After a short 15 days in Thailand helping track the ‘pain in the arse’ elongated tortoises, and a brief stint with the King cobra team while Matt wrote a conference presentation, I returned to the UK. Do not fear, dear reader, I wouldn’t be freezing in the English summer for too long, I had made a plan over a year ago so this wouldn’t happen. Two weeks later, after zooming around like a whirling dervish filling my time visiting friends, fossil hunting, eating scones, bird watching (I saw my first hobby and a pair of nesting peregrines), a beach BBQ, an amazing late night exhibition at the Natural History Museum of London, eating cake, cliff walking, a zoo trip and yet more catching up with friends, I set off once again for warmer climes.
By now you should have grasped, at least to some degree, my insanity-inducing passion for small wild cats but what you won’t know is that my other major love, excluding food, is vultures. This came about during a university trip to a small place in South Africa called Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, where I fell completely in love with these oft-reviled and misunderstood scavengers. The reserve had what is known as a vulture restaurant, an area where meat is placed specifically to feed endangered and declining populations of vultures. After one trip to the bird hide overlooking the restaurant – I was hooked. At the end of our stay we had to undertake a mini-study, most people replicated what they had done earlier in the week, such as invertebrate surveys or plant surveys. But, I and 3 others asked if we could sit in the hide and just watch the behaviour of the vultures. It was both fascinating and highly entertaining: Three species had congregated around a goat carcass, cape, white-backed and lappet-faced vultures. Both the cape and the white-backed vultures seemed to give way to the lappet-faced, but there was no hierarchy between the other two. It was hilarious watching the increasingly aggressive interactions between the species. At first, one bird would stand with its wings spread wide in what seemed like an ‘I’m bigger than you so move over’ posture, which progressed to running at the other bird with wings still outstretched and then finally, if the opposing bird still didn’t back down, it resulted in wings out wide and a massive jump with one leg outstretched in an amusing attempt at a kick. We stayed far longer in the hide than we ought to have done, our eyes glued to the binoculars, so much so that eventually someone had to be sent to peel us away.
So for the 5th time in 10 months I was back at Heathrow but rather than heading East, this time I was heading South. I would be spending the next 3 months working on the critically endangered hooded vulture in South Africa. Just like the Urban Fishing Cat Conservation Project, this project was tiny and had a sum total of 1 person working in the field and her name was Lindy Thompson. She was the first researcher to reply to my e-mails when I started to plan my year of fieldwork, but due to my travel schedule her 2015 data collection season ended before I could fly out. Luckily, she was happy for me to join her for the following year. During all our correspondence she’d been very kind, friendly and helpful and I couldn’t wait to meet her.
After 12 hours of flying (nothing particularly exciting, just confusing German security with an excess of imaginary metal parts in my body, daft metal scanners! and the usual dash to the opposite side of the terminal for my connecting flight) I had a 3-hour wait at the airport before my bus arrived. It would then be a 6-hour ride to the town of Hoedspruit where I would finally meet my first vulture expert.
As the minibus stopped in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, I was informed that this was my destination. There were a few people milling around at the stop but I recognised Lindy from a bit of last-minute Facebook stalking (sigh of relief) and, after a quick ‘hello’, she and her partner, John, drove me straight to a restaurant, I liked these people instantly! The next day was fantastic, after a long lie-in and a cooked breakfast we went to check on a pair of nesting hooded vultures. We drove to a large rocky outcrop with a stunning view where, in the distance across the valley Lindy pointed out a specific tree. I trained my binoculars on a dark patch within a larger green patch, only to see – a splodge. Assuming I had zeroed in on the correct dark patch of the right tree, I was either looking in the right spot and the bird was hunkered down, or I was focusing on the wrong tree and my eyes were convincing my brain that a branch could be a vulture. As it turned out, every time Lindy looked at the nest the vulture popped his head up, but when I did he lowered it, typical! We were taking fieldwork easy today and I was being taught what it meant to be South African – so I chilled out in the sun. With a telescope fixed on the nest, a G&T in hand and a massive hunk of meat cooking on the braai (the South African equivalent of a BBQ), life was good. To top it all off, eventually, Mr Hoody not only lifted his head but looked directly at me. He was beautiful.
Oh and as for Africa being the ‘dark continent’ it was winter and there was not a thing in the sky but the blazing sunshine.