Bearded Bone Crusher

May 02, 2017

There are a number of birds that can be found in the Swiss Alps that are quite simply "blow your socks off cool". Lammergeier, also known as Bearded Vulture or even Bone Crusher, is one of those! This is a big bird (not yellow!!), with a wingspan of somewhere over 2.5 metres (which dwarfs something like a Golden Eagle). It is truly magnificent and in adult/sub-adult plumage, true to its name, it sports a little goatie beard!!

Bearded Vulture, Valais, SwitzerlandBearded Vulture, Valais, Switzerland

Classified by BirdLife International as Near Threatened, a successful reintroduction programme, started back in 1986, with the first wild hatched birds occurring in 1997, has established a healthy population in the Alps. Current population estimate is 200+ individuals in the Alps, while globally no more than 6,700 mature individuals (BirdLife Data Zone species fact sheet).

With a little luck, only a couple of hours drive from Geneva, you can get jaw-dropping views of this stunning bird while surrounded by the splendour of the Alps. Now you of course need heaps of patience - during a stint of 7-8 hours on a mountain pass you may only get one or two viewings. And then it's a bit of a lottery as to whether or not the bird flies close enough, on the right trajectory and in the right light. But when they do appear, and they "behave", then wow!! Bearded Vulture, Valais, SwitzerlandBearded Vulture, Valais, Switzerland

I've been living in Switzerland now for 7 months, and Bearded Vulture is definitely becoming one of my favourite alpine birds to photograph. I have a 1Dx Mkii mounted on a tripod and attached to the 600mm + 1.4 extender, and a 7DMkii with the 100-400mm II slung over the shoulder. The latter provides a really potent combination for when the birds are close - the two images above are both full frame and taken with the 7D Mkii and 100-400mm II combo. Bearded Vulture (4th year), Valais, SwitzerlandBearded Vulture (4th year), Valais, Switzerland

Above is a 4th year/sub adult - not quite as majestic as a full adult but still an imposing bird as it flies by.

For those interested in AF settings, for birds in flight I find tracking sensitivity especially important. This controls whether the active AF point will stay "locked on" the subject or quickly switch focus if the focus point moves off the subject, such as to something in the foreground or background, as may happen if I fail to keep the AF points on the subject at all times. I set this to -2. i.e. stay "locked on" and don't switch focus to the background/foreground too quickly, together with AF Area Selection set to AF Point Expansion, either 4 or 8 point. My tracking skills are something I'm forever striving to improve and I have to remind myself to pan "through" the bird to avoid it getting ahead in the viewfinder. The telltale sign that I'm panning too slowly is that in a sequence of shots the subject increasingly gets closer to the leading edge of the image. Bearded Vulture, Valais, SwitzerlandBearded Vulture, Valais, Switzerland

And whilst the frame-filling fly-bys (is that Maverick and Goose!!??) with clear blue skies give you great bang for your buck, I'm a big fan of "habitat" shots, giving a sense of place. Bearded Vulture, Valais, SwitzerlandBearded Vulture, Valais, Switzerland

Hanging out at the mountain pass is a wonderful way to spend a day. And if the vultures are not putting on a show, then you will be entertained by the ever present Alpine Choughs, and with luck another two bird specialties of the Alps: Alpine Accentor and White-winged Snowfinch. Alpine Accentor, Valais, SwitzerlandAlpine Accentor, Valais, Switzerland White-winged Snowfinch, Valais, SwitzerlandWhite-winged Snowfinch, Valais, Switzerland And while waiting for your target bird, the "office" view isn't so bad (pano with iPhone 6s)!

If you're interested in a custom workshop photographing these avian wonders and polishing your bird in flight skills, then send me a message.

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