[This is an article I wrote for the GGRO Peregrinations about our Intern Road Trip at the end of the season]
When we think of critically endangered species, we often think of animals like tigers, rhinos, pandas, or elephants. However, one of the rarest, most endangered birds in the world can be found not in some far away country but 130 miles south of the GGRO at Pinnacles National Park.
The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is the largest North American vulture and is one of the most well-known examples of captive-breeding reintroduction bringing an animal back from the brink of extinction. By 1982, habitat destruction, poaching, and lead poisoning reduced the population to just 22 birds. Many naturalists presumed their inevitable doom because California Condors only lay one egg at a time and take six years to reach sexual maturity. However, in the 1980s, the San Diego Zoo Global program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, the National Audubon Society, and the Los Angeles Zoo began a captive breeding program that has increased the population to 425 birds today (219 of which are living in the wild). The breeding and reintroduction program is ongoing as wild condor populations have yet to reach self-sustaining numbers (due to continuing threats such as lead poisoning), but these birds would certainly be extinct by now if it hadn’t been for those efforts.
I remember as a kid watching a nature program about the condors and how researchers donned vulture-headed puppets on their hands in order to feed and interact with the chicks. It was one of the first stories I can remember hearing about conservation and extinction. At that time, it wasn’t clear whether the program would work at all (and to be fair, the numbers are still low enough that the condor’s future is not a sure bet). They seemed as removed from me as tigers in Siberian Russia. Until I got to the GGRO, I had no idea it was possible for me to see a California Condor outside of a picture. So when it came time to plan an intern road trip, finally laying eyes on these mythic birds was #1 on my list.
Pinnacles National Park is one of five release sites for the California Condor breeding program and the closest place to find these winged conservation icons. So, on a sunny morning in early January, all five interns crammed into Bridget’s blue Subaru and headed south. We made a few stops along the way to learn about incredibly powerful (and expensive) microscopes at SF State University, poke sea anemones along the coast, and spend a day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Finally, just after dark, we made our way to the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park and found ourselves a camping spot at the Pinnacles Campground.
We awoke to dewdrops and quail calls and headed out. At the ranger station we planned our hiking route to one of the best Condor-watching spots: High Peaks overlook. We took the Bear Gulch Loop up to this highest point in the park. It started down in the valley floor, following Bear Creek and winding between Buckeye trees. Then it headed up. And up. And up. We climbed up the ridge past rolling meadows and oaks and into the rocky peaks made of consolidated volcanic ash and landslide breccia. We actually ended up hiking through all the major habitat types found in the park: Riparian, Woodlands, Chaparral, Grasslands, and Rock and Scree.
The other interns at the High Peaks overlook, scanning for condors
Finally, we reached the High Peaks overlook and immediately knew we were in the right place. There was a volunteer researcher there with a yagi antenna scanning for Condors. We spent a few hours eating lunch, resting and staring at some distant dark specs that we were fairly certain were condors, but weren’t close enough to tell for sure. Finally, feeling slightly dejected, we packed up and started to head back down. As soon as all cameras were safely zipped up in our packs, we heard a gasp and a yell and a giant dark shape soared over the rocky spire behind us. Suddenly an entire group of condors were directly overhead. They floated silently between the peaks and pine trees, their contrasted black and white wings spread wide while their bulbous, naked heads scanned the ground below. They were fantastically huge, and just for comparison, a turkey vulture flew along beside them, suddenly miniscule.
As we hiked down, we kept coming across the same group around bends in the path, slowly circling in the sky. There were at least eight of them, and it struck us how lucky we were to see a group of animals that actually makes up a very large percentage of the overall population. We could also see the big numbers painted on their patagial tags that researchers use to keep track of each individual. From these tags we were able to identify some of the birds we saw:
Condors 340 and 606 and unknown
Female #550: According to the Pinnacles web site and the online Condor Spotter, this bird was one of the few wild-born chicks and was hatched in the park itself in 2010. However, she suffered from lead poisoning and was evacuated to the L.A. Zoo until 2011.
Male #606: This juvenile bird seemed to follow us around and is in almost every single one of my photos. His parents laid him in the wild in Big Sur, but concerns about situations like #550 above led researchers to swap his egg out and hatch him at the L.A. Zoo in 2011. He had a stress-free release in January 2013 and seems to be doing well in Pinnacles.
Male #340 a.k.a. “Kun-wak-shun”: This bird was the first chick successfully raised in the Oregon Zoo in 2004. He is described as an active and aggressive bird that quickly rose in the Condor hierarchy. He is a very exploratory vulture and often leads feeding expeditions. Sadly, his mate died of lead poisoning in 2014.
Male #602: Hatched in 2011 at the L.A. Zoo and released in 2013, 602 is the most dominant of his cohort and is frequently seen in Pinnacles.
Male #251 a.k.a. “Crush”: Hatched in 2001 at the L.A. Zoo. Crush’s original mate #306 and their chick died in 2013, probably due to lead poisoning. However, Crush has been courting #222 (Cosmo) for many years and was briefly put back into captivity because of his potentially dangerous jealousy towards her mate. Researchers are hopeful that the two will help form the breeding base of the Pinnacles population.
Female #222 a.k.a. “Cosmo”: Hatched in 2000 in San Diego, she is #251’s (Crush’s) current mate. When Cosmo’s old mate was injured and returned to captivity, she finally became receptive to Crush’s advances and although the two have struggled with tragedy, they may do better this year.
Female #236 “Tiny”: Hatched in 2001 in San Diego, she is one of the puppet-raised chicks I’d heard about. Small for the average female, she has nevertheless successfully raised and fledged two chicks in the wild and is described as having “spectacular parenting skills.”
Male #219 “Puff Daddy”: We aren’t 100% sure on this identification, but if we’re right, we got to see one of the largest wild California Condors. Hatched in 2000 in San Diego, Puff Daddy got his name because he makes himself even larger by inflating air sacs in his neck. However, he’s also been through some tough scrapes. Once, eating trash along Highway 1, a can got stuck on his lower mandible and had to be removed. Despite this, he also helped successfully fledge his first wild-born chick in 2010.
It was incredible to see these birds in the wild, but reading their biographies makes me even more concerned for their survival. The future of wild condors is uncertain. In 2000, the mortality rate for the wild populations was 25% and lead poisoning continues to be the biggest cause despite bans within the condor’s range. Pinnacles National Parks is trying to reduce lead exposure, and claim that it’s starting to have a measurable effect. Hopefully these California Condors and all the others will continue to grace the skies over Pinnacles National Park so that visitors like us have the opportunity to see these legends of the raptor world in person.
[Pinnacles was not our only stop along the intern road trip. We also visited Monterey Bay Aquarium and spent a full day watching penguin behavior as they stole each others’ pebbles, adorable otters performing tricks when they felt like listening to their handlers (which was rarely), wild whales spouting off the outdoor view platform, giant open ocean fish at feed time, an albatross that likes to be pet, sea lions lining the banks outside the aquarium, and many other incredible sights. The end of the trip also included a jaunt out to Año Nuevo to see the breeding elephant seals throw their massive weight around. It was incredible to get the opportunity to explore new areas with the amazing people I’ve grown so close to while at GGRO. I miss the other interns immensely.]
Ano Nuevo Elephant Seals
We also visited the California Academy of Sciences and got a tour of their study skins
At the end of all these travels, however, I had to say goodbye to the GGRO and the beautiful Marin Headlands.
My favorite Headlands graffiti
A last look at Rodeo beach