Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Vulture culture

I wasn't expecting to squeeze much in the way of wildlife photography into a family holiday in the French Alps with friends earlier this month, but I knew it would put me within striking distance of the area where a small population of Lammergeier had been established by a reintroduction scheme in the latter part of the last century. So when the folks we had travelled with spent a day visiting some other friends in the Annecy area, the balance of power within our party shifted in favour of a trip to the mountains east of there.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience of being eye-balled by a Lammergeier at point blank range - cropped only slightly
Finding good gen on birding in the French Alps wasn't easy - my old 'Where to watch birds in France' guide suggested the area around Sallanches was the place to head for the Lammergeier, a.k.a the Bearded Vulture. However, it was otherwise a bit short on specifics: 'from here, a minor road heads west into the mountains', it said, which didn't really narrow things down. Googling produced a few more recent blog posts from visiting British birders which suggested that the area around the Col de la Colombiere, a high mountain pass at about 1,600m, might be worth a visit.
With a cloudless sky not even I could screw up this photo-opportunity too badly (taken 11th August)
An early start was recommended due to high visitor numbers and limited parking at the col, but by the time I had roused my team with croissants and coffee, and circumnavigated a road closure en route, we didn't arrive until mid-morning. In view of this we were fortunate to bag a parking slot a few hundred yards below the col near the first hairpin bend to the west. Fate intervened, not for the last time that day, as the alarm call of an unseen Alpine Marmot betrayed the presence of a Short-toed Eagle sitting in a tree not 50 yards away.
The Lammergeier from our first close encounter on 8th August
It stayed long enough for us to set up the telescope for exceptional views, which we shared with a family from Bristol who had pulled up next to us. On reflection, I was probably keener to show them this amazing bird than they were to look at it, but they smiled politely and appeared impressed, so thanks for indulging the geeky bloke with 'scope, mystery Bristolians!
Kestrel attacks Lammergeier...
This auspicious start sent us up the track north of the col with springs in our steps, though our enthusiasm was soon curbed by a combination of the steep gradient and the intense heat. About 20 minutes walk from the col we found ourselves on a grassy shelf overlooking the switchback road towards Cluses to the east and with a good view of a horseshoe of imposing peaks to the north. Here I met another British birder who seemed to know the area well and who advised that, if we wanted to see Lammergeier, this was the place to be. I needed no further encouragement to down tools (I was regretting carrying that telescope by this point) and wait.
...and the Lammergeier responds
Within half an hour the English guy called 'Lammergeier' as the massive flying cross of a dark-plumaged juvenile appeared from behind a crag. It was much closer that my only previous sighting of this species in the Pyrenees over a decade ago, so I was delighted with the views and the photographs. Within the hour we had seen an adult bird cruising the ridge some 700m above us, and while my wife and eldest son decided to hike further up the slope, my youngest was flagging in the heat so we returned towards a cafe on the col intent on procuring age-appropriate cold beverages.
With a beady eye out for another Kestrel attack, the Lammergeier dropped below the col and away
As we descended to just above the car park, another shrill alarm call caused us to look up - this time it was given by a Kestrel rather than a Marmot, and was aimed not at a Short-toed Eagle but at a Lammergeier just above our heads! Unfortunately it was coasting away from us and I feared I had blown the chance of a close photograph. Racing up the slope more in hope than expectation, to my surprise it banked and came back towards the col, giving unbelievably good views, first hanging above me in a cloudy sky, then soaring slowly in front of a cliff face which made finding the right exposure a bit easier.
The bird at the col came too close to fit in the frame with the lens at 400mm
Still shaking from the excitement of this unexpectedly close encounter, things got even better when the impudent Kestrel returned for another tilt at the vulture, causing it to bank sharply at point blank range, drop to within a few metres of Rowan's head, and proceed to spar with the plucky falcon almost directly below us.
I was pleased with this initial view of an immature Lammergeieir, let alone what came later
I never dreamt I would witness a Lammergeier defending itself with a full, talons-up body roll, even less so that I would be able to photograph such a rare interaction between the mis-matched raptors. Fortunately I was able to track most of the spectacle with the camera and a few frames came out reasonably sharp. Rowan was buzzing almost as much as his father having been close enough to the vulture to hear the wind in its wings.
I had been a bit miffed with Claire and George for yomping off up the mountain but, again, fate had clearly intended it to be so as had they not done this, we wouldn't have returned to the car when we did to witness the encounter. My only regret was that they weren't there to share the experience. On their return Claire gave a reasonably convincing description of what sounded like a colony of Cynthia's Fritillary around some pools above the col at about 2,100m. This was enough to encourage us to return to the col a few days later, after our friends had returned to England, as we made our way from our base near Annecy to a budget hotel in Sallanches for a few additional nights in France.
An imposing bird at any distance, but particularly up close
On this second visit, Rowan and Clare opted to sit out the climb and George, who has become something of a mountain goat, kindly agreed to drag me up in his wake. It was another fantastic few hours, providing my first views of Ibex, a picnic with a pair of Alpine Chough and a Crag Martin fly-past (more on which later). There were also opportunities to photograph some new Alpine butterflies (to feature in a later post when they have passed the rigorous Butterfly Conservation identification review panel process, sparing me the embarrassment of labelling them incorrectly :-)).
I thought these close views of Short-toed Eagle would take some beating...
When we reached the high pools we could find nothing resembling a Cynthia's Fritillary (on returning breathless and sweaty to the col Claire clarified that she had, in fact, just seen the one, and then only briefly...) so we pressed on up to the ridge above at about 2,300m.
...like the Lammergeier, it gave us the full hard stare treatment
This razor-blade of rock seemed as good a spot as any to stop for our basic lunch of French loaf, on which I almost choked as a massive shadow rolled down the cliff in front of us and another adult Lammergeier broke the horizon of a cloudless sky. In an instant it was over us and heading away but we were able to track its flight until it alighted on a distant crag.
A slight heat haze - but still my best views of this species
I considered myself exceptionally fortunate to have seen both star raptors so well, and delighted that both children were able to experience the awe of a close encounter with them too. Stand by for more news from the Alps in the coming days. Lots of photos to get through!
Short-toed Eagle, Col de la Colombiere

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