Saturday, December 4, 2021

Encounters 7 — Vultures

All photos by Justinn Bunn

I first saw vultures when I was twenty-six years old. It was the year that Stephen Roche won the Tour de France and I cycled across the Pyrennes on a tandem with Rebecca. For most of our trip, we carried little more than a change of clothes, our passports and a couple of baguettes stuffed in the saddlebag. We were young, fit, and unphased by challenges I wouldn't look at today.

At the top of the Col d'Aubisque, there's a section of tarmac that's cut into the cliffs, creating a suspended belvedere road with a vertical drop on one side and a distinct absence of barriers between you and the abyss. It's about the worst place I could think of to suffer a puncture or to lose concentration after toiling to the top.  As we rode over the summit, they were circling above us.

And I remember our stopping to watch them, marvelling at the ease with which they rode the thermals, gliding across the valley that had taken us all morning to climb. There's an elegance to the flight of vultures that transcends that of any other bird of prey, and which ironically, in its effortless grace, strengthens our stereotype of the species. 

Vultures, we believe, are cold, calculating, patient...

It was two decades till I saw one again. I know this for I remember the day with photographic clarity. We'd been walking with the boys in the Aravis mountains; it was scorching and we'd taken a route too long and too steep for Jane who was pregnant. That evening when she went to the loo, the bowl filled with blood and her face with tears...

She needed time alone, so I rode my bike up the Col de la Colombière. I wanted it to hurt, pushing every sinew; screaming at the mountains... and their indifference. As I pedalled the last incline—without elegance or grace—there were two Lammergeiers wheeling in the sky. These, the largest of the European vultures, have learned to drop bones onto rocks so they shatter into pieces small enough to swallow. 

They are, I think, the most magnificent of birds.

Lammergeiers are also rare and have only recently returned to the Alps. I learned later that the ones I saw that day were from a reintroduction scheme based in the valley. Three years ago, walking in the Sixt Passy nature reserve, a warden showed me the one breeding nest in the region. The parents did not return while we waited. 

And so, it was almost another twenty years before my next encounter.

This October I made a short visit to France, climbing the Point de Chalune in the crisp autumn sunshine. The peak is a two-hour walk from the top of my favourite cycling col: the l'Encrenaz above Les Gets. We were lucky with the weather: Mont Blanc in full view to the south; Lac le Man to the north. At the summit, two men with binoculars were recording birds for a survey—not that much of interest had appeared, one said. 

Until that is, he finished his sentence. For no sooner had the recorder sat down than my friend Justin asked, what are those birds approaching us?  There were seven of them in all: five griffon vultures and two enormous Lammergeiers. They drifted above and below us, like a squadron on reconnaissance. The surveyors whooping with delight, furiously taking note of their maturity and size. 

In jest, our new friends credited us with the show, suggesting that vultures liked to smell out the English.  Nous ne sommes pas anglais - nous sommes gallois, we replied, and they laughed. The Welsh, they said, must not be so tasty!  With that, the birds departed, swooping over the valley in the direction of the Désert de Platé.  

And before we'd gathered breath, they were gone.  


  1. What a beautiful post! Heart-rending but beautiful, too.
    We have so many vultures here. Sometimes called "buzzards" and I do believe they are all of the turkey vulture variety. They wing and dip and yes, soar on the thermals and we often see them gathered around road kill. They are not considered beautiful here, probably because of their diet but I have always thought they are fascinating. And so very, very much a part of our ecology. My daughter told me the other day that a neighbor called to tell her that a hawk was circling her back yard and was worried about the chickens my daughter keeps. She went outside to check and it was not a hawk, but a vulture who was most likely interested in the bone broth she was making on an outdoor burner with a huge pork bone.

    1. Vultures have astonishingly good vision, but it has also been shown that they can smell carrion from many miles. So it very probably was the soup attracting them.
      The ability to smell is not a quality we usually associate with birds, but some have incredible abilities - Kiwis for example are almost blind and they use their long peaks to find worms and grubs in the soil - but only recently have we learned that this is not random probing; rather, their beaks have millions of olfactory receptors meaning they can actually, smell out the grubs underground

    2. Their nostrils are at the outer end of those long beaks

  2. These are fantastic photos of birds of prey soaring through the sky with a mountain landscape below. You are very lucky to have observed such beauty.

  3. Amazing photos. Thanks for sharing them with us.

  4. Beautifully captured, the photos and the words. Have you ever heard of Tibetan sky burials? When the bird does the useful thing of getting rid of the dead. They think it happened in Neolithic times as well but it is only a theory.

  5. You had me at "the year Stephen Roche won the Tour de France". What cycling fan can forget that "and who is that coming up from behind?" moment on La Plagne?
    Awesome vultures too.
    Cheers, Gail (about to venture out on her bicycle, as for the first time in 10 days we have no ice, snow, rain, hail, sleet or gale force wind. So far.

  6. Dear Mark,

    What a wonderful post about these magnificent birds, the lammergeiers. The landscape looks absolutely sublime and seeing these birds must be like an added bonus. Apart from their beauty and resilience, perhaps, their ability to descend and ascend that grips us throughout the human history. I do love your acutely observant description of "They drifted above and below us, like a squadron on reconnaissance."

    I'm catching up with your old posts just now after having a digital sabbath for a couple of months.

    I hope all is well with you and your family and you are looking forward to the festive season.

    With warm wishes,

  7. A lovely post about something that matters more than COVID, Brexit, Boris Johnson and all the other chaff that blows through our minds - courtesy of the media. Oh to be in the silence of the mountains with vultures wheeling overhead.

  8. I was with a keen birdwatcher in Slovenia once and he got very excited when he glimpsed a group of vultures circling about a couple of miles away. I stopped the truck and he got out with his binoculars, murmuring 'Amazing' to himself as I tried (for ages) to alert him to one vulture which was sitting in a tree 10 feet over his head.

  9. Hari OM
    As a birder, I envy you this sighting - but am grateful to your friend for the photography! Special memories in relation to to a bird - thank you for the generosity of sharing them. YAM xx

  10. Something that I did not realize is that when disturbed while feeding, vultures (at least ours) will jettison their stomach contents during feeding. They are something routinely seen feeding on carrion at the road side. They are something noticed and disregarded, because they always, at the last minute, lift off to the sky. But once I hit one with my truck. I expected it to take off. It did not. I was horrified. It hit the window - floof!- and went over the roof of the truck. I stopped the truck and walked back to see it staggering a bit, but as I approached, it lifted for the skies. I was was much relieved. But what a mess I had to clean off the windshield of my truck.

  11. Just wanted to echo YPs comment, and concur in most of the others about the sense of serenity and awe that you conveyed.

  12. A wonderful story Mark, and photos, of your climbs to heights most of us, literally, never reach!
    Turkey vultures inhabit our area but I only see them in flight. My best close-up visit with vultures was in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve - they were Ruppell's - huge, and a little scary when seeing them so close on the ground!

    "Rüppell's vulture is distributed throughout the Sahel region and East Africa, where it inhabits grasslands, mountains, and woodlands. Once considered common in these habitats, it experiencing steep declines, especially in the western portion of the range.[3] It cruises at a speed of 35 km/h (22 mph), but flies for 6–7 hours every day and as far as 150 km (93 mi) from a nest site to find food" - via Wikipedia

    Here's a link to my post including the Ruppell vultures photo -

    Needless to say, I enjoy smaller birds in my garden!