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Recently Tim Jackson and Morgan Trimble took a trip to try out the new Sasol-sponsored vulture hide at the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. Here he gives you the low-down from a photographer’s persepctive…  

Photographing from the vulture hide at Golden Gate national Park
The best way to steady a lens is on a bean bag. The zippered flaps that you poke your camera through fall down, so bring something to hold them up. © Tim Jackson

The hide

You approach the hide, on top of a ridge, from a car park a couple of hundred metres away. The design lets you approach without disturbing any birds on the ground, though not in the air, as the ridge acts as a shield. The hide itself is an all-brick construction with metal roof and huge tinted glass windows at the front. It’s plenty spacious inside and divided into two sections. The first, larger, section is for general visitors. Great for viewing, but you can only shoot through the tinted glass. The second, smaller, section is built specifically with photographers in mind. The idea is that this can be booked by photographers. At this stage a system hasn’t been put into place and it’s uncertain whether SANParks will be charging a fee for the privilege.

SANParks put carcasses out at the hide in order to attract vultures in. These are placed about 30 metres away from the hide.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaYuHQ27c9g&feature=youtu.be

This time lapse video shows the view from the hide.

Equipment

There are four curtains in the photographer’s section that can be zippered open to let you stick your lens through – including exotics like a 600/4 or 400/2.8. A small shelf gives you a platform on which to rest a beanbag. Shooting with a tripod isn’t really an option as there’s not enough flexibility to move a lens around following birds.

You’ll most likely need a big exotic lens to get the most out of the hide. I was using a 500/4 on a full-frame body. You might get away with something shorter on a camera with a ‘cropped’ sensor. Even with a 500mm lens I ended up using a 1.4x extender a lot of the time. As the ground slopes down and away you will be shooting slightly downwards onto the bait, but better angled for pictures of birds in flight.

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In use

Difficult to really judge this for now as I had no vultures land! However, photographing jackals on the carcasses was a comfortable enough experience. The fact that there are office chairs, which you can adjust to your height, was a welcome comfort. I’m just not sure how well they will hold up to wear and tear.

The curtains you stick your lens through are difficult to work with as they can’t be held up. So trying to get a visual with your eye on a bird in flight before looking through the viewfinder is tricky. You need basically to hold the curtain up with one hand. SANParks might change the design, though a couple of clothes pegs, or large paper clips, will help for now.

Of the four lens ports the two central ones were definitely the best. The others were cramped by the walls of the hide. Also, as the walls buttress out on the outside, this restricted visibility to the sides. There are also only three viewing windows nest to the four ports, though how this pans out in terms of multiple-users I can’t say.

As far as light goes Golden Gate is renowned for its fickle weather. Check out this time lapse of the passing clouds one morning. The rising sun will give you side-back light to the left side. The sun then moves around behind the hide to give front light through the middle of the day, and then side-lighting from the right in the late afternoon. These pictures show how the light changes through the day.

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So what about the birds?

There were certainly a reasonable number of birds around, with several sightings of both adult and immature bearded vultures, as well as Cape vultures. On several occasions though, as the birds seemed to be coming down, they were disturbed by the arrival of visitors to the hide. So definitely the potential for friction here between regular visitors and photographers. I’m not sure if SANParks has any plans to try and minimise disturbance at the hide – I even had a couple of visitors walk out in front of the hide with a bearded vulture circling above – so my best advice for now would be to go in the week when there are fewer people around. Despite two full days in the hide I only managed to snap a couple of frames of bearded vultures in flight. For a more detailed account of the trip, read Morgan Trimble’s post.

 

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Tim Jackson

With degrees in zoology from the universities of Cambridge and Pretoria, Tim Jackson is mandated to keep his finger on the pulse of the science underlying African conservation and wildlife issues. His insights appear in publications such as Africa Birds and Birding, Safari interactive magazine and in Africa Geographic, where he is the scientific editor. Tim is passionate about travelling and enjoys nothing more than heading into the African wilderness with his trusty camera and notebook to uncover the latest developments and news in the world where wildlife and science collide.