The Undertaker

The habits of the vultures – feeding on animal carcasses – as well as their hunched over posture,  always remind me of the stereo-typical undertaker seen in films. Or more accurately cartoon films. On our last visit to the Kgalagadi, we were lucky to see one close up. We had been watching two male lions basically doing very little of interest, when the vulture arrived at the waterhole. Watching the vulture turned out to be far more entertaining.

According to Wikipedia The lappet-faced vulture is a huge species, ranking as the longest and largest winged vulture in its range . . . This species measures around 95–115 cm (37–45 in) in body length, with a wingspan of 2.5–2.9 m (8.2–9.5 ft).” The distinctive feature of the Lappet-faced Vulture is the combination of the colorful head and fleshy folds on the side of it . . . The bald head of the lappet-faced vulture is advantageous, because a feathered head would become spattered with blood and other fluids, and thus be difficult to keep clean. Now there’s a “fun” fact for you! 🙂

Willie’s notes from the sighting . . .

Photographing wildlife has unique demands and being able to adapt to rapidly changing conditions requires skills which I am still acquiring.  During our last visit to the Kgalagadi I went through a very steep learning curve trying to cope with exposure and focus in the bright Kalahari light.  This Lappet-faced Vulture sighting was a very good example.  With the various sightings before this one, I was able to play around and customise the manual, aperture priority and shutter speed priority settings on my camera (Canon 70D) .  This sighting started off with two male lions moving around slowly in the harsh Kalahari sun, bellies bulging from the feast of the previous night.  Photography in manual mode was slow and easy, tracking the slow pace of the lions drinking water and settling for an afternoon nap.  At the same time some large predatory birds were starting to make use of the thermals generated by the hot sun.  I saw one vulture coming down for a landing. I flipped to shutter speed priority, and using the touch screen, settings were quickly changed to as high a speed as possible so that I could start tracking the flight of the bird.  The lens locked in after two shots and I  followed the bird trying to keep the long lens (Tamron 150 – 600) stable. The lions were totally forgotten.



A “pregnant” looking male lion. Humans aren’t the only ones that stuff themselves! ©WMB/


The second lion standing in the shade of a Shepherd’s Tree (Boscia albitrunca). ©WMB/


The two lions settle down for an afternoon nap. They would stay like this for hours, barely moving i.e. not such inspiring photographic subjects. ©WMB/


The Lappet-faced Vulture coming in for a landing. ©WMB/




Getting ready for touch-down. ©WMB/






The Undertaker: An impressive if not beautiful bird. ©WMB/

According to the Kgalagadi Information Guide* “An adult Lappet-faced Vulture can dominate at a carcass, displacing up to 30 White-backed Vultures and keeping them at bay”.


A face only its mother can love? That huge, sharp beak is custom designed to tear apart a carcass.  ©WMB/


The feathers of the Lappet-faced Vulture are really beautiful up close. Something that is easy to miss because of the distracting “bath cap” head.  ©WMB/





Just before taking off again, the vulture seemed to do this “pre-flight check”, extending and flapping each of its wings in turn – almost like it was dancing.






Ready for lift off. ©WMB/




These birds have a really impressive wing span. What fascinated me is that it managed to get airborne with very little effort. ©WMB/







Within a minute it was far above us again, riding the thermals. ©WMB/

*South African National Parks: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – Official Information Guide. (This guide is available at the Kgalagadi park reception.)

See the most recent Kalahari posts here.

Also see: Kalahari Series I – 2009 and  Kalahari  Series II – 2011

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Categories: Nature/Environment, Photography


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at and (my photoblog)


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21 Comments on “The Undertaker”

  1. January 23, 2015 at 1:52 pm #

    Spectacular photos, simply spectacular! We have turkey vultures in the Gulf region of Texas. Coincidentally I posted a photo of one of our big birds, a buzzard with its wings opened up, this morning. They are protected by the state of TX.

    • January 24, 2015 at 6:43 am #

      Hi Georgette! 🙂 I was just reading about the “New World vultures” (Turkey Vultures belong to that group) occurring in the Americas. In Wikipedia it says “New World vultures do not form a monophyletic clade with the superficially similar family of Old World vultures; similarities between the two groups are due to convergent evolution. Just how closely related they are has been a matter of debate (see Taxonomy and systematics). Many now consider them to be in their own order Cathartiformes, closely related to, but distinct from, Old World vultures and allies (Accipitriformes).” Just had a look at your post – amazing that it was in your yard.

      • January 24, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

        We just moved to a parcel of land out in the country last June that accommodates 25+, coyotes at night, deer, terapins that greet us at the back porch for coffee, so our “yard” is about 100 acres now. That said we see the turkey vultures not only here in the country, but also we saw them in the neighborhood of our former city house.

  2. January 23, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

    I loved this post. Beautiful images.

  3. Estie
    January 23, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    Wow. Great pictures! Love them.

    • January 24, 2015 at 6:52 am #

      Thanks Estie! 🙂 Willie took some excellent photos on the last Kalahari trip, so there’s still be more interesting posts to come.

  4. Eha
    January 24, 2015 at 1:49 am #

    Oh Willie – what fantastic looking photos even if they are of one of the uglier specimens alive! You can almost hear the wind in the wings . . . Love to Lisa and yourself: hope life is treating you fair!

    • January 24, 2015 at 6:55 am #

      Hi Eha! 🙂 Thanks, Willie is very chuffed with the photos.

      Sorry I’ve been MIA over the last month. It’s been SO hot here. I heard you were having the same hot weather in Australia. A belated Happy New Year to you! 🙂

      • Eha
        January 25, 2015 at 1:53 am #

        Lisa – thought came right in the middle of the night – has Willie ever approached ‘National Geographic’ and shown them his work? ‘Cause on of my relatives [a senior IT manager actually] did, got printed and now keeps in contact with all his new work!! . . . Would be great for the readers and, methinks, interesting for Willie? Oh a hugely successful 2015 of course!!

    • Willie
      January 27, 2015 at 6:51 am #

      Hi Eha – Thanks, I consider it a very big compliment. I have never really contemplated turning one of my hobbies into an occupation. My stress levels would certainly be much lower than in my current job. Being able to travel, and take pictures of wildlife and other cultures is certainly my kind of adventure. At this stage I am trying to improve my photographic skills and help Lisa with her blog. Will see how things develop.

      • Eha
        January 28, 2015 at 4:29 am #

        Hi Willie! No, not an occupation: ‘National Geographic’ does seem to accept both single series and even single photos . . . you do not have to be a photographer [and let’s face it you are!] or ‘give up your day job’!! Just a thought: these and many previous are so good and you have access to places others do not!!

      • Eha
        January 28, 2015 at 4:46 am #

        Tried to send you a link: well, have never been bright in that dept 🙂 ! Look up ‘Alan di Lucca’ and find the link to NG . . . he is the head of IT of one of Oz’ biggest banks but has been some kind of ‘associate member of Nat Geo’ since 2012 . . . as photographing animals seems to be an opportunity ‘to let off steam’

  5. January 24, 2015 at 10:02 pm #

    Cool! Thanks for the close-up look at this interesting bird. We have turkey vultures at certain times of the year, but I’ve never been able to get as close as this (photographically or otherwise).

    • January 27, 2015 at 8:27 am #

      Hi Skadu! 🙂 We don’t normally see vultures this close up either – they are normally further away from the road or hidden by thorn tree branches in their nests. Was so interesting to see this one.

  6. January 26, 2015 at 11:24 pm #

    “A face only a mother could love.” 🙂
    But what beautiful feathers and wings. These are gorgeous photos, Lisa.

    • January 27, 2015 at 8:28 am #

      Thanks Jackie! I had a look at photos of baby vultures – they are not pretty babies either. So maybe the mother vulture tells her youngsters “You take after your father!” 😉

  7. February 4, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

    Actually, I have rather a soft spot for vultures and find their faces very endearing. Sometimes something can be so ugly as to be really lovely!! Last year i had the privilege of ‘flying’ a lappet faced vulture at a wildlife sanctuary in North Yorkshire and the size and weight were quite challenging, but also really thrilling. Thanks for such super photos:)

    • February 6, 2015 at 8:07 am #

      Hi Sweffling! 🙂 Thanks for reading my post and for your kind comment. Went to have a look at your post about the Faconry Centre – fascinating!

  8. Marissa
    September 19, 2016 at 8:29 am #

    Hi Lisa
    The ‘thorn tree’ is a shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca/ witgat in Afrikaans).
    Beautiful pics, thanks and I’m looking forward to the October blogs.

    • September 19, 2016 at 10:19 am #

      Hi Marissa! Thank you for the information – I’ll correct that. 🙂 I’m afraid I’m not too good at tree identification. Appreciate you visiting my blog and leaving a comment.

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