EURASIAN GRIFFON VULTURES
With The Birds No One Loves
I believe it would be safe for me to state that most people would not consider the Griffon Vulture, or any vulture for that matter, to be a serious contender for 1st prize in a world of wildlife beauty pageant.
They are not pin up favourite's like Polar Bear cubs or Pandas, the wet and sandy eyed baby Seal or baby Elephant safely standing beneath her giant mothers bulk, the likes of which grace the walls of so many children's bedrooms the world over.
I doubt, regardless of how much publicity they receive, they will always be associated with death and decay, the funeral birds, the undertakers on the wing. However these majestic soaring leviathans, who are located about as far from our hearts and minds as the Kyper belt is from the earth, are not only magnificent to observe in flight as masters of the thermals, but their place in the food chain is a vital one. Their ability to consume all manner of rotting flesh riddled with bacteria is staggering. The bacteria present in the rotting carcass, is fatal to many that would otherwise come into contact with it, but thanks to the Vulture's ability to consume it rapidly and often en masse, death to other species is kept to a minimum.
From 2003- 2015 I have had the pleasure of living in sunny Andalucia, Spain's most southerly autonomous region, and it was during my first forays into the numerous karst limestone sierra's (mountain ranges) that I began to observe and take an interest in these fascinating birds, most never give a passing thought. I soon realized I was living in the Eurasian Griffon capitol of Europe, my trekking and climbing destinations increased all over the big province, but I was never too far from them, and so began a passion for these graceful giants, that at the time, I had no idea would lead me into all sorts of trouble, including some very close calls where I nearly ended up on the menu, as I began to explore the higher and increasingly dangerous rock faces where they roost and build their nests, often in large colonies. I had long desired to move into wildlife filming as opposed to stills, this species would throw up big challenges and forced me to hone my skills as a cameraman, not to mention keep me in top shape and improve my climbing skills more than I could ever have imagined.
Most birds of prey nest in inaccessible locations for obvious reasons, be that high in trees or ledges located on very steep or often vertical rock faces, and the colony that I had chosen to concentrate most of my efforts on, close to the historical white mountain village of Casares, was one of those, a crumbling limestone nightmare, known as Sierra Crestallina, but I was not going to let that stop me from getting my footage.
Running 4km along it's entire length; from north to south there,is a swathe of low forest, mixed with sharp thorn bushes and dense roots that are a maze to negotiate, and quite a popular hangout for the local wild boar population. Deer and Spanish Ibex often seek shade under the canopy from the searing heat of the summer months, however there is plenty of evidence of rock falls, even on the outer edge, as the whole length is dotted with everything from pea sized rocks to chunks the size of washing machines that have eroded and fallen victim gravity to over the millennia.
It was essential to wear a helmet, as it offered some level of protection, for the small bits, I would have to rely on my agility and luck to avoid the larger chunks that often rained down on a regular basis, especially after heavy rains, as was the case on occasions when I threw my huge pack off in one swift movement and started darting left or right depending on where I thought the oncoming threat was going to pass. On one occasion I truly thought I was toast, but at the last second the large chunk clipped a boulder in front of me and was sent on a trajectory arcing inches over my head, I whipped my head around and watched it landing several meters behind me, the sound of it fracturing and spraying multiple pieces in all directions, left me stunned, thinking that was almost my head, and how what little grey matter I posses up there, along with my pretty well stocked 6ft 2' frame would provide a good meal for a few of the quicker birds in the colony.
The scouting climbs I enjoyed the most, as I was armed with a small pack containing just the bare essentials; water, the best home made vegan energy bars (will post recipe soon) essential binoculars for locating new nest sites, and small first aid kit, phone and spare battery as always. An alpine style approach if you will, moving fast but carefully to cover as much of the face as I could, ever seeking new locations to set up the heavy cameras and tripod etc etc.
Of course the inevitable climbs burdened with a huge 600mm F4 Nikon telephoto lens, plus cameras, tripod and head, as well as the necessary water and food, was a whole different ball game, and a much more dangerous one to play, especially as I was always climbing and filming alone.
On almost all the steeper ascents, I would carry the tripod in one hand, and pull myself up with one hand and my legs, as strapping it to my pack just made it so ridiculously back heavy I would topple backwards, so I soon abandoned that way of carrying the tripod, it was seriously hard work but it gave both the forearms a huge workout, as I was always swapping it from one hand to the other as I snaked my way up the slope.
The Crestallina colony contains around 70 breeding pairs, which is far from the largest colony in Andalucia, but more than enough to keep me busy and fortunately only a 30 minute drive from my front door on the coast. The colony is located on the west face of the sierra and can be accessed two ways, neither option will put a smile on your face, especially when it 30+degrees C which it often is in this part of Spain for much of the early part of the spring breeding season, rising to 40+ degrees as it turns into inferno mode and it nears time for the young birds to fledge.
The longer way to the colony involves access from a track on the edge of the village of Casares, winding up the side of a deep valley, and eventually delivering you up among the forest of pines that cover much of the valley. Here the car is no longer of use, and the trek up the more gentle east face of Crestallina will bring you to the 1000mtr summit. A spectacular view, across the Genal valley, and often Africa is in your sights, depending on the clouds, haze, sea mist and sadly high levels of pollution from the intense shipping activity in the nearby Straits of Gibraltar as well as the high levels of pollution pouring from the stacks of the huge oil refinery built close to Gibraltar. If I was feeling lazy or just wanted a change of scenery I would use this route, but most of the time it was the west face and all the drama that came with it.
I often found myself spending all day watching them soar, camera at my side, asking myself why I bothered to haul it all the way up to these dangerous locations, when I was totally content to just sit and observe and not even reach for it, some pro photographers and filmmakers only ever get to see the action through a viewfinder, for some it makes no difference, but as much as I wanted to capture the best images and later footage, I was very happy to put the equipment aside, and just observe. I found it a totally relaxing experience, just taking the self induced pressure out of the equation, find a rock with a view and sit totally spellbound as these aerial leviathans glided on thermals, swirling en masse in an aerial ballet, spiralling up to such heights that despite their huge size, they became dots in the sky even with binoculars. As the months passed I began to spend long periods of time on the mountain, often cimbing up in the pre dawn hours in summer, in order to avoid the scorching heat that innevitably materialises soon after sunrise, and staying up high well after sundown in order to take adavantage of the stunning evening light that falls on the west facing slopes. The days were long and exhausting, especially during the height of summer when 40 degree heat for days was not uncommon. Varying degrees of shade were on offer, depending on which site I was filming at, on many occasions there was nowhere to hide, and I knew exactly how some of the poor chicks felt in the more exposed nesting sites. On numerous occasions I would stay up there for a night or two having left a few bits of kit stashed away in a weatherproof bag. I did have some fun and games when I did decide to climb down in the dark, after waiting to watch the sunset and shoot some of the stragglers return to their roosts and nests before nightfall, forgetting one's headtorch as I did on one occasion, made for an interesting descent.
In 2011, which is when I finally decided to concentrate most of my efforts on filming, if I was ever going to turn my dream of becoming a wildlife camerman into a reality, as opposed to it remaining my life's biggest regret, I was confronted as most are when they first start out, with the problem of equipment. As far as variation of footage was concerned, I was of course restricted by my own personel equipment, and whatever I could beg and borrow from friends. As a stills photographer my favourite lens was a monster 600mm F4 Nikon, superb for capturing stills of the vultures in flight, or static filming of nesting activity on your DSLR, but not much good for trying to pan with it while trying to maintain focus, especially when they are soaring at high speed towards your location on the rock face. Two main reasons this lens is no good for soaring birds is the lenses shallow depth of field, but trying to view it all on the back of a DSLR was somewhat problematic.
With these lens limitations I concentrated my first efforts on the activity in and around the nests and roosting sites. Due to a narrow field of view on the 600mm, I had to be choosy about how far I was from the nest and the action taking place in and around it, as I hoped to capture the adults nest building, mating and eventually feeding the chick. However I had to take into account how very few places there were available to safely open a tripod high on a rock face prone to rockfalls, as well as there being enough space for me to get behind, and still fill the frame with the action I hoped to film. It was trial and error and it drove me nuts to put it mildly. I would free climb all over the face, often accessing places that nearly trapped me, as I was so anxious to find the best locations to get the view I needed, judge if it was relatively safe to spend long periods on, day after day, was it wide enough ? did the view from it give me enough angle to capture the action ?. Sometimes the space was just adequate, but the angle too acute, other times, a perfect view, but way to narrow support the kit and myself. This went on for weeks all along the 4km length of Sierra Crestallina, but eventually I located about a dozen sites that served me well for the following years, allowing me to capture pretty rare close up nesting footage and soaring sequences, as I am working on a documentary about Spain's amazing Vulture population, and just how vital they are in maintaining a healthy well balanced ecosystem.
A Little Vulture Biology
Prior to the 1960’s all Eurasian Griffon populations suffered greatly over their entire European range, due to cruel practices such as the poisoning of carcass’s by farmers, ( a practice that sadly still continues to this day although in far fewer places and occasions ) victims of shootings, but in the not so distant past they were innocent victims of the ill devised laws drafted and passed by the policy makers in Brussels, whose decision to force farmers in it`s member states to remove the carcass’s of domestic cattle from the countryside, caused a significant drop in numbers and left many of these huge scavengers with a very large void on their weekly menus.
It seems a modicum of sense has seeped into those that made the laws, and the subsequent relaxation of it in some areas has eased the pressure on the vultures. Assistance also came in the form of feeding stations from Andalucia to the Pyrenees, and of course across into France. This involves large quantities of offal and bones that is collected from various slaughterhouses, and then distributed by the relevant government agency personal at the feeding stations that have been set up. Sadly however that little problem may well be surpassed in giant leaps and bounds as in recent years a new menace has just appeared on the scene in the form of veterinary Diclofenac, a drug used to treat the symptons of inflamation / fevers associated with wounds and disease in cattle. For reasons many biolrecently given a license by the European Parliment for use in several EU countries.
This same drug was used widely in India in the 1990's and the result was a devastating decline in the number of vultures on the sub continent, where all 9 species are facing extinction due to the ingestion of carrion from cattle that had died and had been given the drug. Evolution has seen to it that vultures have the ability to safely digest a cocktail of bacteria including Rabies, Anthrax, Plauge, as the birds metabolism is a virtual " dead end " for pathogens. Sadly this man made cocktail even proved too much for cast iron constitution of the vultures, the result was catastrophic, and the EU politicians and civil servants obviously seem to not be paying much attention to this fact, as their licensing of this drug has proved, do they know something we don't ?.
I am in the process of writing a blog entry on the now legal use in Diclofenac in Europe, and particulary in Spain, that is home to 90% of Europe's vulture population, where it was approved, somewhat controrversially in 2013. A replacement drug ( Meloxicam ) has been developed and was tested on captive vultures, Meloxicam affects cattle the same way as Diclofenac, but is harmless for vultures ........... Something is not quite right !!!!