Vulture Watch

White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis), Kruger National Park, South Africa

I’d been in the hide for about four and a half hours, staring out at the dead body of an Impala ram. Not everyone’s idea of a good time. The ‘hide’ was my  VW Combi, parked in the shade of  Tamboti tree and fitted with a hessian cover; I had removed the middle-seat and replaced it with a stool, small table, gas burner and teapot. The Impala (a lame individual) had been shot the previous evening by the section ranger, hoisted up into a tree to prevent lions or hyenas from devouring it, and then dragged out into the clearing as bait for vultures.

As a member of the Vulture Study Group, I had obtained permission to conduct ‘vulture watches’ in Kruger, able to drive off the tourist roads and set myself up with notebook, cameras and sketchbook. The objective was to look for – and document – any colour-ringed vultures that happened to arrive at the meals on offer. Also, to count the numbers and estimate the ages of all species of vulture seen, as part of a monitoring project.

At around 11h00, the sign that I’d been waiting for appeared. A distinctive shadow swept across the dusty clearing. The first vulture had located the carcass and was interested. Even within a hide, it was crucial to be silent and perfectly still at this point, as vultures are extremely wary birds and approach a likely meal with great caution. Well, this certainly applies to the first arrivals who see none of their kind already feeding and must risk the threat of landing next to a predator in hiding.

With my visibility limited to the small porthole I had cut into the hessian, all I could see was the bait 25 metres away, and the leafless Knobthorn trees beyond. Two more shadows grazed the stubble of tawny grass. Then, the unmistakeable sound of a vulture landing, not on the ground, but in one of the trees above my hide. This was it, the waiting had paid off, and the action was about to begin.

It is a truly wonderful experience to be able to watch the full proceedings of a group of vultures locating, landing, and consuming a large mammal carcass, with all the intriguing inter- and intra-specific behaviours involved. On this bright, mid-winter’s day, the first bird to land was a stunning White-headed Vulture, an adult female identified by her white secondary flight feathers. An immature Bateleur soon joined her, and the two pulled at the antelope’s ears and eyes.  Then, as the first heavy-bodied  griffons settled into the Knothorn trees, a male White-headed Vulture landed gracefully, thrust out his breast and marched towards his mate. They hardly had time to touch their tomato-red bills, however, when three White-backed Vultures clattered to the ground, and muscled their way into the bait. The melee had begun.

Less than half an hour later, the 50kg Impala had been reduced to skin and bone. 72 White-backs, the two adult White-headed, 9 Cape Vultures (two with colour rings on their legs), 4 Lappet-faced Vultures, 6 Hooded Vultures, a single Marabou Stork and two Bateleurs had dined well.

Kruger National Park, South Africa, July 1981

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About Duncan Butchart

Duncan Butchart is interested in all aspects of the natural world, with a particular fascination for birds and their ecological relationships. www.dbnatureworks.com
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2 Responses to Vulture Watch

  1. Tania says:

    Beautiful!

  2. Duncan, your book is going to be so beautiful. The stories are always great, and your paintings are superb.

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