I arrived in Andalusia. It was midnight and I followed a gravel road weaving through the mountains. I was in the middle of nowhere. There at the gate was a 4×4 vehicle, with headlights on, quietly purring. Despite my late arrival I was greeted by a man with a warm smile, who introduced himself as Pakillo. His jumper stamped with the logo ‘Bearded Vulture Conservation Project’. I followed him back to the centre, settled into my sleeping bag for the night and tried to contain my excitement for the shoot ahead. The next morning, I quickly gathered my camera and tripod and headed to the main office, where I could hear faint chirping. There under a glowing lightbulb was a small Bearded Vulture chick. Its heavy head lifting as it begged. It had very little grey downy feathers but it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Not in appearance necessarily. No, this precious chick was a key part of a project that would help build a population, help restore an ecosystem. And for that it was magnificent. After filming our individual chick, Pakillo let me assist. I would delicately hold the back of its neck and as it would beg I would open the tweezers and place another bit of the food deep in its mouth.
These precious first few moments of this chicks life is just the beginning of the story. The documentary goes onto follow the people behind the project and a story of what happens to the bird when it’s given to a foster parent vulture and when it’s taken into the wild for release.
For the release the team use a method called ‘hacking’ which involves putting a bird in an artificial nest designed so that the young bird can acclimatise to the natural environment, before their first flight. One day I headed up into the mountains with the team to learn more about one of the hacking sites. The site is a tucked away cave with a lot of space, out of access from terrestrial predators. This helps give the birds the best chance of survival and adjustment to this environment. While food is provided for the first few days to weeks, it is done in a way that ensures there is no human contact at all.
We followed a trail road in the 4×4, winding our way upwards through forests that wrapped around the mountainside. As we reached the top the hazy glow of the sun was a warm welcome. On arrival, the team spoke of weeks spent up here waiting for Bearded Vultures to fledge. Overhead circled two Golden Eagles, curiously checking out what we were doing. The release site was surrounded by 360 degree views of wild Andalusian landscape. In the distance sat towering cliffs, while layers of forests echoing with bird calls stretched over mountains as far as the eye could see. This must be one of the most beautiful release sites of any project. As soon as these vultures arrive on site they are surrounded by the perfect habitat for them to thrive and start a new life in the wild.
Thanks to the success of this team and this site, there are currently three Bearded Vulture pairs and 43 confirmed individuals in Andalusia. The work of the Vulture Conservation Foundation has built a new idea of extraordinary possibilities when it comes to rewilding.