For almost half a century, an obscure street above Ellicott City hasplayed host every year to a rather gruesome gathering.
Each winter, a band of gangly, red-headed creatures with a fancy for freshly killed animals swoops in and sets up housekeeping in the trees and on rooftops overlooking Sylvan Lane, a winding street that traces the rimof the Ellicott City gorge west of the Patapsco River.
They are turkey vultures -- buzzards, to some. And for five months of the year this symbol of death, stuff of horror films and staple of Loony Toons helps greet the day for the dozen or so families who live along the charming, narrow road.
For most of the thousands wholive, work and travel the streets in Ellicott City below, they are invisible. But Sylvan residents have directed more than a few admiringglances at these grunting, hissing birds with a 6-foot wingspan and heavy, stealthy walk.
"They're huge birds and I love to look at them," said Nancy Suter, who shares her winters with the birds along the street. "I stop to look every time I go in or out. When they spreadtheir wings in the sun, they're gorgeous, awesome -- kind of elegant."
The vultures can range from New England to the Falkland Islandsoff the coast of South America. Experts say there are good reasons why some make Sylvan Lane their winter home, often visiting until early spring. Strong drafts, suitable for soaring, push up the gorge to the vultures' perches along the lane. Dead or dying animals can be easily spotted along the river.
Local residents benefit from the arrangement, too. A glance toward the tower of an old church in late afternoon can reward strollers in historic Ellicott City with a view of dozens of the black buzzards soaring gracefully overhead.
"We've lived here all our lives, and they've been here as long as we can remember," said resident James House, 50. "They're really something when you take out binoculars and see them up close. They're pretty big. Andpretty ugly."
Suter, 50, and her neighbor Fred Goldsmith, 62, first noticed the birds three years ago. "But there's more here this year than there has been," Goldsmith said.
In fact, 75 of the red-headed vultures were spotted this month by Henry Stanton, who took an Ellicott City buzzard census this winter for the Howard County Bird Club.
The 2- to 3-foot-long vultures travel quite a distance to spendtheir winters in the county countryside. And once here, they often travel 10 to 50 miles a day in search of food, said Barbara Davis, co-owner of the Wild Bird Center in Columbia.
"It's typical of (many breeds of) birds when it's not breeding season to hang out in roosts where they all gather together in the same treetops," she said. "Theymight look kind of sinister, but they're not going to hurt people."
Their departure is imminent as winter draws to an end.
"It's nice to see that they made this place their home," Suter said. "It'll be a little empty here without them."