LEWISTON — Elaine Makas wrestled wildlife into sacks, politely pretended to drink fermented mare's milk, slept in a ger and collected drinking water from a stream.
She spent her summer vacation with vultures, in Mongolia.
Her assignment: Jot down vital statistics while a Ph.D. candidate measured and prodded a juvenile bird stealthily removed from its nest and, if the vulture got snappy, offer a firm, reassuring hand.
"They're actually beautiful — that was the thing that really caught me," she said Monday. "They have on their faces light blue around the eyes, they have these long eyelashes. ... When I tell them how mesmerized I was by the vultures, people look at me like I'm kind of nuts."
Makas, 66, is an adjunct associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College, an Androscoggin County commissioner and former state legislator. The trip from Aug. 5 to Aug. 18 was her seventh with the Earthwatch Institute, a nonprofit that pairs research scientists who need help with volunteers open to doing just about anything.
In Makas' other trips she's dug new nests for leatherback sea turtles in St. Croix, studied dolphins in Hawaii, explored ship wreckage in England and supported a team piecing together scattered skeletons on Easter Island.
"You've already chosen your primary profession," Makas said. "This allows you, temporarily, to be the zoologist, the biologist you always wanted to be."
This summer the Ikh Nart reserve had several ongoing projects. She'd never been to outer Mongolia before. Makas was intrigued by going someplace so unspoiled.
The country's cinereous vultures, or Eurasian black vultures, are the largest vultures in the world, Makas said. They're not endangered, but they are on that path. Adults have a wingspan of 9 to 10 feet and weigh about 20 pounds. Nestlings, juveniles that haven't yet learned to fly, have a wingspan of 8 to 9 feet and weigh 18 to 25 pounds.
"They're kind of like couch potatoes," she said.
Makas was paired with a research team led by a retired Denver Zoo veterinarian to gather information on the birds and outfit one wing with a small vinyl sleeve marked with a number large enough to see from the ground with binoculars.
The sleeves don't impede flight, but "it might be a little embarrassing when you're around the other vultures," she said.
Each day the small team set out with a local Ph.D. candidate, Onoloo Onolragchaa, who was tasked with climbing trees or rocky croppings, sneaking up on the vulture from behind and putting a hood over its head. He'd climb down and take its vitals, pluck a few feather for sexing, draw blood to look for parasites and measure the wings.
"If the bird got a little bit active, I'd be writing with one hand and holding its head with the other," Makas said.
With the information in hand and the sleeve fitted, she and Onolragchaa would stuff the bird in a bag for Onolragchaa to carry back up the tree or rocks.
The team did about 20 vultures in two weeks.
The landscape was rocks and gravel, scrub and trees; Makas said it reminded her of the American prairie. Accommodations, hours away from civilization, were sparse. They slept in a ger, or Mongolian yurt.
Volunteers pick up all of their own costs, including flights. The trip was physically demanding, and she's glad she went.
"I was able to do something that may help to preserve a species, my little role," she said. "I, who do not know diddlysquat about vultures or turtles, could help preserve them."
On her Earthwatch trip list for next summer: Maybe something in the Amazon.