Big Sur: Condors
After spending two days out on the water in La Jolla and Channel Islands National Park, I decided to pass on the opportunity to take a boat out of Monterey Bay on a pelagic trip (I missed a Great White Shark) deciding instead to find a California Condor. On the American Birding Association (ABA) list, they're categorized at Code 6 'Extinct' however in 2014 they were added back on the list as a countable species, along with Aplomado Falcon and Whooping Crane (both of which I have seen already this year). Given the other Big Year birders have all seen California Condor, it was time for me to pick up a year bird, and a life bird.
California Condors are huge.
Weighing in at up to 26 pounds, with a wingspan of 9.5 feet, the California Condor is a giant bird! As one of the largest flying birds, it has commanded the attention of people for hundreds of years. Early Native Americans held the "Thunderbird" in high esteem, and believed it brought thunder to the sky with its giant wingbeats. California Condors had been driven to extinction in the wild as a result of shooting, egg collecting, and lead poisoning. The San Diego Zoo has since worked in cooperation with the Peregrine Fund to breed the birds in captivity, and release birds back into the wild. Today, there are 268 California Condors flying free in North America.
Finding Condors in California
Along California's Highway 1 is one of the best places in the state to find condors. There are many pullouts along the oceanside north of Lucia before Big Sur, and many of these are great spots to scan the sea cliffs for roosting birds in the morning, or catch a glimpse of a soaring condor in the afternoon breeze.
I checked recent eBird reports, and there were multiple sightings around Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Andrew Molera State Park. Another hotspot of condor activity is Pinnacles National Park.
Condor #204 also known as "Amigo" was hatched at the San Diego Zoo in the spring of 1999. The following year, he was released into the wild, and has been cruising the sea cliffs of Big Sur since, defending "his" stretch of beach along Highway 1 where I spotted him yesterday morning.
Amigo has an interesting story. Following his release, he paired with a female, 222 and had a chick, condor 470. The original egg laid by the female 222 was not viable, and so biologists swapped out the egg with a fertile one from a captive condor breeding program. The egg hatched in the wild successfully, and the offspring #470 grew up in the wild and is still flying free today.
Note on Wing Tags: All of the 200's are yellow, so only the number '4' appears on the tag. Learn more about wing tags at www.condorspotter.com
Things haven't always been easy for 204. Several years ago, he disappeared from radio contact and was found with an injured beak. Vets assumed he had been struck by a vehicle. During his rehab, his mate 222 had mated with a different bird. His son 470 still hangs out with him, and patrol their territory, chasing intruding condors away. I observed him do this yesterday morning, chasing 663 off "his" rock.
Now Amigo has a new mate- female 534. She is paired with 2 males, which may be more common in wild condors than we know. Their nesting attempt last year failed, but biologists don't know why; the nest is in such a remote location that climbing up to the spot is impossible. They believe from watching the behaviors of Amigo that this year he has a chick, and hope they will be successful in bringing the chick through fledging.
Update: I found this year's blog from the Ventana Wildlife Society, and it is confirmed that Amigo is a dad! The chick is number 842, and has been observed being tended to by 3 parents. Here's to success!
Vultures and Condors lack feathers on their heads, in order to make cleaning their feathers easier after feeding on dead carcasses. Condors are actually very clean birds. I observed the condor rubbing his head against a rock, cleaning any remaining bits of Sea Lion off his skin. They will rub their head on grass, branches, or rocks to clean themselves after a meal. They also enjoy frequent baths, and regularly preen their feathers to keep them clean.
Threats to Condors
One of the main threats to condors is lead poisoning. This occurs when condors eat dead animal carcasses containing fragments of lead ammunition.
In addition to lead poisoning, I learned that littering is also a very real threat to Condors. Adult birds forage for bone fragments and calcium-rich shells to ingest for nutrition, and bring these items back to the nest to feed a chick. Along Highway 1, the condors have been observed picking up and ingesting bottle caps and pieces of plastic "micro-trash" which they mistake for these shells and pieces of bone. Biologists have put out broken seashells in areas frequented by condors in hopes that they ingest shell fragments instead of landing on the road to collect human trash instead. So far, this has been a successful strategy, combined with spraying condors with water when they approach the road too closely. While walking along the highway, I picked up several pieces of micro-trash to throw away in a garbage can, reducing the number of pieces available for a condor seeking additional nutrition for their offspring.
I met Tim along the road, when he pulled off to check out the condors that I had been watching. He has volunteered with the Ventana Wildlife Society for the last 6 years, tracking condors and recording their daily activities and interactions and helping to keep the birds safe. He'll come down on a weekend and track the birds, figuring out what birds he picks up and sends his data back to the biologists, who receive data from volunteers throughout the range. The goal is to have someone out here every day. Last year, Tim made a documentary film about the condors at Big Sur. It's worth checking out the trailer in the link above! I interviewed Tim to learn more about the history of the birds at Big Sur, and put much of what I learned from him into this blog post.
The 2015 Condor Report is available here, for those interested in learning more!