The Bearded vulture hide in Giant’s Castle National Park is sited on the eastern section of a terrace on the edge of a plateau which falls away into the Bushman’s River valley some 700 metres below. The hide is a perfectly positioned to observe and photograph a variety of birds in their natural environment.
“Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?” ~ David Attenborough
In this post I show a selection of birds which flew past and around the hide. The main attraction for most of the birds was the bones that we put out on the terrace. The bones were placed to attract raptors but many other birds, mostly insectivores, sought the fat on, and marrow in, the bones.
Several pairs of Greater striped swallows flew around the hide each day. We assumed they were hawking insects attracted by the meat and fat on the bones. Insects must also have been swept up along the ridge by the updraft from the Bushman’s River valley.
The bones were dominated for most of the day by the White-necked ravens and the Red-winged starlings. These two species competed with the larger ravens frequently pushing the starlings off the bones, but the ravens could not protect every bone. Every time the ravens bullied their way onto the bones the starlings would fly up and move to the next closest unoccupied bone.
“Birds chirping around you is a beautiful realisation that life is incredibly good. Let this sound be a gentle break in your routine.” ~ Hiral Nagda
The White-necked ravens ruled the bones when the major raptors were not present. They fed on the meat and fat on the bones during the morning but once the wind strengthened in the afternoons the ravens preferred to folick in the wind and updrafts.
White-necked ravens were very playful in the afternoon winds. They sparred with each other mid air and liked to dive bomb each other. They are wonderfully skilled fliers.
“Don’t just fly – soar!” ~ Kelly Markey
White-necked ravens were surprisingly strong and often flew off with large bones to feed in peace.
For about an hour one morning we were visited by a lone Yellow-billed kite. Kites are also very accomplished fliers who relish the updrafts and strong winds. While Yellow-billed Kites feed mainly on mice and rats, they will eat almost anything they can scavenge.
On occasions this lone Yellow-billed kite flew straight at the hide providing some wonderful photographic opportunities. Its forked tail was doing most of the lateral control. You can differentiate the Yellow-billed from the Black kite as the latter as a black tip to its beak, otherwise they look very similar.
Each day we saw Jackal buzzards fly in to feed on the meat, fat and marrow on the bones. On one occasion we saw this fledged juvenile Jackal buzzard fly by, but it did not land. It was much more skittish than its parents.
The adult Jackal buzzards were quite habituated to the hide and as soon as they knew there was food on the terrace they would fly in. The Jackal buzzard adults always flew to the outermost point of the terrace and had a good look at the activity around the hide. Once satisfied that it was was safe they would fly closer to feed on the meat on the bones.
“I look in wonder at a raptor with wings fully extended. The span always surprises me and slotted wingtips look like fingers playing with the wind.” ~ Mike Haworth
Besides the Bearded vultures, Jackal buzzards were the other main raptor to visit the terrace in front of the hide. There was a pair that visited the hide daily, usually arriving singly. They were not intimidated by all the ravens and often attempted, and succeeded, in flying off with a bone to feed away from all the competition.
By mid-morning the temperatures had risen and the updrafts had developed enabling the Bearded vultures to start their daily “fly-bys”. Some “fly-bys” were very close and other some distance away in the centre of the valley. A mature Bearded vulture has white to rust strained head and neck feathers. This Bearded vulture flying above the Bushman’s river valley had relatively white head feathers signalling that it was not an old adult whose head would have been more oxide stained rust-brown in colour.
“Tame birds sing of freedom. Wild birds fly.” ~ John Lennon
A fledged juvenile Bearded vulture had a good look at the bones on the terrace in front of the hide while flying by. Its black neck and head feathers showed that it was about two to three years old. The colour of the head feathers changes and turns whiter as it matures. Its body plumage also changes progressively from a pattern of black, brown and white blotches to rust-brown and white plumage.
Often the Bearded vultures would fly very close to the ridge and the hide. When doing so they had a good look at what is inside the hide.
Over the six days we were in the vulture hide, a single Cape vulture visited on two occasions. It invariably approached from high up in the Drakensberg mountains. The Cape vulture tucks its neck in when flying to retain longitudinal flight balance much like herons.
It was alway a thrill to see this impressive vulture coming in to land. Their final approach took them to the furthest point of the terrace. This vulture was not intimidated by one or two ravens but was not comfortable with a gang.
On occasions we saw four Bearded vultures flying above the Bushman’s river valley. Each vulture flew singly and they seldom flew in pairs and never in a group.
There was plenty of activity on the terrace around the bones and plenty of “fly-by” activity from the ravens, starlings and raptors. The frequent “fly-bys” gave me many opportunities to practice my “bird in flight” photography. The sun rises from the east which was behind the hide so by 7h30 it had begun to illuminate the terrace. The direction of the light was perfect in the mornings when photographing birds flying past the hide.
“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” ~ E. O. Wilson
The afternoon light became more problematic at it progressively fell behind the birds so timing and position of the subject became more important. Raptors are larger so shooting needed relatively lower shutters speeds(1/4000sec) but the smaller ravens and starlings required high shutter speeds (1/6400sec and higher) to freeze their wing movement. I tried to keep my shutter speeds as high as possible to try and capture the sudden surprise interactions. The ravens and starlings were active around the hide all the time but the raptors seldom gave any signal they were flying by or flying in so we had to remain alert all the time. On rare occasions we heard a Jackal buzzard calling in the Bushman’s river valley before in approach the terrace.
“Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres : such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise that live by voices inaudible to you.”
~ Robert Macfarlane
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.