The Thrill of a Lifetime, Part Two

We’re still thinking about our encounters in northern Arizona (not far from the Grand Canyon) with the rarest North American bird and largest North American flying land bird, the California Condor. The Critically Endangered California Condor. If you’d like to learn about how our adventures began, please visit the last 2 blogs, “Under Construction” and “The Thrill of a Lifetime.”

A Memorable Time

In life, certain experiences stick with you, become a part of you, are often recalled, are always there. The memories stay fresh, and the images stay fresh. We recently had those kinds of experiences in the North Arizona wild–in condor country. As a result, we can’t stop thinking about and pondering the future of, those big, majestic birds. We also can’t stop thinking about the ways we might help.

I told Tim Hauck, our Peregrine Fund host, that I wished everyone could experience what we were experiencing, especially those who misunderstand this species. If more could, there’d be an army of helpers and ample funding for the mission to reintroduce them. I think of the quote at the end of the last post: “It’s not just about saving wildlife, it’s about saving ourselves.” Like our encounters with the condors, those words have become a part of us, too.

“J4” is Released

Here’s the first photo I took of “J4,” whom I personally would rather refer to as Ebony, Jewel, or some other proper name. Please visit the last blog for other photos of this bird.

California Condor in flight

J4 had been raised in captivity and had been released into the wild. But as all the condors there, captive-hatched and wild-hatched birds alike, she was subsequently trapped and tested and had tested positive for lead poisoning. At some point, she’d fed on a carcass, or more likely a gut pile, that contained a hunter’s lead bullet fragments. She’d just completed chelation therapy (heavy metals were flushed from her blood through twice-daily injections), and had just been set free on the edge of a gorge so that she could take advantage of the wind currents there.

Thermals and Updrafts

Condors, “near the mass limit for continuous flapping flight” and who usually only flap when they take off and land, are dependent on thermals and updrafts for sustained flight. Thermals are rising columns of warm air and updrafts are created when the wind hits and is deflected upward off a mountain ridge. If you recall, I posted a picture in “To October” of migrating Broad-winged Hawks riding a thermal. Read the caption there and note that birds in a thermal look as if they’re being stirred in a giant kettle. Those Broad-wings, no doubt, had utilized updrafts earlier in their travels.

As J4 soared, the late-morning sun glinted off her back, making her appear to be light gray. Of course, condors are mostly black like our vultures. Immature birds have dark heads like immature Turkey Vultures, and adult birds have red/orange heads like adult Turkey Vultures. During our visit, we saw a young bird whose dark head was flecked with red. You’ve heard of transitional plumage. Well, that was a case of transitional skin. And it was very cool to see.

J4 Comes in for a Landing

Now, here’s a close-up of J4 in landing mode. Note the beginning of flapping flight and the now-different light angle revealing both the black coloration and the white on some of the coverts (the small feathers that cover the bases of the larger flight feathers).

California Condor landing
California Condor preparing to land

Big, Majestic Birds

I’ve referred to the condors as “big, majestic birds.” You may have surmised that they’re majestic from viewing the photos and reading my words. But I’ve written little regarding their size, and the photos don’t give you any indication of scale. I read somewhere that California Condors are so large, you need to rule out small planes when you spot what looks like a condor. I might not go that far, but these birds are indeed big. They have close to a 10-foot wingspan, which surpasses the wingspan of a Bald Eagle by about 2 feet. The more common Osprey (in the Chesapeake Bay region, anyway) would be almost diminutive next to a condor. The condor’s dependence on thermals and wind currents, then, is little wonder.

A Day in the Life

This is our last photo of now-healthy J4. I include it because I think it’s an interesting shot. She’s maintaining her feathers, as birds everywhere do. You’ll note her “collar,” and that not only is her head bare, but much of her neck is bare, too. These bare parts make it easier for her to feed on carrion. You can also see her radio transmitter. All the birds there are fitted with these.

California Condor preening
California Condor preening

As we left that morning, J4 was still on that rock. But before nightfall, she could have ranged well over 100 miles on those long, broad wings looking for food (deer, cattle, pigs, horses, or other large mammal carcasses). Using her keen eyesight, she would have seen other scavengers who’d gotten to the carcass first, like those ever-present and ever-nimble Common Ravens. She would have descended from above, scattering all except the Golden Eagle. She’d be no match for the eagle with its deadly, sharp talons. (Tim told me, however, that sometimes condors will displace Golden Eagles, and that occasionally he’s seen them feeding side by side–as equals).

You can’t tell from the above picture, but talons are one weapon that condors don’t have. Their toes resemble those of a chicken. Their feet are adapted for walking, not for grasping. A weapon that they do have, however, is a very strong beak, strong enough to tear through a horse’s hide. (They also have amazing strength.) Earlier in the day, I had asked if I could gently touch J4’s upper mandible. The answer I received was an unambiguous “no.”

Vermilion Cliffs

Later that day, as J4 was doubtless on the wing, we visited the 6000-feet-above-sea-level Vermilion Cliffs National Monument California Condor release site. Candidates for release, evaluated for fitness and further evaluated for blood-lead levels, are housed there, fed there, and released there. We watched as each bird received a final checkup. And as part of that procedure, blood was drawn from a foot. We were all relieved and encouraged when each bird received a post-checkup double thumbs up.

We were then almost speechless as a half-dozen birds, waiting patiently in line as it were, were released from the holding pen. Here is what we witnessed, and here are more of the images (and sounds) that have stayed with us. Make sure you turn up the volume. At the end, you’ll hear my wife exclaim, as if on behalf of everyone present, “Oh my goodness!” And as you watch all the birds drift away in a glide, consider that they’d found, and were being sustained by, an updraft.

This video doesn’t exist

Tim Hauck

I’d like to finish out this blog and all of our remembrances with several notable things that Tim Hauck, the Condor Reintroduction Project Field Manager, and our wonderful host and guide, told me. This will be our “And This Just In” and “Quip, Question, Quote” segments rolled into one.

The first thing he told me and that I won’t soon forget–as he didn’t mince his words–is this: “My job is to keep this population [of California Condors] alive.” You’ll recall that Tim was heartbroken when a bird died in his arms.

He followed that up later, in response to my question, “What drives you?” with these words:

What drives me: The extinction of the California Condor would have been a tragedy laid squarely at the feet of the human race. I firmly believe that it is our responsibility, as humans, to right this wrong and ensure the condor’s rightful place in the wild, where it can continue to awe us for generations to come. My heart has been captured by these magnificent birds, and I will continue to care for them and push for social change until their future survival is all but guaranteed.

An Important Takeaway

Tim’s heart has been captured, our hearts have been captured, and, hopefully, your hearts have been captured, too. There were 22 California Condors in 1982; there are about 500 now in 2019. But this species and the Peregrine Fund and other organizations that are working hard to save wildlife and ecosystems, including our own Portsmouth, VA-based Elizabeth River Project, need all the help they can get.

Thank you so much, as always, for reading. This photo, dear readers, is for you.

Northern Arizona California Condor country
 California Condor country

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