Conservation strategies for long-lived vertebrates require accurate estimates of parameters relative to the populations' size, numbers of non-breeding individuals (the \"cryptic\" fraction of the population) and the age structure. Frequently, visual survey techniques are used to make these estimates but the accuracy of these approaches is questionable, mainly because of the existence of numerous potential biases. Here we compare data on population trends and age structure in a bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) population from visual surveys performed at supplementary feeding stations with data derived from population matrix-modelling approximations. Our results suggest that visual surveys overestimate the number of immature (<2 years old) birds, whereas subadults (3-5 y.o.) and adults (>6 y.o.) were underestimated in comparison with the predictions of a population model using a stable-age distribution. In addition, we found that visual surveys did not provide conclusive information on true variations in the size of the focal population. Our results suggest that although long-term studies (i.e. population matrix modelling based on capture-recapture procedures) are a more time-consuming method, they provide more reliable and robust estimates of population parameters needed in designing and applying conservation strategies. The findings shown here are likely transferable to the management and conservation of other long-lived vertebrate populations that share similar life-history traits and ecological requirements. © 2011 Margalida et al.