Soaring with bearded giants among castles

We have just returned from Giant’s Castle. This is the place of emerald-green mountain sides, sparkling mountain streams, Eland and Reedbuck.  A place where the long walks among the huge majestic mountain peaks instil wonder, perspective and humbleness. When sunny, it is a place which sparkles. When misty, it can be intensely moody and ominous when thunderstorms are brewing.  It is a place of dragons and soaring eagles. Its Zulu people call the mountain range, the Barrier of Spears, Ukhahlamba.

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most  amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

Edward  Abbey

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

Drakensberg or Dragon Mountains are characterised by a 1400 metre thick basalt layer on top of sedimentary rock formations resulting in  a combination of steep-sided blocks and pinnacles which conjure up the image of a barrier of spears. The highest peak is Thabana Ntlenyana, at 3,482 metres (11,424 ft).

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

This post shows a number of images taken in and around Giant’s Castle Game Reserve located in the Drakensberg Mountains of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. One of the main reasons for going to Giant’s Castle was to photograph birds of prey from its Vulture Hide. Here a number of rare raptors can often be seen such as Bearded and Cape Vultures, and Black Eagles, and not so rare Jackal Buzzards. These raptors would charm any bird of prey photographer. We booked the Thursday and Monday at the Vulture’s hide. Getting a booking over the weekend is difficult and needs to be arranged way ahead of time because of its popularity.

On the Thursday, we got up at 6h00 because it was overcast. Had it been a clear sky morning, we would have been up at 4h30 or 5h00. A key element of wildlife and bird photography is understanding the habits and behaviour of the wildlife you are trying to photograph. Accurate anticipation of behaviour is fundamental to getting good images. Without prior knowledge of  how nature worked around the Vulture Hide, we got going when there was sufficient light. I was keenly aware of the low quality of light (more the lack of brightness than too much contrast). I was using a long lens (600mm) and needed reasonable brightness to keep down my ISO and  associated image noise. Nevertheless, Helen and I drove up to the hide. You need a 4×4 to get there, especially if the weather turns and it starts to get very wet. Having arrived at the hide, we quickly got settled in, brimming with expectation about what we would see. I had images of Bearded Vultures, Cape Vultures, Black Eagles and Jackal Buzzards gliding in my imagination.

The cost of the exclusive use of the hide for a day includes a bucket of bones. While this is feeding the raptors it is for conservation purposes. Feeding wildlife for photographic purposes is not considered ethical and would not be allowed in a photographic competition. We were at the hide for unusual raptor sightings and great photographs even if they were not eligible for competitions. Without the Vulture’s Hide and given the vastness of the mountain range, the chances of seeing the appointed raptors let alone photographing them would have been very slim.

After a few frustrating hours during which White Necked Ravens and Red Winged Starlings were tucking into the fat and meat on the bones, we finally got our first raptor sighting. As a photographer in a hide you can spend many boring hours waiting. Nevertheless, your adrenalin remains on low burn  fueled by  the knowledge that the raptor will come in silently, quickly and when you least expect it, so you had better be ready. Helen, also a keen birder, plays an invaluable role as spotter calling the direction of the incoming raptor -“2 o’clock high or low over the rocks”. At one point just when I was getting really bored, without warning this Jackal Buzzard  flew up and in from over the edge of the cliff.

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

The Jackal Buzzard usually hunts from a perch, or sometime a hover, so you often don’t see them coming until the last moment.

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

The markings on the Jackal Buzzard are stunning. It has black back and primary wing feathers. The secondary wing feathers are white with a black trailing edge. It has magnificent rufous coloured breast feathers. This particular female Jackal Buzzard was soon chased away by a pair of very greedy White Necked Ravens. It is very clear in nature you pick your fights, and only stay to tangle where you sense you have a clear advantage. The Jackal Buzzard soon vacated the feeding site. These Ravens are wonderful fliers and needless to say their massive beak enables them to tear the meat and fat off the bones.

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

The Ravens are not the only competition for the bones.  Around mid-morning the Black-Backed Jackal arrived hoping for a snatch. I was surprised how timid and cautious this lone Jackal was especially given the wonderful images by Albert and Marietjie Froneman of Jackal trying to steal bones from Cape Vultures.

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

The Vultures hide is located about five kilometres north of Giant’s Castle Resort on the edge of a high ridge with a steep cliff face. The location is fantastic because of the up draught it provides for larger birds such as raptors.

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

When the sun is out the vistas are dramatic and exquisitely beautiful. At this time of the year the mountain sides are exceptionally green. Some so green they look like they should be in Ireland in summer. The Giant’s Castle Resort is in the Giant’s Castle Game Reserve one of the many National Park Reserves. This is a scenic mountain wonderland tucked into the central region of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park overlooking the Bushman’s river. It takes its name from the massive ramparts of rock rising above the resort. The silhouette of the peaks and escarpment against the sky resembles the profile of a sleeping giant.

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

At this time of the year  the weather is highly variable, which for photographers means changing light conditions. Since photographers write with light, our writing materials become ever-changing. About fifteen years ago, just farther north at Injasuti, some friends and I set off in bright sunshine for an afternoon hike in the surrounding mountains. At half of our planned hike time we turned back. The weather changed so fast due to a thunderstorm racing into the area round 16h30. By 18h00 it was pouring with rain and was so black that we had to hold onto each other’s backpacks because we could not see. We were only about half a kilometre from camp but it was raining hard and was pitch black so we had to spent the night on the side of the mountain under a rock overhang in the pouring rain. It was the coldest I have ever been in my life – mid-summer in the Berg.

An increasingly rare and endangered raptor which can be seen at Giant’s Castle is the Cape Vulture. This Vulture has a massive wingspan of between 2.2 metres and 2.6 metres. We did not see these vultures thermalling as they did not need to. Interestingly, they tuck their long necks into their chest feathers when flying presumably to improve their aerodynamic drag. Once they come into land, the undercarriage is lowered, neck extended and they enter finals with purpose.

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Final adjustments before landing.

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

 The Cape Vulture is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. This is a carrion-feeder which specialises on large carcasses. There are times when staff at the Giant Castle resort put out entire carcasses for these birds. The Cape Vulture range is wide-spread over southern Africa but the population is estimated to be down to between 9000 and 10,000 birds. They are usually found near mountains, where they breed and roost on cliffs.

The dining at the vulture’s hide is exclusive. Seldom do you see more than one raptor at the bones at any point. Earlier two White Necked Ravens pushed a female Jackal Buzzard off the feast. Undeterred, and much later, the Jackal Buzzards returned. The female flew in first.

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with HelenPhotographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

The Jackal Buzzard gets its name from its call (weeah ka-ka-ka) which sounds like that of a Black-backed Jackal.

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 The Jackal Buzzard lives in the mountains, hunting in the adjacent savannah and grassland. Its range is vast so it is not considered vulnerable through habitat loss. It is resident in these regions so does not  migrate.

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Once the battlefield was clear was clear of Ravens, the male  graced us with his presence. One aspect I was hoping to see was their noisy aerial displays – perhaps next time.

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The male Jackal Buzzard is bigger than the female, unlike the Fish Eagle. The male has a greater area of rust coloured feathers on his breast which extends up to his neck.

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One of the key reasons for going to the Vulture’s hide was to see Bearded Vulture, otherwise called a Lammergeier. In fact, the name Lammergeier is a misnomer because Bearded Vultures do not kill lambs. Their feet do not have the strength for killing that the eagles have. The Bearded Vulture is sparsely distributed across a considerable range and can be found in mountainous regions from Europe, Asia and Africa. They are considered endangered in South Africa with around 300 known pairs remaining in the Drakensberg and Maluti range.  The next image is of a juvenile whose body is mostly dark black-brown, with a buff-brown breast. Unusually for a bird of prey, it takes five years to reach full maturity. Like all juvenile’s his beard has yet to grow.

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The hide is well placed for the Bearded Vulture flybys. They patrol the  mountain cliff faces gliding with no effort on the up draughts. These Vultures have a wingspan which varies between 2,3 and 2.8 metres. The adult birds have white head and breast feathers but dust-bathing in the iron-rich soils gives them their rufous tone.

Photographic trip to Giant's Castle Vulture Hide with Helen

The vulture’s hide is positioned right on the edge of a steep cliff face which traverses a few kilometres. The prevailing wind appeared to be from the North East up the valley creating a continuous up draught.

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Bearded Vultures flew passed the hide looking at the bones on many occasions but never came into to land. Pity, I was hoping to get some landing and take-off shots of the huge birds of prey.

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 The Bearded and Egyptian Vultures are the only ones that have feathered necks and heads. The Bearded Vultures live on a diet which is typically 85–90% bone marrow. This is the only living bird species that specialises in feeding on marrow. The Bearded Vulture takes bones in its talons, flies high and drops them onto rocks far below to break the bones open for their marrow. The acid concentration of the Bearded Vulture stomach is estimated to have a pH of 1 enabling the bird to digest large bones in about 24 hours. The high fat content of bone marrow makes the net energy value of bone almost as good as that of muscle.

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I find it interesting that the latest Boeings and Airbuses now all have up turned winglets. The aviation industry found  that an upturned extension of airplane wings reduces drag and improves fuel efficiency. These winglets had been used in private and military jets, but were only recently used by the commercial airlines once the higher fuel prices improved their viability. We seem to mimic nature. In many instances we still do not understand her and can seldom improve on her designs.

I am the eagle, I live in high country, 

In rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky,

I am the hawk and there’s blood on my feathers, 

But time is still turning, they soon will be dry, 

And all those who see me, and all who believe in me,

Share in the freedom I feel when I fly!

Come dance with the west wind,

And touch all the mountain tops,

Sail o’er the canyons, and up to the stars,

And reach for the heavens, and hope for the future,

And all that we can be, not what we are.

– John Denver

Seek to understand nature, marvel at its interconnectedness and then let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

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