The Thrill of a Lifetime

I wrote in an earlier blog, “Back to Flying,” about “rusty pilots.” Well, yours truly is a “rusty writer.” I haven’t posted a blog in almost 2 weeks. Yikes! But I have an excuse. My wife and I did, indeed, as planned, go to Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in AZ to join up with the folks at The Peregrine Fund (“Conserving birds of prey worldwide”) and help with the release of captive-bred and wild-bred California Condors. And our trip out west was exactly what I thought it would be, and then some: the thrill of a lifetime. Please see my last blog, “Under Construction,” for more info.

Recovered Bird Species

I’ve mentioned Brown Pelicans, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons either in earlier blogs or in talks I’ve given. Each of these species was listed but is now no longer threatened or endangered, though they may be at the state level. Today, these species are, for the most part, commonly found, thanks in some measure to conservation nonprofits like the Elizabeth River Project and The Peregrine Fund. I took this photo in San Diego of a healthy, actively hunting Osprey. We saw a number of Ospreys out there, including some that were already on nest. Nesting doesn’t begin here until early to mid-March.

Osprey hunting
Osprey on the hunt

The California Condor

But unlike all of the above, the California Condor has been, and is still, critically endangered everywhere. The species, which had once ranged across the U.S., was on the brink of extinction in 1982 when only 22 birds remained. Their numbers dwindled largely due to lead poisoning. Condors, like vultures, eat carrion. And the carrion they eat, the carcasses and the “gut piles,” often contain deadly lead bullet fragments. (The above 4 species were almost wiped out due to something else: pesticides [Rachel Carson’s “elixir of death”]).

Condor Reintroduction

But thanks to captive breeding programs like the Peregrine Fund’s Condor Reintroduction Project, and very careful, and time-consuming, monitoring and provision of care, there are now around 500 birds. My wife and I and others in our party were privileged to see about 30, and to help to release around 10.

To give you some idea about where we were (just north of Grand Canyon National Park) and about preferred condor habitat, I’ve provided the picture below. We enjoyed amazing views like this when we were there.

Landscape near Grand Canyon National Park
Northern Arizona landscape, aka “condor country”

During our first morning in condor country, we released an adult female, J4, who had been raised in captivity. We carefully transported her in a kennel to a nearby release site not far from the cliffs pictured above. Here she is on the wing in a canyon shortly after she exited the kennel. If you look closely, you’ll notice the identification tags on the wings’ leading edges and the radio transmitter for tracking on the right wing.

Soaring California Condor
Soaring California Condor

After J4 flew around for a little while, she landed, rested, and preened. She was enjoying her freedom. Here she is again, resting at the canyon’s edge. Now, the transmitter antenna can be easily seen, poking out from her left side.

California Condor resting
Resting California Condor

You may have noticed that I’m using the personal pronouns “she” and “who” to refer to this bird. I do so with the following in mind. We were told by Tim Hauck, our very capable–and very affable–Peregrine Fund guide, that California Condors are individuals, like humans. He told us that each bird, like each person, has a distinct personality. He said something like, “A Red-tailed Hawk is a Red-tailed Hawk. You’ve seen 1 Red-tailed Hawk and you’ve seen them all, you know? That applies to most bird species. But that’s not the case with condors. Each one is totally different.” During our stay, Tim conveyed an extension of that idea: that one can bond with these birds. He shared with me his heartache when one died in his arms.

I’ll have more to say about our trip and these majestic birds in my next blog. Please stay tuned.

And This Just In

In my last blog, blog #33, I shared a picture of a wintering male Bufflehead duck swimming in the Elizabeth, and I promised to explain how this species got its name. You’ve often pondered that question, correct? Here’s another photo of what could be the same bird.

Male Bufflehead duck
Male Bufflehead duck

Note the outsized head. (I can’t help but think here of the outsized head of a human toddler.) “Bufflehead” is a contraction of “buffalo head.” Buffalo and bison, Bufflehead ducks, and human toddlers all have disproportionately large heads, thus the common name of this duck. It’s interesting to note that Bufflehead ducks are referred to colloquially as “chickadees of the duck world,” and “bisonheads.” Chickadees (especially the Black-capped variety) have outsized heads, too.

Quips, Questions, Quotes

“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research. Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” (Rachel Carson–words from a letter she wrote to the editor of the Washington Post)

In other words, it’s not just about saving wildlife. It’s about saving our world. It’s about saving ourselves.” (Richard Conniff–words from “Why We Have to Save Wildlife to Save Ourselves“)




9 thoughts on “The Thrill of a Lifetime

    1. Venture out and try it, by all means. One of the appeals, if not the main appeal, is the difficulty. It’s tough to do and to do well. It’s a constant challenge to get that keeper photo. And constant challenges are good for us, and keep us on our toes. Another reason to shoot birds is their beauty and grace, especially as they ply the air. There are few things more captivating than a bird in flight–especially a larger bird, a raptor.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I used to be like that but I dont mind showing viewers where I went wrong or if something prevented me getting my image. Cracking photos and deserve the recognition. What kit were you using if you dont mind me asking.


      2. Good points! I was using a Canon 1D X, a Canon 1.4x III extender, and a Canon 500mm f/4 II. Photos were handheld, though I’m thinking seriously of using either a monopod or tripod (with gimbal head).


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