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Lammergeier photography with BirdinginSpain.com

I rarely pay go on organised photography trips, mainly because I think that many of them are overpriced for what they offer and, in these days with the wealth of information on the internet and a bit of research by me and my photo partner, we can usually come up with a good trip of our own, The benefit of this is that we don’t end up with the same images of birds at a Hungarian drinking pool as everyone else has or the same captive golden eagle on a Scottish mountain as everyone else etc etc. Now and again however, there comes a species which is too difficult to do without the local knowledge or necessary paperwork and lammergeier in Spain is one such species.

Spain protects its lammergeier with rigorous laws and to photograph them properly requires the necessary papers from the Spanish government and with that alone comes language issues and there’s also the logistical problem of establishing a baiting station high in the Pyrenees ahead of your arrival. So, having decided we wanted to photograph lammergier, my friend Frederic Desmette and I hunted around for an organised trip where we could photograph this magnificent species. We looked at several possibilities, but in the end we went with Birding in Spain run by Steve West, an English guy living in Spain for the last 20yrs. Having contacted Steve, the first thing we did was to try and negotiate on the price for four photographers attending for three days in the hide and with a bit of heavy persuasion he reluctantly gave us a small discount of around 200euros per person but this meant we were still paying approximately £800 for three days in the hide not including airfare and ground transport. Good money by anyone’s standard but the trip promised to be good and it was an enigmatic species we couldn’t get for ourselves. Four professional/semi-professional nature photographers went on the trip, myself, Frederic Desmette, Jari Peltomaki and Serge Sorbi – a good team and we were looking to fill some flash cards.

Did the trip live up to expectations? Well, yes and no! We certainly had plenty of lammergeiers in front of the hide and hundreds of griffon vultures, not to mention at least 8 black vultures but there was just so much wrong with the set-up that it really was hard work to get the shots. The problem with this, and the other two photo tours I’ve been on, is that they are not run by photographers but birdwatchers who think they can see a business opportunity with ‘bird photographers’. The trouble for me is that digital has made nature photography open to the masses and there are just so many folks touting the top end DSLR and 500mm f/4 lenses who are maybe just taking snapshots or wanting to photograph birds but have them simply set up for them. This is where the bird tour companies are aiming and if you are a pro or semi-pro wanting to market your images, the tours can be less than expected. So what was wrong with this tour? Well, rather than write a long essay on what was and wasn’t good, I’ll just summarise the pros and cons.

Cons

  • we were told to arrive at a certain hotel in Montsec but there was no-one there to meet us from Birding in Spain and we had to check ourselves in. Steve West did not arrive until the following morning where, over breakfast and cold coffee (made the night before) we were appraised of what we could expect. It was during this talk that we first found out the hides have one way glass which we would be shooting through. I expressed concern over this as I knew straight away it would affect image quality but Steve said absolutely not. Also, our other concern was what would happen to the glass if it rained? Again Steve said no problem, it rarely rained and the windows have a wooden hood so the glass doesn’t get wet (yeah right!).
  • The tour description said it included all transportation to and from the hides but Steve had arrived in his own family saloon so there just wasn’t room for all of us plus gear so Serge had to take a rental car on the trip with us so Serge provided part of the transport
  • The accommodation in the mountain was in a VERY basic walker’s hostel which costs around 15euros a night and this is where we were based for the three days – nice profit out of the £800 we’d paid!
  • We were told that we would be dropped off at the hides but Steve’s car couldn’t get us there so we had a rough scramble up and down the hillside to get to the hides. Not a problem, but that’s not what we’d paid for. Also, we had to get out and push Steve’s car uphill one morning as it couldn’t make the slushy roads!
  • The hides! My goodness they were poor! One was a home-made wooden shed which was ok but ended up with problems which I’ll mention, and the other two were small fibre-glass bottomless work huts placed on the ground. Frederic and I went in the big wooden hide which was roomy and built low with deep holes in the ground for feet and tripods. The viewing window was massive and gave a great panoramic view over the feeding station but for me it was glass! Its just a no-no! Why spend £6000 on a prime 500mm with handmade, hand ground precision glass and then shoot through dark oneway glass. Its fine shooting straight on, but as soon as you angle your lens, the camera can’t AF properly , The result – SOFT pictures. The following day we felt it only fair that those cramped in the small hides go in the big hide, so Serge and Jari went in the big job while Frederic and I went into the dog kennels and we kept this arrangement for both the remaining days. However, it had rained heavy overnight on the second afternoon and night and on the third day, the footwells that had been dug in the big hide had now had around 9inches of water in them which Jari and Serge were told to just bail out. It must have been like sitting in the Somme trenches that day!
  • The small hides were bottomless so we were sitting on bare wet ground and they were small – knees up round your ears for 8 hours is not good! The glass in these were smaller in area and of less quality – mine had black speckling all over the inside where the coating was crumbling. Also, they steamed up immediately on entering and we didn’t have anything to get them completely dry, just a rag that Steve provided and in any case they steamed up on and off during the day. The cramped space meant it was difficult to swing the lens round for flight shots. I still believe that the griffons could see us through the ‘one way’ glass – when you consider what their eyesight is like, it would be easy for them to pick up movement. This being the case, why not have a sleeved lens opening?
  • It rained!! Despite Steve’s assurances that it rarely rained, it hammered it down and guess what? Within minutes of the first rainfall, the hide glass was covered in raindrops on the outside with no way of cleaning them and eventually, they were so well covered we had to give up early on the third day as we just couldn’t see through the rain soaked glass.
  • The feeding station is adjacent to a public road and on one day, a couple of Spanish birders pulled up to view the feeding spectacle, got out of their cars and flushed everything, They then stood there for 15mins before getting their coats on with the intention of walking down to the feeding site. There was nothing for it but for Frederic to get out of the hide unaccompanied and yell at them to get lost!
  • Bones! Ok, so I know lammergeier like bones so we needed a few, but the carrion (mainly sheep’s legs, pigs heads and other unwanted bits from the abattoir) were scattered far and wide over the feeding site. Its just impossible to get a shot of the bird on the ground without a mass of discarded prey remains which just look so unnatural. Impossible to clone out as there are so many of them
  • Rings, telemetry wires, wing tags and acid marks! Many of the lammergeier are ringed – with lots of rings! Coloured ones, silver ones and radi0 telemetry wires. Again all hard to clone. The black vultures were virtually all ringed, colour-ringed, wing tagged and had acid stains to the wings for id purposes. These problems are not the fault of Birding In Spain but as a photographer its not what I want to have to deal with; its the same in Wales at the red kite feeding station too! It’s always guaranteed though, that your best shot of the day will be a bird full of adornments!
  • Backdrop – mostly you are shooting birds against a rocky hillside which is less than ideal as the birds look better with that soft blurred separation I associate with a shallow DOF from the 500mm. By moving the dog kennels, we managed to get some shots with an open background

Pros

  • The trip did deliver us lammergeier and plenty of them (though  apparently the previous trip didn;t get any due to heavy wind according to the hostel owner). They are magnificent birds to see at such close range, eapecially the adults
  • Shooting with the lens pressed flat to the glass resulted in some usable images and the small dog kennels were light enough to be swizzled round to be placed in a better position for flight shots than they were originally placed.

Overall impression

Great experience to see lammergeier so close, but sadly disappointing to come away with many, many soft pictures from the trip as a result of shooting through glass. Don’t believe what anyone says about one-way glass – it WILL affect your image. Even putting a Jessops UV filter on  my Nikon 300 f/4 prevented it from focusing properly and if I remove the little glass drop-in filter from either the 500mm or the 300mm f/2.8, it will prevent it from focusing. They are precision instruments and that’s why they cost so much! Adding anything in front will affect picture quality. The trip is very expensive for what you get, even with our hard won discount, and I didn’t expect glass (did I mention that?!) or to be sat on the floor, or to bail out water from the hides, or to have to cut short the session because of rain soaked glass or to have to spend the rest of my life cloning out bones from the shots.

We did complain to Steve West about our experience and he suggested that if we held off from reviewing the trip, he would give us two free days in the hide again. However, due to work commitments, getting all four of us back together again for a revisit has proven hard and time has slipped by. In the end I recently suggested that just Frederic and I would go back and Jari (from Finland) and Serge (from Belgium) could make their own arrangements but Steve West has now decided we’ve waited too long and he won’t entertain us going back unless we take paying photographers with us. I have to admit to being a little less than happy with him going back on his word as much of the delay was caused by his failing to reply to any email correspondence and in recent correspondence to Frederic he has been rude and name calling. Not what you’d expect from a tour leader.

Birding in Spain have now re-sited the lammergeier hides to a more private location and the hides have been custom built but I have had two reports saying that its not as good and the birds weren’t as co-operative and also the hides STILL HAVE GLASS. My advice is don’t do it, even if you think the glass won’t affect your lens IT MAY STILL RAIN. No matter how good the glass is, shooting through running water is like smearing your lens with vasoline! I can’t stop you from going but there are other lammergeier feeding stations and we are already looking into a return trip with one of those guys.

Here are a few shots from the trip. I will say as an addendum that I have since photographed unringed/unmarked black vulture, griffon vulture and Egyptian vulture in eastern Europe from a really well thought out hide WITH NO GLASS and well placed carcasses rather than scattered bones and the difference is non-comparable! Fabulous, razor sharp images with rich colour as I would expect. More on that trip later but I’ll put a shot at the end here for comparison.

Below is a shot of griffon vulture displaying over carrion at a feeding station in Bulgaria. Even from the web jpeg it’s easy to see the quality of this is way above the shots from Spain – same camera, same lens, no glass!!!

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Trip report from photographing lammergeir in Spain with birdinginSpain.com | Steve West Birding in Spain | www.birdinginspain.com | photo tours with birding in spain | bird photography with birding in Spain | Steve West www.birdinginspain.com

 

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  • paula - April 3, 2012 - 5:20 pm

    Hi John since you did that talk for the Preston Society on Monday night, I found it most fascinating. I birdwatch myself and have been to Greece a few times and I think I did see a roller which I was pleased to see BUT, I have never seen a wall creeper: they are gorgeous birds. When you were talking about the vultures fighting with each other over a carcass, it reminded of a scene in David Attenborough’s programmes! Anyhow you must visit again when get the chance, Fantastic! ReplyCancel

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