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The shadow glides silently across the ground in front of us before dissolving into the grassy slopes; it’s big – no, that’s an understatement, it’s huge. We hold our collective breath and wait. There’s an atmosphere bordering on delirious excitement tinged with a hint of twitchy nervousness. The shadow promises (warns of) the approach of a silent predator from the skies. Anticipation reaches nerve-shredding levels.
It’s not long before another shadow appears, this time even bigger… closer. It’s joined by another and another. It’s breath holding time.
“They’re coming,” somebody whispers seconds before a screeching, squabbling mass descends like a dense cloud, catching us by complete surprise even though we were awaiting their arrival.
We line up our digital weapons and let fly with a barrage of clicks. The battle to get a good shot of the army of griffon vultures voraciously tearing two putrid carcasses apart had begun.
What was ambiguously described as a ‘bird watching’ activity during our tour of Catalonia turned out to be an adrenalin pumping experience that I’d have expected to witness on the African plains rather than on a hill outside the sleepily quaint village of Temp in Lieda.
The first clue that this was no ordinary birdwatching trip was when we alighted from our 4X4 transport to find the sky filled with a circling army of vultures silhouetted against the sun; a sight that conjured up images of crawling on hands and knees through a cracked desert terrain gasping for ‘water’ with only a bleached buffalo skull and an ominous circling army for company.
The second was when we were directed to an earthy platform overlooking a slope covered in mini mountains of vulture guano. As we watched the skies, two huge bins filled with glistening pink carrion were dumped right under our noses causing a reaction akin to an alternative version of a Mexican wave. The overwhelming stench raced along our line with a physical presence that caused an involuntary snapping back of the head. The fact that no-one released a technicolour yawn was mainly due to the fact that Susannah, one of our guides, told us to rub wild lavender under our noses (a dignity saving tip if ever there was one).
Our sanctuary from the stench was a little wooden hide from which we were able to watch incredible and frantic scenes of vulture feeding time unseen, and in relative comfort.
Our birdwatching trip with a difference was organised by Photo Logistics, a company specialising in creating the ideal conditions for wildlife photographers to capture images of birds and animals in their natural habitat. They do so in an ethical way that benefits birds, photographers and local landowners, working with local councils to ensure their projects also help raise awareness about the breeding patterns of local species as well as providing an incredible platform for getting thrillingly close to the action. Animals’ well-being is always put first with ‘shooting’ times arranged to coincide with natural feeding patterns (i.e. usually sunrise and sunset).
Although the army of griffon vultures steals the show in terms of sheer spectacle as they reduce carcasses to a lingering (in nasal passages at least) memory, the set up is primarily designed to support the conservation of the Egyptian vulture. I have to admit that when a couple of white-winged Egyptian vultures appeared on the scene it was a case of ‘yeah, very nice,’ before my attention was drawn back to the huge sea of fascinating and reptilian-faced birds right in front of us.
I would never have imagined we could get so close to the action. The only thing closer was the dead meat the vultures were gorging themselves on.
We’d just about relaxed at being in such close proximity to these huge birds with beaks designed to rip open meat much tougher than our measly human flesh when someone accidentally tapped their camera lens against the one-way glass. A particularly big specimen a few feet away stopped eating, raised its head, tilted it to one side and carefully observed the hut with a beady eye. I remembered I’d seen that exact look somewhere before – from a raptor in Jurassic Park.
“Do vultures ever feast on live meat?” I asked whilst trying to calculate whether there was anyone in our group that I might be able to actually outrun over a 100 metre dash from the suddenly fragile seeming hide back to the safety of the 4x4s.
Buzz Trips visited the Photo Logistics hide at Serra de Llerás as a very happy if slightly nervous guest of Catalunya Tourist Board. Visit the Photo Logistics website to find out more about the mind blowing packages they organise.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+