[Tweeters] California Condors!

Wayne Weber contopus at telus.net
Sat May 4 12:07:44 PDT 2013


I just returned a couple of days ago from a 12-day birding trip to
California, focused on the Humboldt Bay area (Godwit Days birding festival),
Sacramento Valley refuges, and the Monterey/Big Sur area. The highlight for
me, after more than 50 years of birding, was finally seeing my first
California Condors.

As most of you know, the California Condor is on the U.S. endangered species
list, and has been critically endangered for many years. In 1987, the last
wild condors were taken into captivity and a captive breeding program was
started-- a program that I fully expected to fail. However, the program was
so successful that biologists were already releasing condors back into the
wild by the early 1990s. From a total of 22 birds in 1987, the population
has increased to the current total of 405-- 226 in the wild and 179 in
captivity. However, the wild birds are still having trouble breeding
successfully, and the survival of the species is threatened by lead
poisoning and other factors.

There have been three main release sites for California Condors-- one in
the Grand Canyon of Arizona, and two fairly close together in California-
the Big Sur coast south of Monterey, and Pinnacles National Park, about 100
miles to the east. Most of the released birds have stayed fairly close to
the release sites (within 50 miles or so). I was advised that it was
probably easier to see the birds in the Big Sur area than at Pinnacles, so I
chose to look for them there.

The weather was good during my visit-- sunny and fairly warm, and good for
condors to be up and flying. On the day I first visited Big Sur, April 25, I
got a bit too late a start, and despite spending 3 hours looking for condors
from viewpoints on Highway 1, I drew a blank. So the next day, April 26, I
started somewhat earlier, and left Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park headed
southward shortly after noon.

After another hour of searching, which yielded numerous Turkey Vultures and
a few Red-tailed Hawks, I still had not found a condor. I stopped at a
viewpoint just north of a small establishment called the "Coastal Gallery
and Cafe", which is supposed to be one of the better viewpoints. A couple of
Turkey Vulture sailed past, almost at eye level. Then suddenly, two adult
condors appeared, dwarfing the Turkey Vultures, and flying almost directly
toward me! They flew only about 100 feet directly over my head, began to
circle, then drifted back southward and landed in the top of a conifer,
close together, where they remained for about 20 minutes. I had leisurely
scope views of the birds at a distance of 300 to 400 yards. Both birds had
patagial wing markers (as probably do all the released birds), but I
couldn't quite read the numbers. Nevertheless, I had marvellous views of
these prehistoric-looking birds, preening, stretching, and flapping, before
they finally took off again to the south.

The California Condor has always been one of my "most wanted" birds, even
though they are not "countable" according to the ABA, because they were all
in captivity at one time, and they are still not solidly established as a
wild breeding population again. It was a thrill to finally see them, and at
unexpectedly close range as well. A previous visit to Pinnacles National
Park in March 2011 failed to produced any condors for me, because a major
rainstorm had just moved through and the birds weren't flying, and my
schedule did not permit me to stay for another day.

If any of you have an interest in seeing condors, I urge you to make the
effort! The scenery in the Big Sur area is breathtaking, and although the
birding isn't that outstanding except for condors, it's close to the
Monterey area which does offer outstanding birding year-round.

I am optimistic that the condors will thrive and will eventually reoccupy a
significant part of their former range, although we may have to introduce
tighter restrictions on lead shot to reduce the continuing lead-poisoning
problem. This is one of the world's largest and most spectacular birds
(wingspread of about 3 metres), and I am happy to have finally experienced
condors first-hand!

Wayne C. Weber

Delta, BC

contopus at telus.net

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