I often describe myself, using part of the title of a Simon Barnes book, as a bad birdwatcher. My inner birder was released by Godfrey Symons, my wife’s’ grandfather, on his farm road when he spotted a big bird sitting in a thorn tree. That bird turned out to be a marabou stork, the first he had ever seen on the farm in his seventy plus years. That afternoon we sat in his snug and I listened to all things birds. I learnt of his travels and expeditions and his passion for wildlife and wild places. On my bookshelf I still have ‘Barrier of Spears’ by R O Pearce, a gift from my wife, that features Godfrey. There is a chapter that tells the story of a team expedition into the Drakensberg Mountains in 1958. The team were there looking for proof that the bearded vulture, a then rare and endangered bird, nested in the KwaZulu Natal sections of the mountains.
Reading that Wildlife ACT were launching the Southern Drakensberg Conservation Project I dropped them an email. I have spent time with them over the years on several of their projects in Zululand. I have been privileged to be on monitoring projects involving wild dogs, leopards, lions and cheetahs. But now here was a project dedicated to the monitoring of endangered and critically endangered vultures, most notably the bearded vulture. I have spent time in Drakensberg Mountains and had seen bearded vultures at Giants Castle and at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. But now here was the chance to get involved with valuable research and data collection and of course walk in the footsteps of Godfrey.
Mountain weather is unpredictable, and this meant we had to wait for a window of opportunity before we could make any attempt to ascend into the heights of the Southern Drakensberg. When that opportunity came, we were up at 4am and at our start point before 5am. The forecast was for low cloud, clearing into the morning, with a chance of rain and storms rolling in early afternoon. Being a boy from sea level I often struggle at altitude. And this uphill hike was no different. Less than an hour in I was having to stop every few minutes and catch my breath. Philip, the project coordinator and my guide, was very patient and understanding. He continually waited and smiled and offered me encouragement. You do need a certain level of fitness here and mine was just enough. It is quite tough going, steep, and no path to follow. I was impressed with Philip as he took us further and further up using his knowledge of the mountain and his experience to get us where we needed to be. He began to point out our destination which for some time seemed to never get any closer. But when there my relief came in the form of beetroot-coloured cheeks and sweat.
We sat on a rock plateau, nearly two thousand meters above sea level, and Philip assembled the optical scope complete with phone, camera, attachment. I made tea and took the weight off my feet. Philip then pointed out the location of a Bearded Vulture nest where a pair had recently and successfully raised a chick. The nest was in a crevice on a sheer cliff face approximately a thousand meters away from us. It was clearly marked by a thick line of white guano (bird poop). Our job was to observe, so I sat and watched the sky over the mountain peaks, above, and either side of the nest site. After an hour we rewarded as a vulture appeared directly over the nesting site. Even at a distance you can appreciate the sheer size of this old world vulture with a wing span of nearly three meters. Philip quickly identified and confirmed that this was a (Gypaetus barbatus) Bearded Vulture. After soaring and circling the bird landed on a ledge a few hundred meters to the left of the nest. Here through my binoculars and Philip’s scope we could clearly see the bird’s distinctive white face and forehead and golden-brown chest. This was a truly magnificent sight, and I could not help of think of Godfrey and the team he was part of. I was in some ways here in his footsteps.
Philip has many responsibilities within the project including the upkeep of a vulture feeding site. Here he not only observes from a hide, but he also maintains the cameras that offer a live feed, and keeps the site stocked with food. The food here is generally donated by local farmers. It was from the live feed that we were alerted to vultures being there and feeding. On arrival we were greeted by approximately ninety Cape Vultures. This turned out to be the end of the first sitting, feeding session, and we sat and observed their final feeding before one by one they took to the sky. From within the hide I was amazed by the sounds of the woosh and beating of wings. I had never been this close to these huge and majestic vultures and the level of noise clearly reflected the power of their wings. I watched them all take the same flight path, away low to our right, they picked up a thermal and began to circle and climb. They formed the most amazing flock and looked spectacular set among the gathering storm clouds and distant mountain peaks. (Philip and I chatted and came to the conclusion that flock was an underwhelming term for such magnificent birds. Google now tells me that when resting as a group they are called a committee, when feeding they are a wake and when flying in formation, they are a kettle. I like the term a Vesuvius of vultures)
The second sitting did not really happen as another fifty to sixty Cape vultures walked into view. They came closer and closer to the food on offer. However, after nearly an hour they followed the same flight path as the first flock. This created our second spectacular kettle, or to me Vesuvius.
We spent time walking in the mountains on land being monitored by camera traps. Another key feature of the project is to operate, maintain, and check camera traps and record what they capture. Being on foot in the mountains means that when checking the traps you also get a real feel for the environment. The surrounding views and big and bold. There is open grassland, scree slopes, boulders and rocks of all shapes and sizes and of course distant peaks. The plant life varies hugely, many varieties of Protea, Everlasting daisies, Erica’s and delicate lilies. When back at the Wildlife ACT base all the memory cards from the traps are gone through and all wildlife is recorded. We got to see Eland antelope, Mountain Reedbuck, Jackals, Baboons, Porcupines, Servel cats and a large variety of birdlife. I do not normally, in my articles offer thanks, but thank you Wildlife ACT for establishing this project and for letting me visit. Philip, thank you for getting up and down the mountain slopes safely and being so patient with an overweight, not as fit as he thinks, man. Lastly, thank you to that Marabou Stork that created so much excitement with Godfrey which led to a bad birdwatcher being created, me.