Godfrey Symons, my wife’s late grandfather, pulled over on the farm road to look at a large white bird sitting in a thorn tree. He looked at me and my wife and said “I have never seen that on the farm before”. I did not know what we were looking at or what that sighting would lead to. He went on, “It’s a Marabou Stork and a long way from where it would normally be found”. I looked and I listened to what he had to say as the bird flew from thorn tree to thorn tree before flying into the distance and out of site. And so my interest in birds had begun.
Godfrey leant me a few books and continued to point out various birds around the farm. On reading Barrier of Spears, by R.O. Pearse, I discovered Godfrey had been involved in what the press at the time called ‘a once in a lifetime story’. In 1958 he had been climbing in the Drakensberg mountains, with three friends, when they saw a Lammergeier, commonly known as the Bearded Vulture. The friends vowed that day that they would take the first ever photographs of the Lammergeier in the Drakensberg region. In 1961 that dream became a reality. In 1967 a hide was opened in the Giants Castle Nature Reserve in an effort to increase interest in the vulture population. Donated carcasses were left in front of the hide and so the first vulture restaurant was opened.
Several years on from the Marabou Stork and the Barrier of Spears book I finally had an opportunity to visit the hide at Giants Castle. At 5am driving through thick fog I doubted I would be seeing anything. The drive to the reserve, approximately forty miles, took me an hour and a half. The poor visibility made spotting and more importantly avoiding a mass of pot holes in the thin tar road a near impossibility. The occasional car with no lights on plus livestock on the road made the journey an interesting one to say the least.
At just after 6.30am I was met by Giants Castle staff member Tony who had agreed to drive me to the hide. The hide can only be visited by a pre-arranged booking and is only accessible by a four wheel drive vehicle. As Tony drove the steeply inclined track the fog and cloud began to lift. Mountain Reedbuck, Grey Rhebuck and Black Backed Jackal watched us slowly make our way up towards the hide.
Once there I was introduced to Jaco van Niekerk who I would be spending the day with. Jaco is a free lance researcher and is spending six months in the reserve observing the behaviour, habits and integration of the various birds that visit the restaurant. His first job of the day was to re-stock the menu. The jackals we had seen on our way up had been early diners and had finished off the days offerings.
With a fresh lump of meat in place we took our seats and waited. The hide itself is well camouflaged and built into the rock face. The views to the rear and side look down and across the Bushmans Valley. Through the front smoked glass windows we were treated every now and then to glimpses of mountain peaks as the cloud rolled up and down.
The birds seem to arrive in order of size. First it was a pair of Neddicky’s (Piping Cisticola) calling to warn of our arrival. Lesser Striped Swallows were next and were with us on and off all day feeding. Red-winged Starlings flew between the nearby bushes before a pair of Rock Pigeons landed and began to feed just below our window.
Jaco was concerned that the morning’s cool weather would mean we would have a long wait for vultures as they needed warm thermals to help them climb into the sky. Just before 9am a pair of Cape Vultures took a fly past. They glided effortlessly across the valley below without appearing to check if the restaurant was open for breakfast. Soon after a pair of White-necked Ravens did stop but did not seem to fancy what was on the menu. From the rear of the hide I could see a lone Cape Vulture sitting looking down the valley. Would he be tempted by what was on offer?
“Bearded Vulture”, Jaco said quietly, as he sat with his binoculars held to his eyes. I looked into the distance as a small black spec made its way towards us. This is what I had really come for and now a huge Lammergeier was circling overhead. I had at last seen what Godfrey had first seen way back in 1958. Jaco whispered “come on, come perch, come eat” repeatedly as the bird looked down towards the meat. It was not to be though and the bird climbed on a thermal before disappearing from where it had come from.
During the afternoon the lone Cape Vulture did feed alongside nineteen White-necked Ravens. There feeding was only interrupted when a Yellow-billed Kite dropped in to feast, but proved an unwelcome guest. Two days previous to my visit Jaco had recorded twenty six Cape Vultures feeding together. His knowledge was very much appreciated as through the day we were visited by three separate Bearded Vultures, a juvenile, a sub adult and an adult. They all came and circled, observed the food, but did not land. To see the Lammergeier, only meters away, proved to be very special. At over 1900 meters up in the clouds I was truly in their domain.