I woke up this morning and checked social media before the coffee, only to notice a post: “MEGA – a Cinereous Vulture [a.k.a. Eurasian Black Vulture] with a satellite transmitter spent the night in the arable fields near Belgrade”. Superficially similar but unrelated to New World condors, it is huge, more pterodactyl-like than bird-like. I dipped it some years back — I am not aware of any local sightings since, and to this day have never seen it.

Before I was born, it used to be a rare breeding species in mountainous areas south of Belgrade, but became extinct after the 1960s due to intensive poisoning of wolves. After that period it was observed very rarely as a vagrant. In this century it was recorded only twice.

So I checked the location on satellite imagery, to discover that I cannot possibly reach the spot. But it’s a huge bird. The Cinereous Vulture measures 98–120 cm (39–47 in) in total length with a 2.5–3.1 m (8 ft 2 in – 10 ft 2 in) wingspan. Hence, if I manage to find a good vantage point, I could get lucky, I was saying. Inside, I was more like, no way, I stand no chance to get close enough to that area. It is a former floodplain with arable fields intersected by numerous canals. Basically, for Operation Vulture I need a tractor.

Stopping for a large cappuccino at a drive-in McDonalds en route, soon I entered a hamlet of a dozen family homes mixed with a dozen small apartment buildings. Trying to find my way into the surrounding fields, I got lost in a maze of alleys ending up in front of some building entrance or a yard gate, but otherwise leading nowhere.

Asking locals for the way — twice, I am finally back at the main road. Now, I noticed a cobbled side track leading towards a bridge over a former river, straightened up and turned into a canal, but with a fine area of a spacious reedbed. Across the bridge and left onto a dirt track between the fields. To my surprise, the track was dry and even, a perfect driving surface. There’s an eagle… a White-tailed Eagle, a relatively common and numerous breeding species of riparian forests along large water courses and fishponds.

Soon I am at the end of the track, and as I will discover later, only 900 metres / 0.55 miles from the overnight spot of my bird. Another eagle, a spotted eagle this time… my first Lesser Spotted Eagle of the season — they have just started to appear, a very rare breeding species that continues to decrease.

And so, observing the horizon, I am taking a sip of coffee, all the while checking the sky… Both my wife and I were expecting some parcels for a long time and just this morning I got two messages from two different delivery companies that our parcels will arrive today. Not wanting to see them going back to the UK, my birding time was rather limited. I should go back, just one more sip of coffee, one more check of the horizon… and a huge, dark, pterodactyl-like creature is flying low! Through the scope, it appears so close that I managed to spot the sat transmitter! The Cinereous Vulture is distinctly dark, with the whole body being dark-brown (appearing black) excepting the pale head in adults, which is covered in fine blackish down. It is soaring higher, ever higher, until it is gone, nowhere to be spotted (likely, glided away).

A Bulgarian conservationist Emilian Stoynov told me that this vulture hatched in 2021 in Spain and, rehabilitated, was transferred to neighbouring Bulgaria, acclimatised and released in Vrachanski Balkan Nature Park in 2022. It has never visited these parts of Serbia before.

And the Cinereous Vulture is a lifer to me! Usually I find lifers overseas; it’s been a while since I had my last one at home. Inspired by my success, other local birders were making plans to chase it in the afternoon, but the bird’s transmitter soon showed that it was already some 180 km / 110 mi to the southwest, at the nearest Griffon Vulture colony and a feeding station! It has never been there before either. How the roaming birds find such places is not fully clear. It turned out, I was the only local birder who managed to see it.

Photos (2) by Hristo Peshev

Written by Dragan
Dragan Simic is obsessively passionate about two things – birding and travelling in search of birds, and that has taken him from his native Balkans to the far shores of Europe and the Mediterranean, southern Africa, India and Latin America. His 10,000 Birds blog posts were Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards. Birder by passion and environmental scientist by education, he is an ecotourism consultant, a field researcher and a bird blogger who always thinks that birding must be better behind that next bend in the road, and that the best bird ever is – the next lifer. He tweets as @albicilla66