Leica Ambassador Lizzie Daly has been on a mission to tell the remarkable story of the return of the Bearded Vulture. In Part 1 of this three part series, Lizzie tells us how her journey documenting this incredible bird all began.

Out of the low lying cloud soars a silhouette that I have been dreaming of seeing with my own eyes. A wild Bearded Vulture. As I pull the binoculars to my face, I hold my breath and track its shape. Its striking plumage, distinctive black beard and unmistakable wingspan come into focus.

The Bearded Vulture is the biggest bird in the Alps, it can grow to up to 4ft tall with a 9ft wingspan, and it is one of Europe’s rarest raptors. It’s been labelled the ‘flying dragon’. As it landed on a rock site I traced every detail of the Old World Vulture. It preened, flashing its black beard and punk rock hair do. The young vulture used its bill to clean itself and then ruffled its feathers which now and again caught the light. The fire red eye ring was magnificent.

Like so many others, I had made the almost 4 hour journey to the Peak District to see the wild juvenile Bearded Vulture named ‘Vigo’ that had travelled over to the UK, in the summer of 2020. This magical moment wasn’t just a sighting. This was the beginning of an exciting journey to tell the story of arguably one of the world’s most impressive conservation success stories.

Vultures have a tough time when it comes to how they are depicted in the media. There are misconceptions and ideas about the Vultures of the world. That they are scavengers, prehistoric opportunistic predators, flying monsters. They are often seen circling dying animals, but they don’t deserve this bad reputation. In reality, vultures are critical to their ecosystem and environment, providing important ecosystem services. They protect us from diseases spread by rotten meat and save us the expense of cleaning it up. But despite their important role vultures are now globally threatened, and many vulture species alive today are listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered.

In Southeast Asia 98% of vultures have been wiped out in the last two decades. Across Europe things have also been a struggle. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Bearded Vulture was pushed to near extinction due to a negative perception of them. Remnants of this bad reputation still exists today with people perceiving these vultures as predators of livestock and so they set out to poison or even shoot them.

For this reason I was determined to tell the story of the Bearded Vulture in partnership with Leica and the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF).

The VCF was set up in 1978 to help restore natural numbers of this species, and that same year they released 22 Bearded Vultures across France and Spain. Today this breeding programme is still being used to help boost populations of Bearded Vulture across Europe and I was about to learn all about how it works in a way never seen before. At the beginning of 2022 I set out to document this charismatic species for a short documentary in partnership with Leica. Over the course of the year I planned to film the life of one vulture, from egg to release, across various locations in Europe.

Little did I know that this story would be so much bigger than I could have ever anticipated. It would take me on a journey of changing perceptions, intimacy, adventure, risk and commitment. This was no longer the story of one vulture species but instead a tale of hardships and challenges, grief and perseverance. Of changing perceptions, adventure, dedication and conservation.

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