Go where the birds are. One of the best sites in South Africa to photograph Bearded Vultures is at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge’s Vulture Restaurant. If you have a limited time period, and can’t spend days waiting for a moment to view these rare and endangered birds, Witsieshoek provides one of the most predictable places to see them. At 2220m, and looking straight into the face of the Drakensberg’s Amphitheatre, Witsieshoek is in natural Bearded Vulture territory. The birds are attracted by regular and respectful feeding, and photographers seldom leave the area without good sightings.
Have patience, and pick the weather conditions. Like all wild animals, Bearded Vultures have some predictable behavior patterns. One is that they are naturally nervous, and after a first, quick view of the feeding site, will retreat to a cliff and watch the area, sometimes for hours, before coming in to feed. Photographers need to be patient, and wait. Don’t plan to ‘see the birds quickly’ and the go on a day-long hike. You might get THE shot straight-off, but you may need to wait a good while. In addition, the Beaded Vultures only come in to feed in the mornings of clear, low-wind days. They simply won’t arrive if it’s overcast, misty or blowing a gale.
Use a camera that can capture motion. The faster and longer the lens on your camera (given that you have the skill to use it) the better the photos you will be able to take of birds. But the great news is that at the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge Vulture Restaurant, even ‘entry-level’ DSLR cameras can provide great images. Ideally you need to be able to use a shutter speed in excess of 1/1000th/sec to get the clear, focused pictures that are so impressive. A typical kit lens with a 250mm zoom will give you surprising respectable results.
Focus on the bird, not the scenery. Adjusting your F-stop down allows you to create an image that has your targeted bird in focus, with the background less intrusive. Because the birds are very large, if you start with an F-stop between F5 and F8 you have the best option to get the whole bird in focus – but not the distraction of the background. For a photographer, the wonderful red ring around the eyes makes the first rule of animal photography “focus on the eye” a lot easier than many other birds.
Use familiar settings. If you are nervous of getting your camera’s manual settings wrong and prefer pre-programmed modes, use the ‘sports’ mode. The ‘landscape’ mode will work when the birds are still, but not give you good images when in flight. Typically the birds stay at the feeding site for no more than two minutes at a time. That’s not the time to be dithering about your camera settings. You will have time while waiting for the birds to fly in. Use that to try a few different settings so that you are happy to concentrate on the birds and the composition when they arrive.
Follow Jeremia’s advice. Jeremia is the Bird Whisperer at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. He’s been feeding them for nearly two decades, and knows their likely reactions and patterns of behavior. He will set the time of the feeding, and guide you to the best spot for viewing and photography. Just watching his ritual of carrying the bones out on a tray, and calling the birds is an experience in itself. He knows the best spot to stand where you will see the birds feeding above you, and then be placed to see them fly off down the valley below you. This gives you the chance to take pictures from below and above these magnificent birds. And when there is snow on the mountain and he tells you to dress warmly and take a beanie – just do it. I almost ended up with frostbite, having waved off his suggestion.
Plan to visit the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge Vulture Restaurant. All guests at Witsieshoek are welcome to arrange time at the Vulture Restaurant. There’s no set feeding schedule – specifically to avoid taming the birds – and the weather creates its own unpredictability. But let the reservation staff know at the time of your booking that this is an interest of yours, and when you arrive Jeremia will work out the best options, based on the weather and your plans.