Monday, May 17, 2010

California Condors up Close

Twenty Five years ago, I sat at a museum table and read the sad story of North America's largest bird, the California condor. It was doomed for extinction, or so I imagined and many beleived. The few remaining wild birds had no chance to survive given the environmental hazards that confronted them. The last condors were being taken into a captive breeding program in hopes of saving the species but I had no confidence that this would work. My memory of this has remained clear all these years because of the inevitable loss I felt at that time.

I have followed the story of the condor ever since and have been alternately hopeful and doubtful that the impressive bird would ultimately survive. This changed for me two weeks ago when my friend Steve and I took a couple of days to travel along the coastal highway south of Monterey, California. We knew that the birds were spotted occasionally in the area and hoped to see one, but we were also realistically aware of our slim chances. Our tentative hope changed suddenly, however, when we stopped at one of the many pull-offs to look for marine mammals (we did see harbor seals, sea otters and sea lions throughout the day). Steve glanced up and spotted a pair of the magnificent birds soaring overhead. We watched them for maybe a minute before they disappeared behind the hills of the Santa Lucia Range.

This was quite a thrill, but, as it turned out, we were to see several more at much closer range. A few miles south of Big Sur, we noticed several vultures (turkey vultures at first) swirling around a point just off the road. As we got closer it became obvious that several of them had white patches in the wrong place to be turkey vultures. We hurriedly pulled-off the road for a better look and watched for several minutes as a group of about eight condors flew back and forth near the cliffs where we stood. My attempts to photograph them met with mixed success and then the birds moved on. We walked north around a turn in the road and saw a couple resting on a ledge some distance away. Then we got particularly lucky. There was a heavy flapping sound and a group of five landed on a rocky ledge less than 30 feet below us. Then two other birds landed just a few yards away from them. It was truly a magnificent moment for me. The birds I never expected to see were now right in front of me. We could clearly see their wing tags and even the unique color patterns of their heads. They seemed to be posing for a picture and so I obliged them. Then to put a final touch to the moment, a peregrine falcon soared by, just above their perch, and several hundred feet below a raft of sea lions rolled over to take in more sun.

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