A journey to the Swiss Alps. The purpose for our journey to the Swiss Gemmi Pass was to watch vultures in an alpine environment and to do some bird photography. According to available records the Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier was around at Gemmi Pass. So, we booked us in at the Gemmi Lodge Hotel which is sitting directly besides the cable car terminal for a couple of nights.
Observing the Bearded Vulture
When it comes to observing vultures, anyone having done it will agree that you need either good luck and, most of the time, plenty of time at your hands. What I mean is, birdwatching in general is easy-going. You just sit somewhere and wait for birds to come. Either there is much to see or not as much as one might have hoped for. With the Bearded Vulture it is pretty much the same thing. However, you never know when they will appear close to your observation post.
That is exactly the problem. You never know when they will come. When Bearded Vultures appear, they come in unexpectedly and out of virtually no-where. This is important for photographers. Sitting there enjoying splendid weather conditions might tempt us to do some landscape photography or do some filter photography to fill out the spare time. Believe me, don’t do any such thing. Check your camera settings and just wait. Check and test the settings again when light changes.
When I did some landscape shots in-between, the Bearded Vulture came for the first time and I missed it. Shit – big-time!
Movements of the Bearded Vulture
Bearded Vultures control areas of about which cover the main valley with its side valley. These are mostly vast areas of between 100-300 sq km, the so-called home ranges. Usually one breeding pair controlls such an area. The area is large enough to find sufficient amounts of food. Where the Bearded Vulture is about, usually Griffon Vultures are not far away.
In their home ranges, Bearded Vultures operate fixed search routes which are checked for food nearly every day. They do not fly during rain. However, Bearded Vulutres fly in misty and foggy conditions. Bearded Vultures can even fly with wet plumage. Even when fog hangs in the mountain valleys or on top of peaks it is possible to get sightings of the Bearded Vulture.
Bearded Vultures fly in hights of about 100 above ground, but can also be seen in altitudes of over 3 to 4,000 metres above normal.
Bearded Vulture – Times of Activity
In contrast to Cinereous and Griffon Vulture, the Bearded Vulture does not depend on thermals for the daily search flights. That means, the Bearded Vulture can be out and about shortly after sunrise. The search flights can take up to 12-14 hours in summer including resting phases. Resting phases are used for preening the plumage, feeding and resting. Bear in mind, even vultures do have sort of lunch break, during which time they simply rest. However, in case they are fully fed, they simply do nothing and don’t even fly.
When trying to observe the Bearded Vulture it is important to be out in the field as early as possible. Since we did stop in a hotel we had to observe breakfast time, meaning we were never out before shortly after eight.
The Bearded Vulture at Gemmi Pass
The best place to observe and capture Bearded Vultures on camera is in about 200 metres distance from Gemmmi Lodge. From this place on can direcly see the steep rock faces of the neighbouring “Plattenhörner” peaks. The rock face is steep. The wind either comes from the north or south. During north wind it is most unlikely that the Bearded Vulture will pop up. It is south wind that provides the best chances of at least getting sight of the Bearded Vulture. This is because south wind provides the best thermal updrift at the rock face.
The south-facing steep rock faces at Gemmi pass are full of large caves. These caves can easily be detected with the naked eye. It was during our second day when we found out that the Bearded Vulture is using a cave in the next rock face for sleeping and resting. At about 0800 h in the morning it check out the rock face for any flying birds, when suddenly a Bearded Vulture was gliding alongside the rock face.
The bird appeared to have come out of no-where. But we noticed that the vulture was hovering besides a cave that could be seen from our vantage point. The large hole in the above image marks the entrance to the cave.
Currently there are three Bearded Vultures around at the Gemmi, two adults and one juvenile, hatched in 2021. The juvenile is still dark still does a flight pattern similar to the Hooded Crow (German = Nebelkrähe, French = Corneille mantelée).
Bearded Vulture in Sight
What to do when a Bearded Vulture appears close to your observation post? Keep your nerves, the flying vulture in focus and press the release. Take as many images as possible. Believe me, auto focus is not always correct and you can be happy to take just some good pics home.
Griffon Vultures at the Gemmi
As already mentioned one vulture rarely comes alone. Or, where Bearded Vultures are around, Griffon Vultures are not too far away. We could see large groups of Griffon Vultures every day and did have an enjoyable time even watchen them circling high in the sky. More on this in a forthcoming post.
In case you liked my post please leave a like and subscribe to my channel. For those being interested in vulture protection you might also like to check out the page of the European Vulture Conservaton Foundation at 4vultures.org.