Quest of the California Condor
By Chuck Graham
It’s been 16 years since I saw my first California condor. September 1996, it was blazing hot as I filled my empty water bottle, coaxing every drop out of a feeble natural spring west of Lion Canyon in the Los Padres National Forest.
I returned to my faded red tent, my only relief from pesky deer flies and sweltering heat. Sunburnt with trails of salt crusted to my face, I waited until sunset to run down to the natural sandstone amphitheater of Lion Canyon, hoping for a mere glimpse of prehistoric Gymnogyps californianus.
Back then Lion Canyon was a great platform to spot newly released, captive-bred condors, teetering on the brink of extinction. I instantly understood why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists chose the canyon as a launching pad for the beleaguered birds. It was remote, a steep, tough 12-mile hike from an oil field in Cuyama up to the daunting sandstone gorge. Lion Canyon is honeycombed with gritty grottos, towering spires and broad ledges, the ideal environment for condors. I didn’t see scavenging raptors that stifling afternoon. Maybe it was exceedingly hot for them too, the temperature hovering at triple digits like condors soaring above the forest.
Over the years, I returned several times to Lion Canyon, each trip seeing more condors soaring above the canyon, congregating on those massive sandstone slabs, their velvety black feathers shimmering in the warm sun. Back then I had my doubts if they could survive. Condors still have a long way to go, but there is hope amongst all the obstacles.
Back From the Brink
During the Pleistocene Era, condors once ranged from what is now British Columbia, down to Mexico, through the southwest, over to Florida, and north to New York. By 1940, the condors’ range was reduced to a horseshoe-shaped region in southern California.
Ultimately the goals of the recovery plan are to establish two geographically separate populations, one in California, the other in Arizona. Each region will have 150 condors with at least 15 breeding pairs, and another 150 birds in captive breeding facilities. To enhance their numbers, biologists use condor puppets to rear some of the chicks.
“Because we have only so many breeders, we maximize egg production,” explained Chris Barr, deputy project leader of the condor recovery program. “We may pull the first egg and allow the parents to recycle and lay another egg. We might let them incubate the second egg, while the first is reared with a puppet.”
The population of wild, free-flying condors in California recently reached a high of 132 birds, with another 104 birds in the wilds of Baja California and Arizona. A far cry from 1987 when the wild population was near extinction, down to just 14 condors struggling to survive in the rugged Santa Barbara backcountry.
“With over 100 wild condors now in California, the California Condor Recovery Program has reached another milestone on the road to recovery for this iconic bird,” said Jesse Grantham, California Condor Program Coordinator. “This achievement is a testament to the work of our biologists in the field and the efforts of our public and private Recovery Program partners.”
Each fall captive-bred, charcoal-colored, one-year-old condors are released into the wild primarily from two strategic sites, Pinnacles National Monument in Central California and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Captive breeding began for these Pleistocene Era scavengers in 1992 at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the key to the survival of North America’s largest flying land bird.
After the juvenile condors are released, they typically stay close to the release site slowly exploring their new surroundings. That includes learning to fly while extending their impressive 9-foot-wide wingspans in the swirling thermal updrafts, and becoming integrated into the existing wild flock. Within five to six months these young birds will follow the wild population throughout their historic range.
In addition to releasing captive reared birds, mature wild condors with their pumpkin-colored heads have been producing their own young since 2004. Twenty-two condors born and raised in the wild have fledged and joined the wild population.
“Of late, the population in southern California is moving in a triangular pattern between Hopper Mountain, Bitter Creek and Tejon Ranch,” said Michael Woodbridge, former head of public affairs at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. “The current release sites are isolated, the foraging is very good, and we can keep an eye on them easier. The sites are not as mountainous as Lion Canyon”
Getting the Lead Out
Despite the growing number of condors soaring across the Los Padres National Forest, they’re still susceptible to dangers such as wildfires, ingesting trash, West Nile Virus, confrontations with golden eagles, habitat loss and especially lead poisoning. Woodbridge said the condor program is still working with hunters to use alternative ammunition. In 2008, California assemblymen Pedro Nava created a bill to ban lead ammunition throughout the condor’s range. Eventually it was signed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, even with the ban the FWS is still imploring upon hunters to use non-lead ammunition such as copper, tungsten and others.
After scavenging on a carcass littered with lead bullet fragments, condors struggle to digest their food. Meat is first stored in their crop, the pouch beneath their throats. The bullet fragments don’t allow for food to be broken down and forces condors to choke and suffocate until they die. Hopefully biologists can follow their Global Positioning Systems attached to their winga and reach troubled condors. If they’re rescued, biologists can treat a sick condor by flushing its system with a solution.
“There’s still some grumbling going on with hunters. The situation isn’t perfect, but it is improving,” said Woodbridge of the lead bullet situation. “We’ve seen improvement in lead levels in the birds in Southern California, but levels are still higher in other regions.”
Once a year biologists trap condors and take blood samples to test lead levels, and to also vaccinate against a potential outbreak of West Nile Virus. Hopefully over time these prehistoric raptors will fly unimpeded, surviving in the forests of the west.
Mountain biking up a steep, washed out backcountry road, with a 40 pound pack on my back, I’m sure the strain was evident on my face, sweat streaming down over my brow. However, when I finally reached Condor Ridge, it was all worth it.
“You have impeccable timing,” said a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The chick began pipping yesterday.”
I stashed my bike in the chaparral, and grabbed the essentials: camera gear, water, binoculars.
I followed Alan Mee, a wildlife biologist from the San Diego Zoo, who spends 12 hours a day monitoring the nest. When we arrived at the observation point, Mee set up his spotting scope and I peered through. One grotto in particular revealed a broken eggshell, its occupant concealed somewhere in the shadows, and behind its mother’s broad, protective wing.
Then the one-day-old chick awkwardly stepped into the morning light, teetering like a drunken sailor in its new surroundings. Its parents known as R125 and R111 shared parenting duties. Observing a condor chick in the wild – a newly hatched one at that – is something I thought I’d never witness.
“This nest site offers a great observation point,” says Mee. “The two other nests don’t offer this type of viewing.”
Taking a break from his scope, Mee turned on his radio connected to a satellite. Slowly he waved an antenna from side to side retrieving multiple bleeps, some strong, others faint. He was searching for the new father, R125, due back at the nest.
“That’s a strong signal,” he said quietly. “The male is somewhere behind us in the snags.”
For hours we watched the nest hoping for the father to swoop over the chaparral-choked ravine to its fuzzy white chick, but he never arrived. Reluctantly, I packed up my gear and began hiking back to Condor Ridge, then riding out before dark.
“Keep a close watch on the snags,” stressed Mee. “He’s back there somewhere.”
With my head down trudging up a slick, dewy knoll, I slipped and dropped to one knee. Gathering myself, my attention was drawn to the keenest eyes in the Los Padres National Forest. Perched to my left in a tattered snag – as if standing at attention -was R125, the proud father, his black wings at its sides.
While fiddling with film, he never appeared threatened by my presence. Then a cool breeze blew up the canyon. The temptation was too great, and with two flaps of its wings he soared, circling higher in the thermals.
I quickly trekked over rolling hills, chasing the raptor’s flight toward Hopper Peak. He joined two other condors already making broad sweeps around its summit. Eventually the three condors glided toward a distant sandstone ridge.
I yanked out my camera, but it was too late. Literally within a blink of an eye, they were barely visible over the next ridge. What would’ve taken me a couple of days to hike to, hell the condors were already there.
For more information on the California Condor Recovery Program call the Hopper Mountain NWR Complex at (805) 644-5185, or visit the Refuge Complex website at www.fws.gov/hoppermountain.