Jesse stood along a barbed wire fence, searching the distant mountains with his binoculars. Next to him was a locked gate with an ominous sign: DANGER USAF GUNNERY RANGE DO NOT ENTER. It repeated the warning in Spanish as well. The land beyond the fence was the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, where pilots of F-15s, F-16s, A/OA-10s, F/A-18s, and AV-8Bs were trained in aerial gunnery, tactical maneuvering, LASER use, and more.
Some areas of the range were open to public use once a permit was secured. Getting a permit required a would-be hiker to watch a video about safety and to sign a release form. The release form was very thorough, asking users to initial that they understood that the range posed many dangers, including “permanent, painful, disabling and disfiguring injury or death due to high explosive detonations from falling objects such as aircraft, aerial targets, live ammunition, missiles, bombs, etc.” Other lines warned of venomous reptiles, extreme temperatures, old mine shafts, unexploded munitions, undocumented aliens, electromagnetic emissions, “as well as other natural and/or man-made conditions which are too numerous to recite herein.”
Yes, the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range sounded like a dangerous place to visit. Still, we considered it. We’d planned for me to get the permit from the Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary, and for Jesse to wait in the town of Gila Bend with Laurel; while I didn’t particularly mind venomous reptiles and the chance for permanent disfiguring injury, the range didn’t seem like a great place to take a toddler. But I wanted to find “Jennie” the turkey vulture, and GPS coordinates sent to me by Hawk Mountain’s David Barber revealed that she’d been roosting in the range’s Sand Tank Mountains for several weeks, not too far from the range’s border with the Sonoran Desert Natural Monument. Unfortunately, my hike in the desert wasn’t meant to be. Jennie’s roost was in the middle of the “East Tactical Range,” which was closed to public use due to active training in the area. Could I have hopped the barbed wire fence and made a run for it? Perhaps, but Jennie’s roost was several miles from the road, and considering that I was four-months pregnant, I wouldn’t be able to run as fast as I used to. And I could imagine the headlines: “Military Police Arrest Pregnant Mother for Trespassing on Active Gunnery Range.” I would have to be satisfied searching for Jennie after she left the roost for the day. Data from her satellite transmitter said that she foraged in many areas around the town of Gila Bend; we’d eat some breakfast and look for her there.
After cinnamon rolls and coffee (and after seeing two fighter jets screaming overhead), we headed for Gila Bend High School to look for the location where Keith Bildstein spotted Jennie back in January. It didn’t take us long to locate a single turkey vulture roosting in a large tree (we think eucalyptus, again) in the city park that bordered the school’s athletic fields. This had to be the same tree where Keith had seen the forty roosting vultures, including Jennie.
We scrutinized the bird through our binoculars, and the bird seemed to be scrutinizing us, too. To our disappointment, it wasn’t wearing a satellite backpack. But it afforded me good views of a member of the aura subspecies, something I’d lacked to this point. The vulture’s face seemed to have fewer warty protuberances than my local septentrionalis birds; the red of its head looked brighter, and the bird’s overall appearance was sleeker, cleaner, less ruffled and “hunchy” than the birds at home.
Satisfied with our long looks at the roosting vulture, Jesse and I turned Laurel loose to play in the park. She investigated the sprinklers that kept the grass green before finally climbing onto a swing—a real, big-kid swing, not the kind with baby seats. Jesse and I took turns pushing her while she giggled. Our friend the vulture seemed to be keeping an eye on us. Beyond the fence, the school’s grounds crew mowed the grass and raked the baseball diamond’s infield. A Say’s phoebe hawked insects along the fence line, and white-winged doves cooed Too soon to tell! Too soon to tell!
Finally, the roosting turkey vulture departed the tree and was immediately joined by a second vulture. We didn’t see where this second vulture had come from; could it be Jennie? We watched through our binoculars, but didn’t see anything resembling a satellite backpack. The vultures floated further away—and suddenly there were three more. The five birds kettled together for a minute or two, and then all moved off, out of sight. If one of these birds wasn’t Jennie, certainly they could’ve been birds from the same roost.
Jesse and I loaded Laurel in our rental car and took off after the vultures. We passed agricultural fields and stucco homes; during our drive we spotted a few more single soaring vultures, although it was difficult to tell if any were wearing transmitters. Finally, Laurel fell asleep, and we headed north on route 85 towards Phoenix, saying good-bye to Gila Bend and to all the potential Jennies. Keith and the team from Hawk Mountain plan to place transmitters on additional aura turkey vultures later this spring—perhaps they will have better luck locating this elusive bird!