Birds are amazing creatures. With around 11,000 species, they can make us smile, laugh, and watch their behavior in amazement. But if there’s one group of birds that commands the most respect, it’s the bird of prey – also known as the raptor. One such raptor is the Bearded Vulture.
With a wingspan of up to 2.8 meters / 9.2 feet – longer than the height of a door! – the Bearded Vulture is a truly impressive bird. With wings like that, this bird of prey can relentlessly cruise the skies over its thousands of square kilometers of territory. With its perfect eyesight, the Bearded Vulture searches for very unusual food: bones. It is the bones of larger animals such as ibex, chamois, and sheep that make up around 85% of its diet.
This predator has a particular fondness for large thigh bones full of marrow. Although it can swallow incredibly large chunks, sometimes it is necessary to split the bones. To do this, the Bearded Vulture has developed a unique strategy. It carries large bones or even whole skeletons up high (sometimes 80+ meters / 260+ feet), from where it drops them onto rocks. It repeats this until the bone breaks into smaller pieces. The rest of the work is then done by the extremely powerful digestive juices of its stomach.
In southeastern Europe and Pakistan, vultures break up tortoises in a similar way. The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus is said to have been killed by a falling turtle shell dropped by a vulture. Perhaps he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or perhaps the story is just a tragic myth, like that of his Oresteia.
With the possible exception of Aeschylus, though, the Bearded Vulture poses no threat to people or livestock. Yet it virtually disappeared in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. This was due both to its direct persecution, the destruction of nests, and the laying of poisoned baits intended for other predators.
Nowadays, this majestic predator is beginning to return to the skies of some European mountain ranges, such as the Alps and the Pyrenees. In the Alps, a group of 50 individuals was released between 1986 and 1993, which formed a viable population. Even so, it is still considered near-threatened today.
I have wanted to see and photograph this bird for a long time. Before, I had only seen it once in Lesotho, Africa. Last week, however, everything finally fell into place, and I went with a bunch of friends to see the vultures. These birds cover a vast territory in their search for food. Still, there are places where they can be spotted with a bit of luck. Our destination was a well-known site in the Swiss Alps.
The morning after arriving at the site, my friends and I took a spot right on the edge of a cliff, about 2350 meters / 7700 feet above sea level. The sun was shining, and slight wind was blowing. The conditions were almost ideal. We chose the spot deliberately because large birds, like eagles and vultures, like to take advantage of the rising thermal currents on which they can be carried up high. And here was just such a place.
There was nothing to do but wait. We were prepared for a long day in freezing weather with an uncertain outcome in sight. Yet it didn’t take half an hour before an unmistakable silhouette appeared over the horizon – wide wings, five “fingers,” and a long tail shaped like a wedge. We immediately abandoned photographing the common Alpine Chough and pointed our lenses at the growing silhouette on the horizon.
The vulture was flying directly toward us. It passed a steep rock face and headed for the rock ridge to our left. The color of the rock exactly matched the color of the bird’s feathers. I silently scolded myself – why I am not standing 30 meters more to the left?! I would have been closer, and the vulture would have flown right over my head. Still, my excitement was immense. It was like I was back in the days of flying, prehistoric monsters.
Not long after this pass, the silhouette of another raptor appeared in front of us. This time, it was the king of the European sky, the Golden Eagle. With a wingspan of over two meters, it is also a magnificent bird of prey.
At first, it looked like our cards were going to be filled rather quickly during this trip. But fortune is fickle. For the next many hours, we stood still with our eyes fixed on the horizon, searching in vain for any activity. But there were no vultures. They were probably dozens of miles away, searching for food. It’s not easy to find something to eat in the winter. And sometimes, it’s not easy to find something to photograph.
When the sun went behind the mountain, it started to get much colder. We were starting to pack our tripods and cameras when another silhouette of the Bearded Vulture suddenly appeared in the valley below us. It flew by close as a reward for our perseverance. A few moments later, we watched as it glided away on huge, wide-spread wings.
That was the last we saw of the vultures. My friends went to the hotel, and I slowly prepared for an adventure of a slightly different nature. I had planned to spend the night in a tent in the mountains. I wanted to get some night shots and also experience something more intense than a hotel bed. The weather forecast was not very optimistic. I ultimately decided to forgo the exposed, higher elevation spot and set up my tent on a safer spot more in the valley.
About an hour after I slipped into my warm sleeping bag, a blizzard howled outside. The ultralight tent, unsuited to such conditions, was tossed about in gusts of wind. The noise it made didn’t let me sleep. Not even earplugs helped. Moreover, wind-driven snow was penetrating the tent. This night really wasn’t a short one.
Unfortunately, the snowy conditions lasted all day. Photography was basically impossible. But at least I wasn’t going home empty-handed. I had several usable images of vultures, eagles, and countless images of choughs and a few other species on my memory card from the first day. Still, there are a lot of unrealized shots in my mind, for which I will return here or to other mountain peaks one day.
Behind the Camera
Photographing birds in such vast spaces as high mountains calls for long telephoto lenses. The ideal lens here would be the one I’ve listed as #1 in my overview of the best telephoto lenses for Nikon, a certain 600mm f/4. Unfortunately, I didn’t have this lens available, and instead I had the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR mounted. Still, it was a good focal length for some more “environmental” shots, and the Bearded Vulture still flew near enough for me to get a few close-ups. Not to mention that the light weight of the lens left me quite mobile.
Shooting in freezing weather may not be ideal for a photographer, but it makes using telephoto lenses much easier. The cold air is as clear as optical glass, and distant objects remain nicely sharp. In fact, warm air is one of the biggest sharpness killers of your telephoto lenses due to atmospheric distortion.
How to deal with exposure values in these conditions? Not that I don’t trust my Nikon Z9‘s metering, but I didn’t see a reason to shoot in anything but full manual. Dark rock and glowing snow in the background could easily fool the camera. Manual exposure settings are my preference for consistent and predictable results.
I alternated between f/4.5 and f/5.6 depending on the light. I kept my shutter speed to at least 1/1000 second regardless of the light, because I knew I didn’t want any motion blur in the subject. At these values, I was getting an ISO of about 100 most of the time, although I increased it to ISO 640 when the sun went behind a cloud.
I find the camera’s live histogram to be an excellent aid for getting the exposure right. With your eye at the viewfinder, you check the lightest and darkest spots in the histogram and immediately see if you need to change your ISO. Most of all, I made sure to avoid overexposing the sunlit snow.
Normally, I prefer a hefty tripod with a gimbal for wildlife photography, but I was going with a lightweight setup during this trip. I’ve taken a liking to the Peak Design Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod for its good balance of stability, size, and weight. I fitted its legs with metal spikes to keep a stable platform in the icy conditions. However, I replaced its original head with a FlexShooter Pro Ball Head using an adapter. This isn’t the same as a full gimbal, but I found it sufficient for the slower-moving Bearded Vulture.
And that covers it for my trip to photograph the Bearded Vulture! Not everything turned out perfectly – I’m still shivering a bit from my night on the mountain – but it was highly rewarding nevertheless. I hope you enjoyed this look behind the scenes. This week, I’m wishing you good luck and good light with the photo you’ve been chasing.