The critically endangered California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) has been through some difficult times. It’s believed that at one time thousands of them existed, but since the late 1800’s the population went on a steady decline, and before the breeding season in 1983, only 22 remained. The California Condor Recovery Program, established in 1980, helped put a stop to the loss and bring the California Condor back from the brink of extinction.
On Saturday, I joined the LA Audubon on a trip to Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge to see the California Condor and learn about the ongoing recovery efforts headed up by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Jesse Grantham of the USFWS escorted us through the gate and on the randomly-paved roads that wound up and around the mountains of the sanctuary. After a little more than an hour we arrived at an observation point with a wonderful view of the valley below, and the point where California Condors (and Turkey Vultures) were feeding on some stillborn calves dropped there for them the night before.
We were clearly able to watch them feeding with the use of binoculars, but with the heat waves, it was quickly apparent that digiscoping was impossible. After a short time of watching them feed, one of the condors took off and soared past us; we got our first good look at how big these birds really are. With a 9-1/2 foot wingspan, these creatures can easily leave one in awe. It was fascinating watching this enormous kite soar, dipping behind one of the peaks, and then coming back into view, climbing thanks to the thermal boost coming off the mountainside. It did this a few times until it disappeared behind the mountain for good. About a half hour later, a second one took off and did the same thing. I’m not sure which of the two it was, but during one of the flights, Jesse took out the radio antenna and determined that the airborne condor was AC9, the last of the condors to be captured over eighteen years ago. In 2002, after fifteen years in captivity, AC9 was set free and now helps to serve as a mentor to some of the captive-bred birds that have also been released.
During the times of relative inactivity when the condors and vultures were feeding, Jesse answered questions, stated some facts, and recounted some stories. I’m not going into detail here as there’s just too much to write, but you can read some of it for yourself on the USFWS website.
About noon, we started packing up our gear and I was beginning to accept the fact that I would have to be satisfied with the distant soaring shots I got earlier in the day. Just then someone cried out “Bird in the air!” and one of the condors had left the feeding horde and taken to the sky, right towards us. As it passed by, I was able to snap off a few shots. It was quite a sight catching the full scale of this bird and seeing the bulge of the bright pink crop that it had filled just moments before. Condor 71 came through for us and made sure we could truly appreciate this magnificent bird.
Correction: I got an email from Mary Freeman of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, who thought the condor pictured was actually Condor 171. An email to Jesse Grantham confirmed this. He added: “This is a female that was released at Big Sur. I believe she’s 8 years old this year. She has no mate and travels up and down the coast from Big Sur to Hopper, and back again. We hope she’ll meet up with AC2, the 40 year old male we released back into the wild on June 22.”
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