Friday, 11 September 2015

Photographing Vultures in Crete


I thought I had better post a quick blog as I had the sudden realisation that if I got run over by a bus, not only would I be worrying that I hadn't worn a decent pair of knickers but my very last blog post would have been a depressing and unedifying one! And we can't have that, so today, dear reader, I am going to tell you about the uplifting experience of photographing vultures in Crete earlier this year.

Early May and we were staying in a fabulous villa on the North Western tip of Crete.  The holiday plan was mainly relaxing in the sun, (warm enough for sunbathing but not quite hot enough to stop our chic pool at the villa from still being just a little bit nippy!), swimming in the sea and photographing wildlife.    A drive along the Balos peninsula, famed migratory route from Africa, had produced little wildlife except elusive crested larks, a distant view of a 'black-eared wheatear' and some rather pretty grasshoppers.

We were feeling a little short changed on the birding photo front, I had promised the Bedsock eagles but the best bird we had photo'ed so far was a Sardinian Warbler.  So, nearing the end of our holiday, we had one last chance to find something more exciting to test out our new 600mm Sigma telephoto lens.  Tripod, cameras and lenses packed into the Suzuki Jimny -(a hire car 4x4 that judging by the scratches already looked like it had been driven through a great deal of off-road undergrowth and which also squealed somewhat alarmingly when cornering) we set off  along the 18km Rodopos peninsula on an extremely 'unmade' road track to investigate the ruins of the  Diktynna Sanctuary, dedicated to the daughter of Zeus, at the tip. I'm always a little trepidatious about these off-piste jaunts.. having ME means I can't walk very far and the possibility of the jeep breaking down miles from 'civilization', with no mobile signal, and being left in the car on my own at the mercy of any mad axeman lurking in the wilds whilst the Bedsock staggered 18km to fetch help, was a slightly worrying prospect.  But hey-ho, you can't worry about everything - although I do have a jolly good try!

The track seemed never ending.  One of those where you think the end will be just around the next corner - but round the next corner is just another few corners of wilderness.  There were a substantial amount of goats around to keep us company!  These were having a bit of a face off!

Pause for interesting fact: The chapel of Agios Ioannis, dedicated to St. John the Baptist lies isolated at the end of a hiking path about half-way down the peninsual. Every August 29, to honour the day of St. John, a pilgrimage of those named John walk to the chapel, and stay there for a day and a night.

No Johns around for us though, just goats and distant black-eared wheatears.   The sun was hiding from us behind a slightly damp cloud and every bone in my body was jarred and shaken as we rattled along never seeming to get nearer to our destination.  Several times, I said we should turn back as the track got more and more boulder strewn and dangerous but each time we agreed to just go round the next bend to see what was there.

And finally we could see the southern tip and the sea where the track, hewn into the cliffs, plummeted down dangerously to a tiny cove with some disappointing ruins! We stopped high above the cove to admire the view but no way was I continuing down to the beach. I was just wondering whether it had all been worth the effort when I turned round to see an enormous bird rise out of the deep gorge that snaked back round behind us from the cove.  Then another, and another, "BIG BIRDS" I screamed at the Bedsock as I ran for the cameras.  We grabbed a few photos as they soared  just above us, then they disappeared back where they had come from, seemingly swallowed up by the earth  a 100 metres or so from where we stood.

The photograph below shows a distant vulture cruising along the top of the gorge. It was taken with my old Canon 400D with 70-300m telephoto. Not a great picture but gives an idea of the terrain.

We scrambled over the rocks to a small ridge protecting us from the sheer drop into the gorge. At first we could see nothing, then sweeping my binoculars over the side directly opposite us I saw them, not eagles as I had first imagined but a colony of vultures, twelve of them, their brown feathers nearly camouflaged against the ochre walls of the gorge.

My initial disappointment that they were vultures,  not a bird with a better press, quickly vanished as they took it in turns to cruise along the sides of the gorge, up and out into the open skies before returning to the colony

Not only were the vultures spectacular but the sides of the gorge were festooned with colourful plants, their roots clinging into crevices, their foliage and flowers tumbling downwards into the gorge like one enormous, vertical rock garden.

It was absolutely breathtaking. Finally the long 600m lens came into play and the tripod proved it's worth as we clicked photo after photo. A slight enlargement on the photographs and you can see their blue eyes!

Vultures get a bad press and there is no doubt they can look a little spiteful when they are hanging around hissing and spitting at each other.  Actually the spitting is "defensive vomiting" the smell of the vom is enough to put off enemies and is corrosive enough from their acid stomachs to burn! Sometimes I feel like that after a bad Saturday night!

They should also be known as natures 'eco' bird.  They only eat dead meat, perhaps a tasty goat that has died on the peninsula.  They dispose of the rotting remains - natures garbage men or the ultimate clean-up team.  Whatever their dietary habits and slightly bad manners they were beautiful and awe inspiring that day.  The memory of several of them flying maybe 20ft above us, their huge wings like some magnificent Native American Indian headress, will stay with us forever.  The adrenalin rush from the experience akin to that we had had when abseiling for the first time in the Lake District.

The jolting, drive back along the peninsula seemed less onerous - we had at last had our Cretan birding experience!


Anonymous said...

Great find! I remember reading about the Nepalese and their "Sky Burials". As a child I often though that it would be the way to be sent off. I think the logistics might be a bit tricky though, unless wellywoman can sneak me on a plane in a Weekend at Bernie's way...

sandra said...

Wow and double wow, fantastic rocks and flowers, and the vultures are totally spectacular. Lucky you! I see bald and golden eagles and ospreys (sea eagles) where I live in the Canadian Columbia Moutains but never so close and in such amazing detail as your vultures.

Anonymous said...

Slightly jealous, ahem. I live in Switzerland and have yet to see those magnificent birds. Yes, they do get bad press and these days because of the bloody EU allowing the use of an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac used for cattle which is deadly to vultures in even small doses. There is an alternative drug on the market which does not harm vultures, but no, the deadly has to be allowed. The EU and Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, has spent millions on conserving vultures and now allow a drug which threatens to wipe them out, as it has up 99% of the vulture populations in India and Pakistan. Rant over - must have been an amazing experience. When I had a bicycle accident in June, I worried that my feet weren't very clean as I'd just been gardening!!

Arabella Sock said...

Hi Sandra and Helen

Thanks for your comments - I've been away, would you believe photographing more vultures - this time in Spain/Portugal, but it is great to have comments even more so when it is such a faff half the time to get thru the moderation and leave them.

Sandra - I would absolutely love to see eagles. There was a chance of them this holiday in Spain but we weren't lucky. I've only ever seen one which was in the Picos Mountains in Spain and we were driving over a pass and one landed on a post right next to us on the road. We were so astonished we just gawped at it - no photos, although the cameras we had in those days would not have done it justice and in some ways the memory is so vivid in my mind I don't need a photograph of it.

Helen - that is so interesting about the bloody EU, and unfortunately not surprising. It seems "we" won't rest until we've wiped out all the bees and birds and have the planet to ourselves - but what a terrible planet it will be! It was depressing to see the amount of wind farms all over the hillsides in Portugal and parts of Spain, very noticeable when viewed from above as we were flying home yesterday. I could only imagine the amount of birds killed by them and they are placed in just the areas these raptors will live. We had hoped to see Egyptian Vultures in the Douros National Park but although we saw many Griffon Vultures apparently the Egyptians are being wiped out by windfarms. How many years ago was it that Joni Mitchell sang "we don't know what we've got til it's gone?"

Unknown said...

If you want to see LOTS of eagles there is a small place just north of Vancouver, BC, Canada called Brackendale, where they have an annual eagle festival, involving counting them, viewing, and general celebration of their grandeur and freedom. There is lots of info online about it.

If you happen to be in this part of the world, feel free to get in touch, and I'd be happy to show you one of Vancovuer's botanic gardens, either VanDusen, or UBC.

Love your blog : )

Arabella Sock said...

Hi Jo

Apologies for taking so long to reply to your lovely comment. It's particularly nice to get them when the moderation process to stop spam is such a faff these days.

I DO want to see lots of eagles!! and I've always wanted to see Vancouver and the islands and wildlife after some friends had a great time there a few years back. I'll check out the eagle festival. If we finally manage to get to Canada I'll be sure to let you know - a botanic garden meet-up would be lovely!

Unknown said...

Hi Arabella,

Not to worry...Life is busy and these virtual communications are ever more complex (and inexplicable really to people like me).

If you DO plan a trip here, love to meet you and show you a couple of gardens. I may be heading to the UK next year...Probably around London, thinking of perhaps doing a walk. Any tips appreciated...

Great to hear from you : )

Arabella Sock said...

Hi again Jo

I'm not particularly familiar with inner-London gardens although the Chelsea Physic Garden sounds good and I have never been because it I always forget it is isn't open on Saturdays which is the easiest day to plan a trip. My favourite garden near London is RHS Wisley which is just gorgeous and has lots to look at and wander round. This is near London just off the M25 motorway which circles the entire Greater London area. Are you on twitter? I noticed a Jo Turner and wondered if that was you - plenty of London based horti-twitterers will know of best gardens in the city to visit. Otherwise there are loads in the various counties around so when you know your itinerary be easier to recommend