Sunday 11 October 2020

Back to the Lammergeier 10th October 2020

The juvenile female Lammergeier "Vigo" that has provided so much pleasure to so many people for the past three months has been touring England since it left its temporary home in Derbyshire on 18th September and moved south, being seen in Leicestershire on 20th September, then near Eynsham in Oxfordshire the next day. It was assumed it was heading back home to the Pyrenees or Alps.

However it turned up a week later in Norfolk and for the last three days has been hanging around an area of farmland between Thorney and Crowland which lies in the Lincolnshire Fens. A colleague of mine Hugh, who lives nearby, found it roosting in a tree by the side of Crowland Road at the entrance to Singlesole Farm and got sensational close up views of it. I spoke to him on Friday night and he sent me specific directions to the tree it was roosting in and I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss and determined to get to the tree before the vulture left it next morning. 

Hugh told me that for the last two days it had left its roost at around 9.00am so I aimed to get to the site at around 7.00am which required a very early 5.00am start from my home, in order to be there well in time and in case the vulture decided to leave its roost earlier. A long and tedious drive, mainly in the dark found me, at dawn, turning off the main road and taking to the long and lonely Crowland Road that runs between enormous flat fields that were once fenland but are now converted to growing sugar beet.

I assumed that there would only be a few birders at the roost site at this early hour but after a couple of miles driving along the road to Crowland I found myself struggling to find a parking place as there were so many cars already drawn up either side of the farm entrance. Cars were lined along one edge of the fortunately quiet road, nose to tail on the grass verge and I was extremely lucky to find a space that had just been vacated and squeezed the car up onto the wet grass and off the road. I could see a phalanx of birders on the other side of the road, stood under some trees and looking up towards a line of four or five large poplar trees on the other side of the road.

This was obviously the roost site for the vulture and on joining the birders I looked up and across the road and there, about thirty metres away was the Lammergeier, perched at the top of the tree amongst some bare branches.

The Lammergeier can be seen almost at the very top of the tree

It was facing away from us and into the brisk northwest wind that blew across the flat landscape. It was going to be cold standing here for an hour or more and I was glad I had ensured that I was insulated with a thick jumper, scarf and padded jacket, before leaving home.

My first views of the Lammergeier

It was already light and the vulture was wide awake but looked like it was not about to move anywhere soon.We looked up at it and it looked around from its lofty perch seemingly untroubled by so many silent admirers below. Then it moved position requiring all of us to cross the road and go into the entrance to the farm and stand by a huge pile of beets and bales of straw.This gave welcome shelter from the wind and much better views as the vulture was facing us and less obscured by branches.

Slowly the light improved and then the sun rose above the horizon and bathed the tree in gentle sunlight. By now I estimated there was getting on for a hundred people standing around either side of the road looking up at this huge bird, incongruously perched in a tree in the flat lands of the  Fens. Not a traditional habitat for a Lammergeier  but it looked happy enough and content.

As we watched the vulture slowly began to show signs of restlessness.The wind ruffled its loose feathering and it preened the occasional irritating feather, shuffled on its perch and began looking out to the fallow field that lay below its tree. I could sense it was about to leave its roost when it stretched out its neck, checking the lay of the land, then at 7.40am it spread its huge wings and sailed out from the tree, describing a broad arc to its right that took it over the huge field and towards the road which it followed, until circling once again it landed on the verge by the road. 

A passing car came to a sudden halt and the occupants must have had an eyeball to eyeball view of the huge bird as it sat on the grass looking around. Five minutes later it took off and flew low, for about fifty metres, into the field and landed once more on the earth.

It stood looking around and then lowered its head and began to eat the remains of a hare and for the next twenty minutes gulped down bits of the long dead animal, standing on the body and tearing chunks off with its huge bill. Finally when all the hare, including the fur was gone it stood in the field and did very little for the next hour apart from taking the occasional few clumsy steps across the ground. 

The sun came out to highlight the various shades of buff and brown that comprise its plumage at this stage of its life.The upperparts were a messy mixture of pale buff and darker brown, the underparts tawny, turning almost golden in the sunlight. 

However it was the vulture's head that drew your attention.Both head and neck were coloured black with the feathers around the neck long and loose, forming a distinct ruff  and when caught in the wind fanned up over the head to form a halo of black. Its hooked bill was pale and massive and a tuft of feathers hung down from each side of the upper mandible, and from which the bird gets its alternative name, Bearded Vulture. A glaring eye of palest yellow stared impassively, surrounded by a small amount of  grey bare skin turning to scarlet behind the eye. Its legs and talons were hidden by loose feathering creating the impression it was wearing a set of baggy trousers.The chilling wind blew unhindered across the field and disturbed its loose feathering, blowing feathers on its back into disarray but the vulture appeared untroubled. 

When the vulture landed at the other end of the field I, along with many others walked the several hundred metres along the side of the road to bring us level with the vulture which showed not the slightest concern and continued to feed and then sit in the field. The road was now lined with birders, a guard of honour and all of us getting a grandstand view of this magnificent bird. Passing cars came to a halt, the occupants enquiring what was the cause of this mass assembly of birders on a normally deserted and isolated road.When told about the vulture they were amazed that such a bird had found its way to the fens.

I waited by the roadside, the wind slowly beginning to penetrate my clothing. I was getting progressively colder but was going nowhere. Everyone else felt the same, as this occasion was unique. The vulture, totally immune to all the fuss and excitement it was causing stood impassively on the rich brown earth. For almost an hour it remained on the ground. The sun disappeared and it became ever colder. The vulture's plumage became a shade greyer with the loss of the sunlight and I felt a hint of rain in the wind. Stood on this bleak, windswept road there was no hiding place from the elements.

Suddenly the Lammergeier took off with no warning and rose, huge and impressive over the field.It did not rise up very far but described a huge cricle around the field and then slowly descended to land at the far side.


It had found another dead hare and proceeded to feed on it, consuming the whole animal in huge chunks. I saw a whole leg go down in one, and again, even the fur was eaten. A Magpie, cheeky as ever hopped around the vulture, even landing briefly on its back but the vulture shrugged it off and continued to eat. A Kestrel dive bombed it but was met with the same indifference from the vulture and finally the two smaller birds retired to a bare tree and watched this huge interloper to their home continue to consume the hare.

I was curious as to why there were dead hares in the field and learned that this was the disgusting work of hare coursers that come at night and illegally use dogs to chase and kill the hares on the fields, (here there are no fences to protect the huge fields), and just leave the bodies lying in the field. Just the killing is enough to satisfy their bloodlust.

Well l suppose these dead hares have served some useful purpose in keeping the Lammergeier happy and fully fed but it brought a sour note to the day. Hugh and his family arrived and we met under a large tree and watched the vulture some more. Once again, having fed, it just sat in the field replete and content.

I was now very cold and Hugh and his family were also ready to go, so in convoy we retired to his home for tea and toast and another rather special experience came to its conclusion.

It's been quite an autumn.

Lammergeier update

Two small discarded feathers from the vulture that were collected when it was in the Peak District of Derbyshire have been analysed and prove that Vigo comes from the French Alps and is a female bird that hatched last year (2019) in a wild nest.

I guess the name Vigo will have to be changed as it is a masculine name.

The Lammergeir was seen in Bedfordshire on 13th October flying over the RSPB's Headquarters at The Lodge, Sandy Bedfordshire and on 14th was reported further south near Litlington in East Sussex. Maybe it really is going to cross The English Channel this time and head back home!

It did! 

It was seen leaving Sussex and  heading south over the English Channel at 2pm on 15th October.



  1. Your shots of the Lammergeier are fantastic, Ewan. We (my wife and I) must have passed you as you stood/sat patiently at the side of the road with the other enthusiasts, whilst on route to Pondersbridge. We wondered (correctly it seems) what all the fuss was about. And now we know!