Friday, July 31, 2015

California Condor

by Lisa Eller, director of communications

As we turned another corner along the old coast Highway 1 between our campsite at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Sand Dollar Beach, I looked out admiringly at the majestic scene, the Pacific Ocean crashing against the rugged coastline, framed by the Los Padres National Forest. I could look at this view all day. This stretch of road is one of my favorite drives and one of the most beautiful in the West.
The rugged California Pacific coastline in the area near and north of Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur. Photo ©Lynn Mc Bride

Looking out at the fog rolling slowly by, my eyes began focusing on something unusual coming out of the whiteness. Enormous black wings gliding above us, casting a huge shadow below. I had never seen anything so big (and not manmade) in the sky before, so it took me several seconds to realize that I was probably seeing a California condor.

Growing up in Southern California in the early 80s, I never thought I would see the condor outside of captivity. The bird was a recurring topic of our natural history lessons in school. By 1987 the California condor had become extinct in the wild because of poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The 22 remaining wild and captive individuals were put into a captive breeding program by the U.S. government in an effort to save the species.

Beginning in 1991, condors were released back into the wild. But it wasn't until 2006 that a pair of released birds attempted to nest in a hollow tree near Big Sur. According to Sky News, that was the first time in 100 years that a pair of condors was seen nesting in Northern California. Click here for more information on the California condor.

My heart began racing immediately after I spotted the rare bird — although I didn't realize just how rare it was until doing some research later in our trip.
Portrait of a California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), the largest flying bird in North America and one of the most endangered birds in the world, shown here in flight, CA. © CA Fish and Game

"That was a California condor," I told my husband, who was driving the car. Ever the skeptic, he insisted that what I had seen was probably a turkey vulture. "No, I don't think it was. Pull up over here," I said, pointing ahead. I wondered if we could catch another glimpse of the bird.

After he turned into a scenic point and stopped the car, a condor (probably the same one I had seen above) landed on the edge of the cliff in front of us. After getting an impossibly close look at the bird's impressive size, characteristic bald, gray/nude-colored head and the tag on its wing, we agreed that it was a condor. "Quick, take a photo!" I told my shocked husband. But it was too late. The bird took one look at us, stretched out its enormous, beautiful black wings and flew off into the fog.
The author and her husband ©Lisa Eller

Something about seeing the bird made me sad and hopeful all at once. It was sad to think how close we came to losing the species altogether, how small the population remains and how seeing condors in captivity pales in comparison to seeing them in the wild. Yet I couldn't shake the hopeful feeling that even when all seems lost, swift conservation actions can be taken to reverse the course and move us in the right direction. And to be clear, the condor is still critically endangered and we still have a lot of work to do.

This unforgettable experience made me think about birds that are meaningful to Idahoans and integral to its landscapes, birds like the long-billed curlew and Greater sage grouse. At varying levels, each of these species faces the same or similar threats that the condor does. Habitat loss through various human uses is a common thread. As an organization we could not possibly tackle all of these threats at once. But I am thankful that we are focused on that key piece of conserving, protecting and restoring habitat. And I'm thankful that we are part of a community of organizations focused on doing its part to ensure we all get a chance to see these majestic birds in the wild.

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