Photographing Lammergeier in Spain: winter 2009: Trip Report
Some time ago I became aware of a company in Spain that specialised in the photography of Lammergeier. The company was called “Birding in Spain” and it is run by a Mr Steve West.
I had several friends who were interested in photographing Lammergeier. Jari Peltomaki was from Finland, Serge Sorbi was from Belgium and John Gardner and I were from England. We have all been taking pictures for over thirty years and have quite a bit of experience.
I got in touch with the aforementioned gentleman and booked a trip for the four of us. At the beginning it was quite difficult to find a date that suited the four of us but we managed to arrange mutually convenient dates eventually. We were told that the trip included three days in specially built hides with glass at the front. This was the first time I had come across a hide that had mirrored glass at the front of it and I was a little apprehensive at first but was advised that the difference in the loss of quality of the pictures would be minimal.
My friends and I all arrived in Spain at different times. Two of us arrived in Barcelona, one friend and I arrived in Saragossa. We then all made our way to the village of Montsonís near the Pyrenees.
We arrived at the aforementioned beautiful Spanish village and we eventually found the hotel where we were going to stay for the first night. It was a very clean hotel and we all had our own room. On the first day we did not meet our host and I thought that it was a bit of a shame but I was quite happy to see some of the friends I had not seen for a long time. We had a very good time that evening and the following morning a very good breakfast. We then met Mr West and he outlined the arrangements.
We had been led to believe when booking the trip that Mr West would take care of everything but it soon transpired that he only had one vehicle and that it would be impossible for five of us and all of our equipment to fit into just Mr West’s car. Therefore, we were obliged to take one of our own rented cars. This was not what had been agreed but as it was our first day and we were all quite keen to get on and we didn’t raise our concern at the time. After two hours drive we arrived in another superb but small village in the Spanish Pyrenees. We dropped off our luggage, took our photographic gear and we were taken to the Vulture hide. The area was magnificent and we could see vultures everywhere. Mr West then proceeded to show us the hides, of which there were three. One big hide and two smaller hides. John and I went in the big hide, and Jari and Serge went into one of the small hides.
The big hide consisted of a shed with a large piece of one way mirror glass at the front. When I saw the glass the first question I asked Mr West was “what happens if it rains?” Mr West assured me that I should not worry as it rarely rained in that area. I believed Mr West and we all prepared ourselves for the arrival of the birds.
After about thirty minutes at least one hundred Griffon Vultures arrived followed by Lammergeier, it was incredible and I had not seen anything like it before. We could see at least eight to ten Lammergeier in front of us, there were some juveniles and some adults. The day appeared to go well and I must have taken a thousand pictures that first day. I made a cursory check in the back of my camera later and the pictures looked okay.
That evening we stayed in a very basic hotel which was only just about okay. It was usually used as a youth hotel in the summer for climbers but at that time we were the only guests. However, Serge had brought some Belgium Beer with him and we made the most of the evening.
The next morning we had breakfast and then went straight to the hides. This time John and I were going to use the small hides. We found that we needed to sit on the floor as there was no seating. This was not good news as we were aware that this would mean that we would have to sit on a hard floor for approximately six hours without moving. It would be very uncomfortable and damaging to our backs but at the time we were just keen to take some pictures. There were plenty of birds in front of us and again it was incredible, the Lammergeier and the Griffon were stunning. For a while it was fantastic but after three hours it began to rain. After the rain fell on to the glass it became impossible to take any pictures. I was very annoyed and my back was also hurting. I had taken lots of pictures and upon a brief glance at the back of the camera they appeared to be okay. I was reasonably content despite the rain and we all returned to the hotel and had a good time that evening.
On the third day we noticed that it had rained a lot during the night. We had a quick breakfast and drove straight to the hide. Unfortunately, the car could not climb the hill and all of us had to get out and push it up the hill. After some time we arrived at the hides and John and I were due to go back in to one of the small hides and Jari and Serge, the big hide. When they opened the door of the big hide it was full of water. There was a hole on the floor of the hide and you were expected to sit on the floor of the hide with your legs in the hole. Mr West arrived and laughed saying “that this was true adventure wildlife photography.” Personally, I was not amused and it meant that Serge and Jari had to empty the hole full of water with just a little cup. I was surprised to see that Mr West did not seem to be concerned about this fact even though we were his paying guests. After some thirty minutes Jari and Serge managed to get inside their hide. John and I got inside ours and because we had had rain all night the ground was soaking wet. We had to sit on a wet pillow for six hours and I was extremely angry. Additionally, after two hours some walkers arrived very close to the hide and the vultures flew away. Mr West was supposed to have ensured that this sort of thing would not happen but he did not deal with the problem. Consequently, I then had to leave the hide and get the walkers to move away. As I got back in to my hide it started to rain. This was the last straw for me as I knew that the trip was now over. Mr West came down and tried to clean the window but it continued to rain and so the trip was indeed over.
Even then we all thought that we were pleased with the pictures we had taken and we then proceeded to drive back to the first hotel in the village of Montsonís. We stayed the night and the next day we all flew back home.
The following day I downloaded my trip pictures on to my computer. I had not looked at my pictures properly before as I had only taken a flash card with me. After having downloaded all my pictures, I started to look at them, I was really excited, but then I noticed most of my pictures were soft, it was awful. There were thousands of soft pictures with only a few good ones. I had never seen anything like this before. I telephoned my friend John and asked what he thought of his results. He was also terribly disappointed; the majority of his pictures were soft too. I then rang my friend in Finland and he said the same. The only person who was pleased with his pictures was my friend from Belgium.
I immediately wrote to Mr West and explained that I was not at all happy but he did not believe me and proceeded to ring all of my friends, who confirmed what I had told him.
I wrote something on my blog mentioning all of this but I did not mention the name of the company who had organised our trip. Mr West then wrote to us explaining that to compensate us he would like us to come back and use his new set up (which consisted of newly built hides) but only if I removed the article that I had written on my website. I duly removed the article as I genuinely believed we had (as Mr West himself had said) a “gentleman’s agreement” which would enable us all to go back free of charge.
Unfortunately, John and I could not make the trip in 2010 because we were professionally busy but about a month ago John wrote to Mr West and asked him if he could give us some dates for our “compensatory trip,” Mr West replied that things had changed and that our gentlemen’s agreement was void, his subsequent letter was as follows;
“With regard to the Lammergeier hide I must say that things have got quite complicated over the last year, namely that the owner, whose name you know and which I care not to mention, has put up prices radically and is not guaranteeing the professional service we require. Bearing that in mind, it should still be possible to book you in for certain dates in January. I would also suggest combining the vulture hide with a day or two at Montsonís to photograph Bonelli’s and Golden Eagles (today I have just filmed the former – half an hour’s footage). I look forward to seeing you both again, however, I hope you understand that with the passage of time and the changing situation our “gentleman’s agreement” is now somewhat out of date, ie. We would have to renegotiate the terms of your visit. “
I do not appreciate people who promise something and then do not deliver. There is no doubt in my mind that the quality of the glass on the two small hides was different to the quality of the glass on the big hide. As John and I had stayed two days in the small hide we had softer pictures than our other two friends.
I do not feel I could possibly recommend going on a photographic trip with “Birding Spain”. I feel that I have been very badly treated. The service given by Mr West was very poor as he did not seem to care about his guests. We had been advised by Mr West that it would be very difficult to take pictures of so many species of vultures without the use of one way mirrored glass. However, this Spring I was in an Eastern country with my friend John and we photographed Black, Griffon and Egyptian vultures, ravens and carrion crow, and wild dogs which were within forty metres from us without any glass in the hide. The results were superb. This has led me to believe that Mr West’s advice was false and that the facilities provided on our trip were simply unacceptable and the small hides were not fit for purpose.
I therefore expect Mr West to come to a mutually acceptable arrangement with myself and John in order to compensate us for our very disappointing trip which was a waste of our very busy time and which resulted in thousands of wasted pictures.
PS: today is the 1st of September and to date we never got compensated….
More info on John gardner website;
PS: I have notice that the name of his company has change: It is now called :”birding photo tour”