Rufousnaped Lark

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Giants Castle - Drakensberg

Giants Castle Vulture Hide

What a luck, my old birding bud Phil Penlington phones out of the blue with a offer to go with to the vulture hide at Giants Castle in the Drakensberg mountains of Kwa-Zulu Natal. The waiting list for this hide is roughly 18 months so this was an offer I couldn't pass up. We would be joined by another friend of Phils, Neil Cillie who arrived armed with a monster 600mm lens that made my 400mm look like a "dinky" toy! After my initial decision to use my wifes Suzuki to save on petrol, we rather decided to take the bird mobile with its go anywhere capabilities so that we didnt have to wait for the 08:00 Parks Board lift to take us up to the hide (I'm glad we did after realising we would have had to walk back to camp in the afternoon).

We set off on Sunday morning after I had to work on Saturday to be able to take two days ironic is an extra day and you can take two of your own leave days. Humph nothing comes for free these days! The drive was undramatic with no mishaps along the way. Weather was perfect and we expected freezing weather with possible snow falls at Giants Castle so clothing took up a lot of space in the car. We arrived at Giants Castle at around 15:00 and took a drive up to the hide after seeing that it had been vacated by the previous birders. The road up is fairly rough and steep, I wouldn't like to tackle this in wet or snow conditions and I dont think the Suzuki SX4 would have made it up with the three of us and all our baggage. After a quick look around we decided to go down to reception to check in, luckily we did because we arrived just in time to catch the reception staff packing up to go home....The chalets are really neat and clean and some have magnificent views of the mountains.

View from Chalet 39

Monday morning we were up early, dressed in at least 3 layers of clothing (temperature was 2 degrees) and set off to the hide at 06:00 in the dark, arriving on top at the hide at 06:30 just as the sky was starting to lighten. We threw out the complimentary bones along with lumps of bone meal we had brought with and settled down in the hide for the birds to arrive. The hide faces roughly WSW and the sun paints the mountains gradually until the light reaches the ledge in front of the hide at around 08:00.

The view from the hide

Neil (left) and Phil all set up waiting for the birds

We didn't have to wait long for the birds as the first Bearded Vulture glided past at around 06:40. It was a dark headed juvenile bird which I didn't even attempt to photograph as the light was still bad at that time. The ground ahead was full of smaller birds that were feeding on the bone meal and crows and ravens that were feeding on the cow carcass and fresh bones we had put out. We were to learn that the ravens are actually a pest. They, and the jackals, carried off a few bones and actually harass the raptors and vultures that come in for a meal. We observed White-necked Ravens, Cape Crows, Red-winged Starlings, Cape Buntings, Familiar Chats, Cape Rock-thrush, Yellow Bishops and Buff-streaked Chats all before 08:00. Trying to photograph them in the shadow proved difficult however. The Bearded Vultures made several fly pasts during this time which kept us busy trying to get our settings right and get the birds in focus.

Adult Bearded Vulture - Gypaetus Barbatus

Later as the light strengthened and came closer and closer to the hide, it became difficult to decide where to focus. Vultures were passing overhead, chats were posing on the rocks, even a Gurneys Sugarbird put in an appearance for a few minutes..

Juvenile Bearded Vulture

Adult Bearded Vulture

We were hoping for one of the vultures to land but the ravens harrass them whenever they flew too close. Eventually at around 10:00 an adult bird landed on the furthest ledge from the hide. Everyone immediately strated firing away so that it sounded something like a movie firefight in the hide. All too quickly it was over and the bird took off again.

Adult Bearded Vulture

Adult Bearded Vulture

Juvenile Bearded Vulture fly past

Juvenile Bearded Vulture

Eventually we had so many opportunities for Bearded Vultures in flight we could practice with light settings and even tried to compose photos of the birds with the mountains in the background. But, as I found out the hard way, take as many photos as possible....those "good" shots dont look so good when you download them onto the computer screen so keep trying!!

In between taking shots of the vultures we got some close-up shots of the smaller passerines..

Male Cape Rock-thrush

Female Buff-streaked Chat

Male Buff-streaked Chat

Familiar Chat

Female Red-winged Starling

Juvenile Male (left) and female Red-winged Starlings

Cape Bunting

Male Gurneys Sugarbird

Cape Crow

White-necked Raven

Phil had said that the last time he was there he saw several Jackal Buzzard and hardly any Bearded Vultures, plus it was raining. We had the opposite conditions, sunny with lots of Bearded Vultures and only one Jackal Buzzard visited in the two days we were there..

Jackal Buzzard

Later in the day, after lunch, we got our first Cape Vultures....they preferred to glide past checking out the fare with only one adult and one juvenile actually landing. We noticed that the Bearded Vultures seemed to come closer when the Cape Vultures were on the ground.

Adult Cape Vulture

Cape Vulture landing

Cape Vulture

Once the Vultures were on the ground the Ravens began to pester them and even made contact as they dive-bombed them. Being intelligent birds they used one bird to distract the vulture while another flew off and hit them from behind. The vultures didn't appreciate this attention and took off again after a short while....

Cape Vulture eyeing the White-necked Ravens 

Cape Vulture being dive-bombed by White-necked Raven (1)

Cape Vulture being dive-bombed by White-necked Raven (2)

All too soon the first day was over, the sun had traversed around to shine almost in our faces and chances of good photos had dwindled accordingly. On the way back to the camp Neil alerted us to some Oribi (which are very rare antelope) on the hillside near the hide. We managed to get some decent photos before they ran off over the ridge.


As we arrived on the outskirts of the camp we spotted a pair of Red-necked Spurfowl which froze on the road verge, allowing us a chance to get some record shots (lifer photos for me).

Red-necked Spurfowl

Day two brought no new species but allowed us more opportunities to practice our photography skills and get more flight shots of the Bearded and Cape Vultures. As Murphy would have it the Hide was swarming with Vultures on the ground close to the hide as we were making our way home.....I really wouldn't recommend that other birders go to the hide, it is really not worth the effort (and it will make it more available to us if you don't ;-))


AJS said...

What an amazing spot! You must be thrilled with the shots you got, they are fabulous!!

Anonymous said...

Wow!! Just ... wow!! Bearded Vultures are my all-time favourite birds for a very good reason!
Thanks for these amazing pictures. Oh, and the rest of the birds and beasts are nice, too. It's just that Bearded Vultures ... you know ... I mean, BEARDED VULTURES!!

Cheers, Jochen