any Chanel runway model.

Inside the box blind for the King Vulture.

The Great King Vulture is not endangered but it is the last remaining member of its genus and therefore most unusual.

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Susan Rouillier
Bird Photographer and Painter

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