Year in the Wild Blog

Days 11 & 12 – Year in the Wild 2013-14 – The soaring vultures at Giant’s Castle

There are two things that every visitor should do at Giant’s Castle camp in the Central Drakensberg. (Admiring the epic scenery is a given – like all parts of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg). The guided tour of Main Caves, with some very impressive rock paintings, is worth while, but what makes Giant’s Castle exceptional is it’s vulture hide.

The vulture hide is a few kilometres from camp, on top of a ridge of sandstone cliffs. It’s perhaps one of the best wildlife viewing spots in the country, because it gives you one of the best chances in Africa to see the Bearded Vulture and the Cape Griffon Vulture.

The Bearded Vulture actually resembles an eagle more than a vulture, but no matter: they are very rare and very beautiful. Just 300 to 350 birds remain in the mountainous areas of Lesotho and the Drakensberg. They are listed as “endangered” by the IUCN, and although they once ranged wide and far across the mountains of Africa, loss of habitat and poisoning has severely restricted their range and number.

Once called “Lammergeiers” – or Lamb Catchers – Bearded Vultures were persecuted by farmers and herdsmen who thought that they killed lambs. In fact, we know now that their talons are to weak to kill anything of a lamb’s size, and instead feed on bones from carcasses. They carry pieces of bone high up into the air, dropping the bone onto rocks below, and then swallowing the small pieces of bone whole. They mate for life, and nest on cliffs above 1 800 metres.

The hide near Giant’s Castle was started as a way to supplement the Bearded Vultures diet with extra bones, as well as give tourists an amazing chance to see these birds up close. To me (and many others) they are one of Africa’s finest-looking birds. Check out the photos below, and decide for yourself. We were very lucky to see a few immature Bearded Vultures flying low over the hide, but the adults stayed away, and I was unable to get photos, even with my 500mm Canon lens. Eventhough visitors to the hide are given a bucket of cattle bones to spread out in front of the hide – as a way to lure the birds – the Bearded Vultures were unwilling to touch down for us. (Instead, the crows and starlings had a field day!)

Giant’s Castle manager Matt Jackson let us go up late one afternoon to the hide for a few hours, and then we spent the whole of the next morning at the hide too, with Ian and Elna Nolte, two visitors from Limpopo province. Such is the demand for the hide that it is often booked up six months in advance, especially in winter, which is when the Bearded Vultures are breeding, and need extra food for their young.

The hide is also an excellent place to see the vulnerable Cape Vulture, and we were very lucky to see one landing and taking off – check out the photos below. These birds have also had their range and number radically reduced by man and his encroaching ways. The chance to see both the Bearded and Cape Griffon Vulture makes Giant’s Castle one of my favourite wild places in South Africa.

But like all wild places and all wild animals, they are under threat. Just this past week, I received a sad and disturbing email from Endangered Wildlife Trust, recording the poisoning of 48 Cape Vultures in the southern Berg. The human animal is a very strange, horrible species sometimes.

– On the afternoon of the 15th of July 2013 an Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Wildlife light aircraft spotted a large number of vultures lying on the ground on New Hope farm, in Swartberg, during a routine game count. Ezemvelo KZN alerted the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the African Birds of Prey Sanctuary (ABoPS), and the partner NGOs visited the site early the next morning. Upon arrival they were greeted by the grizzly sight of the carcasses of more than 48 Cape Vultures and one African White-backed Vulture. Two Cape Vultures were found alive and were treated for poisoning by staff of the ABoPS. Both have fortunately responded to treatment and are expected to make a full recovery.

“Several sheep carcasses found on site are suspected of being intentionally poisoned in order to control jackal predation on new-born lambs. These carcasses, as well as samples from the crop and stomach contents of the dead vultures, were collected and sent to a laboratory for analysis. The subsequent results clearly demonstrate the use of a poison called Carbofuran in the baited carcasses. Carbofuran is a pesticide poison commonly used for destroying worms in crops. This is the worst incident of vulture poisoning in KZN that I have seen in the 12 years I have been working with birds of prey in the province,” said Ben Hoffman of Raptor Rescue, the dedicated bird of prey hospital located at the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary. –

The vulture hide near Giant's Castle...

Inside the hide...the windows are one-way glass, so the birds can't see in, and there are little flaps underneath the windows, with curtains through which you put your camera lens.

How you'll first see the bearded vultures...soaring far away, against the backdrop of the Drakensberg.

Two bearded vultures soaring high...a typical sight near Giant's Castle

Talk about luck! The first photo I took of a juvenile bearded vulture, soaring below the cliffs - having the right camera gear helps a lot!. In my case, a Canon 1Dx and 500mm lens. I was using a bean bag, but a Wimberley type head may have been better.

Juvenile bearded vulture - taken with a Canon 1Dx and a 500mm lens - even with such advanced camera gear, you have to be pretty quick, because the bearded vultures tend to swoop past without warning!

Juvenile bearded vulture

They kept soaring overhead, but never once came down to feed on the bones...although they obviously do sometimes.

Juvenile bearded vulture...check out the red colouration around the eye

See the "beard" under their beak? Hence their name...

The crows...far more plentiful than bearded vultures, but not nearly as photogenic!

A Cape Griffon Vulture coming in to land on the cliff top.

The Cape Griffon Vultures have wingspans up to 2,6 metres wide, and when their flight is captured by fast speed photography, it's incredible to see how much their wings change shape during flight, especially when taking off and landing.

Masters of the air...along with Bearded Vultures and Verreaux's Eagles

The two blue bare patches on a Cape Griffon Vulture's body are apparently able to detect thermals...

Landing on the clifftop...

Check out those wings!

Landing gear down...and flaps up!

For more, go to www.yearinthewild.com and www.facebook.com/yearinthewild. Check out my Flickr photos at www.flickr.com/scottnramsay and my Instagram photos at www.instagram.com/wildscotty. Twitter on www.twitter.com/yearinthewild.

Thanks to my partners Cape Union MartFord EverestGoodyear, and K-Way.

As well as EeziAwnFrontrunnerGlobecommHetznerNational LunaOutdoor PhotoSafari Centre Cape Town, Tracks 4 Africa, and Vodacom.

Conservation partners BirdLife South AfricaBotswana Department of Wildlife and National ParksCapeNatureEastern Cape Parks and TourismEzemvelo KZN WildlifeGorongosa National ParkiSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

6 comments

  • Nice pics Scott, I saw you parked at the camp this weekend and thought you might be visiting the hide. You should’ve come with me for a sunrise hike at 5:30am this morning up towards Giant’s Hut!

    • Hey Merv, would have loved to! Now in Kamberg, and heading to Mnweni tomorrow. Wish I had more time in each place…hope you well.

  • Lived at the bottom of Sani Pass for 11 months some years ago and was priveledged to see Bearded Vultures quite often – magnificent birds!
    Thanks for sharing your adventure

    • Ah, Pam…Underberg area and Sani Pass is so beautiful. Bearded vultures are such magnificent birds…aristocracy of the upper air!

  • Such incredible pics Scott!

    I am loving your updates…

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