Giant's Castle NR.
These are magic words in the birder's vocabulary for they evoke delightful images of arguably our most vulnerable vulture, the Bearded Vulture, for those who have visited this quaint little hide in a KZN nature reserve situated in the spectacular southern Drakensberg mountains near Mooirivier in Natal.
Getting to put your name down for a day or two in the hide that can only house three photographers at a time is not easy as tourists, birders and wildlife photographers queue up to utilise the well-designed surveillance shelter. Weekends and holidays are just impossible. The trick is to take what is available even if it is many months into the future... The cost is expensive. The flat rate of R750 for a day is worth it, though.
I got lucky!
Tobie Pretorius, a young birding friend and CAR partner managed to book the vulture hide for two days earlier this month and he needed someone to share the experience with him. I jumped at the opportunity… This was not a chance to let slip through the fingers!
We got the key to the hide from reception early Sunday morning together with a 20 litre bucket half-filled with large bones stripped of most of the meaty bits. The drive up to the hide requires a 4x4 as the road gets steep and requires some “rock-crawling” in places. The parking place is some 200m away from the hide, but one can stop very close to the hide to off-load equipment before parking the vehicle.
This is the reverse view to the hide: the "restaurant" is a flat top surrounded by steep cliffs where I stood to take this shot.
My previous experiences with Bearded vultures were fleeting sightings of individual birds, usually against sharp light so that only a silhouette remained captured in my mind. The Lammergeier hide is right at the top of the hill. This often facilitated unusual views of the breaded vultures as they ride the thermals at different altitudes.
The fly-bys are often very close and happen regularly, giving one ample opportunity to practice your bird-in-flight shots.
I saw at least 11 different individuals in the five days spent in the 'berg. At one stage we had nine birds simultaneously aloft and flying around the hide. That is an incredible experience when seeing just one bird is considered special. However, in two days at the hide this juvenile bird was the only one to land in view of the hide, but not where we put out the food. We did not actually see the landing, but I got the take-off shot!
Juveniles are incredibly vulnerable to a variety of threats. Of the 17 birds that were fitted with satellite tracking devices during the past four years as part of a special research program, six have died... all of them juvenile birds and five of these are thought to be due to poisoning, one died of a collision with power lines.
Although the bearded vultures tend to be relatively singular when sighted, I got very excited when these two birds performed a coordinated fly-by. I'm also happy that the resultant photograph bears some resemblance to the event! Often when one experiences this sort of thing in the wild, the pix turn out disappointingly poor...Some new fun facts about the Bearded Vultures:
The mood of a Bearded vulture can be told by the coloration of the red frame around its eyes. The more excited the bird is the more bright and intensive becomes the red color.
22 years is the average lifespan of a bearded vulture in the wild, but they can live beyond 40.
Male vultures become mature at the age of 8 or 9, females one year sooner, which is among the highest age for any raptor in the world to start reproducing.
A breeding pair rears only one chick per year. This hatchling must be fed meat which is very difficult to find naturally nowadays. The few vulture restaurants scattered throughout its range provides some respite, but they too contain their own challenges like large resident raven populations that have come to defend these bounties against the bearded vultures with a noticeable degree of success.
The entire southern African population is now estimated to be less than 400 birds and the population is continuing to decline by 2.5 percent per annum. The total number of active nest sites have declined from an estimated 240 in the early 1980’s to 92 at present.
Degradation of habitat, disturbance in breeding areas through human activities and poisoned carcasses aimed at other "pests" are but a few of the many threats facing this iconic bird, causing a 2.5 percent decline in its population year-on-year. This means within 50 years their numbers will dwindle to below 100 birds!