Will Goodlet

The Skymasters

Fear the vulture, and the vulture will come. Fear nothing, and you are the vulture.
— Suzy Kassem

Photographing Bearded Vultures in the Drakensberg

There is something amazing about seeing a Lammergeier (Bearded vulture) for the first time. A wordless message speaking across ages. A sense of familiarity, of knowledge, somehow acquired through a common inheritance.

As your foot falls on the stony path, below the splendid bald peaks of the Drakensberg; the only noises are your breath, your heartbeat, the secret trickle of water and the soughing, ageless wind.

You chance to glance upward, and there, cruising across the heavens on silent wings, is majesty, mastery and mystery, all rolled-up into one cogent argument for wonder.

The bird stoops lower, and you feel, rather than hear, that breathless rush of wind. See the exalted yellow /red eye, famous beard and diamond-shaped tail. It hangs briefly, mostly in your mind, and then is gone; one or two wing beats to the distant horizon.

Well, that is how it felt for me at least and that is, for me, the power and allure of the natural world. It is the chance to meet the same places and creatures that my ancestors met. To experience something of their lives, to connect with times gone by and to understand that the world, and nature itself, is the most wonderful gift; a way to recognise that we are all part of the same recurring story - never more and never less.

My first sighting was in the Lotheni river valley in the Southern Drakensberg. It was raining and two birds cruised above me and below the clouds. I heard them, I saw them and I will never forget them. With only 109 breeding pairs in South Africa, they may not be around for much longer.

The next time I saw Lammergeier was at the Giant’s Castle and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

The Giant’s Castle Lammergeier hide has produced some of the best images of these birds anywhere in the world, including the Swiss Alps and Spain. The situation is magnificent, with the broken ridges of the Drakensberg providing the backdrop.

Last Light

The feeding program, not only keeps the birds alive (where the native game is not adequate for their survival) but lures them close to the hide for waiting photographers.

The best times to visit is during the cold mountain winter. May, June, July and August. The breeding cycle coincides with these months and the vultures are on the lookout for more food than usual.

In winter the light is also better, with longer mornings and a low sun. One is also assured of good bright weather with settled winter highs over the mountains and much of South Africa.

I didn't visit in winter - mainly because it was impossible to get into the hide with back-to-back bookings made years in advance. I had to take my chances in early January, with shorter periods of good light, very early sunrises (the birds seem to be active from 9am onward) and the ever present risk of storms and rain ruining the visit.

Luckily, there were still some good opportunities, and the cloud, dramatic light and green scenery made the shots a little different to the norm as well!

The reserve management feed the vultures with cow carcasses supplied by local farmers. The feeding is not just for the Lammergeiers but for Cape Vultures, Jackal Buzzard, Black Eagles, Yellow-Billed Kites and Ravens.

I am certain that some photographic parties also supply carcasses to coincide with their visits, however, it should be noted that the vultures cannot be fed ordinary carcasses as they are laced with antibiotics. Game carcasses, with no trace of medicine, would be ideal.

The management also supply a bucket of bones each day (the Lammergeier eats bones rather than meat) for photographers using the hide. Obviously, if the hide is heavily booked the vultures may not require food at all and may simply pass by. Timing, as always, is crucial.

It is important to mention some of the abuses that result from this baiting. Photographers, anxious to keep the other birds from eating the bones and meat, have sometimes looped wires around bones and pegged them into the ground. This has resulted in a number of dead vultures! They have swallowed the bones whole and are left with the wire and peg dangling from their mouths - slowly starving to death. It is imperative that photographers visiting the hide educate themselves sufficiently and do not engage in activities that would threaten the survival of this already highly endangered species.

Part of the motivation for this poor ethical behaviour is the tendency of the local Ravens to strip and remove all the bones before any vultures arrive. One way to deal with this more effectively, is simply to provide the Ravens with an alternative before putting the bones out - simple pap is sometimes effective. Again, avoid any meats likely to have been laced with antibiotics.

There is no real way of getting around the fact that we are blithely feeding animals here. But I feel the feeding program and the link with photography & tourism is the lesser evil - of course the best solution for the local wildlife would have been not to strip the area of game and not to have settled in the first place. Or just to feed them and never visit.

The hide itself is fronted with glass with hatches for the camera lenses. There is a shelf below the opening and a strong metal tube above it. The idea is that you hang the lenses from the tube using a ball head and Manfrotto superclamp. Most will be equipped with Gimbals, but I’d suggest renting the superclamp and ball head if you don’t have these items.

Quite often birds pass overhead and there are excellent views through the glass, however, it is usually dirty and prevents useful photography. If you take some rags, water and Windolene I am sure that, once cleaned inside and out, one could get great photos through the glass.

The hide has space for 4 photographers, you might fit more but it would be very cramped. You can place the bones anywhere, but it seems that the birds are used to landing on a rocky protrusion about 50m away.

I like to use a range of focal lengths. While 600mm works well for distant birds, it is hopeless for any flying closer. I actually used a Sigma 300-800mm zoom and a 70-300mm on another body. I think the combination of a stabilised long prime (500 or 600mm) and shorter zoom or prime is probably ideal. You should bank on a lot of nerves and excitement and image stabilisation is a useful bonus.

On my visit, we tried a few bone placement strategies. First, scattering them about, then drip feeding bones and finally dumping the whole lot in a pile. We found the pile was the best option, mainly because it was obvious there was a pile of bones and also because the vultures, cruising out of sight, did not see continual human comings and goings.

It had the advantage of attracting a flock of Cape vultures down (they won’t come down to eat unless it is worth their while). I also, think the vultures now associate a parked car with a meal.

Beyond the excitement of photographing the vultures, there are a wealth of other species on hand, particularly in summer! Blackbacked Jackal, malachite sunbirds, red-winged starling and in the restcamp along the river, bush black-cap, black saw-wing, horus and alpine swift, dark-capped yellow warbler, white-eye and various robins. I also heard Barratt’s warbler.

I spent four amazing days at Giant’s castle - I am determined to return!

If you would like to find out more about photographing Lammergeier / Bearded Vulture please leave a comment or just drop me a line.

You can also find out more about the vultures, the feeding programmes and their movements at Project Vulture . You can even donate to the cause!