Close Encounters of the Condor Kind

David A. Laws
Nov 29, 2020 · 13 min read
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Condors socialize on the High Peaks of Pinnacles National Park. Photo: Courtesy Gavin Emmons

he dusty pick-up truck pulls up at a ranch gate in rural south Monterey County, California. Against a backdrop of dry, rolling, oak-savanna foothills, three generations of hunters and their dogs wait for the driver to join them. Soaring on the first thermal uplifts of the morning, shadowy silhouettes of turkey vultures circle silently overhead. Their wavering flight pattern signals a quest for food as their extraordinary sense of smell seeks carrion for the first meal of the day.

Mike Stake, senior wildlife biologist with the Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS), reaches into the back of his truck to retrieve packages that he hopes will ensure a welcome greeting. Mike strides towards the group: his mission — to deliver free, non-lead ammunition.

Although lead has been outlawed for hunting in much of California for more than a decade, condors and other large raptors, such as the circling turkey vultures, are still dying from lead poisoning. Most hunters follow the mandate to use non-lead ammunition but some ranchers clearing ground squirrels from their land continue to use lead because the alternative is more expensive and difficult to find. Recognizing a problem with the cost and lack of general availability of copper ammo,for the popular .22-gauge long rifle, VWS distributes free copper rounds within the condor breeding range. According to executive director Kelly Sorenson, the organization has distributed over 10,000 free boxes of ammunition since beginning the program in 2012.

The hunters crowd around Mike. One has heard that copper doesn’t perform as well as lead. Others are concerned about availability. VWS representatives meet annually with hundreds of hunters and ranchers throughout Monterey and San Benito Counties to address these issues. He assures the group that 90 percent of hunters are happy with the quality of non-lead alternatives but urges them to check it out for themselves. He explains that while deaths have decreased since the program began, lead is still in use and is so poisonous that when ingested even small fragments can be enough to weaken or kill a condor.

After asking for help in spreading the word to their neighbors, Mike hurries back to his truck. There are many more miles of dusty, unpaved road to cover before his next appointment.

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Dolly, the first official condor ambassador — a visage only a mother can love. Photo: Courtesy Linda Abbey

Endowed with a menacing beak and featherless wrinkled head, a wingspan of up to 9.5-feet, and weighing as much as 25-pounds, the California condor is the nation’s largest land bird. But, when soaring over a landscape of untrammeled wilderness, they present a magnificent spectacle of agility, freedom, and grace. Sadly, due to loss of habitat, egg collecting, shooting, power line collisions, and poisoning especially by lead, the population fell to just 22 birds world-wide by 1982.

Together with private partners, federal and state agencies worked with California zoos to establish a captive breeding program and in 1992 released the first captive-bred fledglings. Today nearly 500 condors fly free across several western states and Mexico. Although the number of wild births improve each year, threats to the long-term survival of the species remain serious. Mike Stake’s backroads ammo delivery run is just one of many VWS efforts to rebuild a sustainable condor population in Central California.

First encounter — Pinnacles National Park

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The jagged High Peaks ridge of Pinnacles National Park from the west. Photo: David Laws

My understanding of the plight of the condor began during a spring hike through Pinnacles National Park in 2015. Located in the Gabilan Mountains 50 miles inland from Monterey Bay, Pinnacles is noted for a dramatic geological feature formed by tectonic plate movement along the San Andreas Fault. Jagged ramparts and razor-sharp pillars of granite, the eroded remnants of an ancient volcanic eruption, protrude through chaparral-cloaked slopes like teeth of a giant sawblade.

From the west entry parking lot, my wife Jean and I followed Juniper Canyon Trail into a narrow valley drained by bubbling seasonal Chalone Creek. Fiddleneck, milkmaid, poppy, shooting star, and Indian warrior wildflower blooms burst from rich volcanic soil. Under deep shadow at the cliff face, scraggly gray pines reached up for light through a maze of massive fallen boulders. Stepping carefully up the steep, talus-strewn slope, we traversed a switchback trail to the High Peaks ridgeline.

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Juniper Canyon trail to High Peaks and soaring condor. Photo: David Laws

Resting on a bench near Scout Peak overlook, we surveyed a panorama of bare rock-rimmed gorges and rolling, oak-studded hills beyond to the verdant flatlands of Salinas Valley. Far below us, several large birds rode the updraft of a breeze along the sheer rock face.

“Could they be condors?” Jean ventured.

Seen through binoculars, a characteristic flare of wingtip feathers and striking white triangles on their wings confirmed her sighting. Two more birds launched from an overhang shading a deep cleft in the rock. We watched the soaring ballet performed by these magnificent, feathered aeronauts, until time to walk back down to the valley.

With eyes firmly focused on the rocky trail ahead, I sensed an extraordinary presence as a great shadow slid across my path. An icy twinge of fear melted to awe; “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind.” Lacking the display of “cloven tongues like as of fire,” that conclude this passage from the King James Bible, I realized this wasn’t a visit from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost but a routine reconnaissance mission by a hungry condor. I glimpsed a number inscribed on a black vinyl tag attached to the outspread wing just yards above my head.

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Condor ID #589, “Pinnacles.” Photo: David Laws

Back home, I researched condor information on the internet. Condorspotter.com noted that birds are released to the wild with a visible ID tag to aid biologists in tracking their movements. The site identified our stalker, #589, as Pinnacles, a male bird hatched in June 2010 at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, and released in the park a year later. As of this writing, I am happy to report that Pinnacles is still flying, has sired two offspring, and “can frequently be seen getting affectionate with his mate #569.”

Second Encounter — The Diablo Range

Interested in learning more about condors and other raptors, we joined a San Benito County backroads tour organized by the Ventana Wildlife Society. Kelly Sorenson and eagle expert Steve Johnson led our exploration of raptor country that began in Pacheco Pass east of Hollister. Steve, who has studied the rock stars of birding — condors, eagles, harriers, and hawks — for years, identified a pair of golden eagles skimming steep, grass-covered slopes bordering the highway. Debi Shearwater, an icon of the California birdwatching community, is convinced that San Benito County has the highest population density of golden eagles in the world. We were thrilled to see two of them that morning.

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One of the two Golden eagles soaring over Pacheco Pass during our visit. Photo: Courtesy Linda Abbey

For the rest of the day, we traveled slowly south along Santa Ana Valley Road through flat, bare ranchland fenced for cattle. Hawks, kestrels, and kites hovered high above a dry, early-fall landscape. An occasional raptor swooped to snatch an unsuspecting rodent scurrying across the expanse of golden stubble that stretched to the smooth, burnished-bronze foothills of the Diablo Range. Others perched patiently on utility poles, fences, and tree snags with a commanding view of their territory. In this open country, eagles and other raptors, such as red-tailed hawks, typically control an area of several square miles to ensure sufficient food for nestlings and to raise them without disturbance from others. Steve, who tracks pairs of golden eagles that he names after presidents and their wives, pointed out fields favored by a recent presidential couple he baptized George and Martha.

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Raptor and cattle country, Santa Ana Valley, San Benito County in early fall. Photo: David Laws

The big moment of the day arrived when we spotted three dark silhouettes circling the eastern ridgeline. Our van driver turned onto Quien Sabe (Who Knows) Road, appropriately named as it quickly narrowed to a dirt track winding up the side of a dry, rocky canyon to places unknown. Sighting large birds ahead, tour organizer Kristy Markowitz climbed from the van grasping a bulky antenna. She explained that a unique radio frequency from a transmitter mounted on the wing or tail feathers of a condor identifies each bird. A burst of sound from a handheld receiver confirmed the presence of condors just seconds before the flock slipped behind the ridge. Thus, our second encounter proved somewhat less dramatic than our first.

While traveling, Kelly recounted the history of VWS and how the non-profit evolved into an important player in returning condors to the wild. Founded in Big Sur in 1977 as a sanctuary for conserving wildlife, the property provided a foothold for bald eagle and peregrine falcon recovery programs. Success with these species led to a 20-plus-year effort to support the reintroduction of condors to Central California. From 1977 to 2019 the region’s population of free-flying birds rose from zero to 100. Other activities include natural science education programs, a bird monitoring research station, a consulting service for conservation and ecological planning, a condor release site in Big Sur, and nonlead ammo distribution. Kelly’s enthusiasm and commitment to these projects inspired us to explore more of the wildlands that condors once again call home.

Third Encounter — On the trail of Icarus and Orville

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In 2017, GPS transmitters tracked two condors on a 150-mile flight. Image: Courtesy Ventana Wildlife Society.

As the condor population grew, their range in Monterey County expanded from the original Big Sur coastal release site inland to the Gabilan Range and Pinnacles National Park. To explore this region, we decided to follow the route taken by Icarus and Orville, two four-year-old birds fitted with GPS transmitters who flew from Big Sur, across the Salinas Valley and north along the Gabilan Range, covering a distance of over 150 miles in two days.

On a brilliant fall day, we drove State Route (SR) 25, called Airline Highway from an early American expression describing a direct route between two points, through a long narrow valley created by the San Andreas Rift Zone. A favorite of motorcyclists for sixty miles of gentle-curving pavement, the road follows sinuous contours of dry, eroded foothills flanking the Gabilan and Diablo Ranges from Hollister, passing the eastern entrance to Pinnacles National Park and on to SR 198 east of King City. Fenced grasslands, dotted with cattle and scattered live oaks, bordered the highway.

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Stalking a juvenile Red-tailed hawk along lonely Airline Highway. Photos: David & Jean Laws

An unbroken chain of telegraph and utility poles lined the road. As we learned to distinguish sleek avian shapes from electrical insulators that crown this ubiquitous furniture of the western landscape, we realized that this southern end of the rift zone, here called Peachtree Valley, probably houses more raptors than humans. With many of them surveying their territory from these strategic vantage points, we counted more than forty red-tailed and northern harrier hawks, a dozen or so kestrels, and a lone golden eagle.

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Red-tailed hawks survey their realm. Photo: Jean Laws

At SR 198, we headed west over a low ridge of the Gabilan Range and down into the Salinas Valley. Dense green willow groves flourished in the Salinas River’s meandering, bone-dry course. Their roots reach deep into one of the nation’s most extensive underground flows as water from the “upside-down” river continues to irrigate the rich agricultural valley throughout the long dry season. Fly-over country for condors heading east, this green ribbon of riparian vegetation stretching 70-miles north to Monterey Bay is favored habitat for several species of hawks.

Raptors surveyed their domain from snags of stately, lichen-draped Valley oaks as we drove south through open rolling hills and cattle country into San Antonio Valley and the army reservist training base of Fort Hunter Liggett. Named by Spanish explorers La Canada de Los Robles (Valley of the Oaks), in springtime these meadows glow with carpets of white-tipped, blue-purple Sky lupines punctuated with fluorescent orange California poppies.

Three clusters of buildings, each representing a significant era in the development of modern California, occupy ancient ancestral lands of the Salinan native people on the north bank of the San Antonio River near Jolon. The 18th-century mellow adobe quadrangle of Mission San Antonio de Padua, architect Julia Morgan’s mission-revival Hacienda lodge built in 1930 as a party house for William Randolph Hearst and his guests, and 1950s utilitarian U.S. Army structures, all stand in close proximity on Fort Hunter Liggett.

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Sky lupins at Mission San Antonio de Padua. Photo: David Laws

Twenty years ago, while researching writer John Steinbeck’s connections to the area, I stayed in the lodge that is operated by the army as a hotel and open to the public when not required by army brass. I felt the clash of cultures as an idyllic, lupin-filled meadow setting suddenly dissolved into 21st-century reality when two camouflaged Hummers bursting with fatigue-draped troops roared across the scene.

Nacimiento Fergusson Road cuts across rugged troop-training terrain and up over the Santa Lucia Mountains to the coast. This narrow, 24-mile switchback byway rises, seemingly forever, over chaparral-covered, razorback ridges where condors first reestablished their presence on the Central Coast. Finally, the road plunges through a deep green canyon to the ocean at SR 1, where it is popularly known as California Highway One. Images of precipitous slopes, timeless redwood forests, and crashing surf along the continent’s ragged edge entice millions of visitors to take this spectacular 70-mile road-trip through Big Sur every year.

North of the cliff-edge community of Lucia, the roadbed narrows and cuts into the sheer rock face. As I slowed to sneak a peek at the churning white waters of the ocean hundreds of feet below, a condor swept into view over my left shoulder. My third encounter lasted only seconds but I will remember the thrill forever. We flew by side-by-side, until, with only the slightest tilt of wingtip feathers splayed out like fingers, the magnificent creature veered below the guardrail and down to a secluded beach where a flock gathered to scavenge a stranded sea lion carcass.

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Condor floats over Big Sur. Photo: Courtesy Tim Huntington

Highway One bends inland to campgrounds and services clustered around the rustic roadside village of Big Sur and out to the ocean again at Andrew Molera State Park about 25 miles south of Monterey. The Ventana Wildlife Society’s Discovery Center in the park presented a convenient place to take a break, learn more about condors, and purchase gifts before returning home.

Aftermath

Ignited on the evening of August 18, 2020, near Lime Kiln State Park close to where I “flew” with the condor, the Dolan Fire consumed over 125,000 acres and continues to burn inside a contained periphery as of this writing. Watched in horror by millions of viewers across the nation, a webcam relayed the sight of flames racing towards the redwood tree nest of 4-month-old baby condor Inko before going off the air. For several days we mourned the fate of another precious nestling until a physical inspection of the site revealed that Inko had survived. She is now recovering in the Los Angeles Zoo and will be released to the wild in 2021.

Unfortunately, nine adults and two chicks perished as the fire swept through the Big Sur Condor Sanctuary. Today the free-flying count in Central California is down to 90 from a peak of over 100 birds in 2019. “To lose any is a tragedy but we will rise from the ashes and rebuild the condor’s sanctuary,” said Joe Burnett of the Ventana Wildlife Society. As a Senior Wildlife Biologist, Joe is coordinator for the Big Sur Condor Recovery Program and works alongside Mike Stake in managing another crucial aspect of VWS efforts to recover condors to the wild.

If You Go

Download one of the popular bird identification apps from the Audubon Society or Cornell University to help distinguish between the many species of raptors that frequent the area.

Visit the home page for general information on the Ventana Wildlife Society. Click here for access to the Condor cam, and updates on condor recovery programs. From June through November, in pre-COVID days, VWS scheduled condor viewing excursions from its Discovery Center in Andrew Molera State Park. Check the Condor Tours webpage for future availability.

Pinnacles National Park can be reached from the east on SR 146 south of Hollister and from the west, also via SR146, from Soledad. Note that SR146 DOES NOT exist inside the park and there is no vehicular connection from one side to the other.

The Hacienda Lodge hotel on Fort Hunter Liggett is managed by an army concessionaire. Vist the website for booking information. Check that Nacimiento Fergusson Road is open to through traffic before travelling. It was closed by fire and COVID restrictions during 2020.

Big Sur receives as many or more visitors than Yosemite National Park, but has few restrooms and just one narrow two-lane highway. If popular places such as Bixby Bridge or McWay Falls are overcrowded, bypass them, and move on to the many other beautiful spots along the coast.. Just drive — you’ll find them.

Acknowledgments

Thank you to Mike Stake for permission to use the ammo delivery story described in his article “Lethal Ingestion” published in The Wildlife Professional, November/December 2019 in the opening paragraphs of this story.

To NPS Wildlife Specialist Gavin Emmons for his image of condors socializing in the High Peaks, to Linda Abbey for “Dolly,” to Jean for her dogged determination to capture magic moments with her dimwitted camera, and to Tim Huntington for the floating condor. Prints of Linda’s photos are available at the Artisana Gallery in Pacific Grove. Tim sells his scenic landscape, flora, and fauna prints from the webnectar.com website.

[Rev 11.25.20]

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David A. Laws

Written by

I photograph and write about Gardens, Nature, Travel, and the history of Silicon Valley from my home on the Monterey Peninsula in California.

Creatures

Creatures

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David A. Laws

Written by

I photograph and write about Gardens, Nature, Travel, and the history of Silicon Valley from my home on the Monterey Peninsula in California.

Creatures

Creatures

The home for anything animal. Tips, tricks, and talks about animal welfare and the human-animal bond.

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