Searching for Condors in Big Sur - Part I

Posted at 2:26 pm August 26, 2008 by Yadira Galindo

Is that a condor?

After weeks of waiting for the right moment, I organized a trip to the Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor sanctuary with a photographer, videographer, and the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park curator of birds, Michael Mace. I wanted to see for myself the damage caused by the Big Sur wildfires in June, while Michael wanted to hand-deliver a $10,000 check from the San Diego Zoo’s California Condor Fire Relief fund to the Ventana Wildlife Society.

bigsurwaterfall.jpgWe arrived in Monterey on Tuesday, and after lunch we headed south on the picturesque Cabrillo Highway to Big Sur. I saw billows of white clouds cascading over the ocean like waves, while sea birds dove into the blue ocean water. The breeze was cool and refreshing. We were excited. It would be the first time I would see California condors free-flying in, get this–California! I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this majestic bird flying in Baja California, Mexico, on a number of occasions, but not in my own backyard! Shea, the videographer, had never seen condors free-flying; today I expected would be her first.

As we went further down the coastline, I spotted only brown pelicans, sea gulls, cormorants and a variety of other birds, but no condors yet. There are only about 40 condors in this vast wilderness, and there are many beautiful spots for the birds to perch—from redwoods to pines, mountains to cliffs overlooking the beaches. It was something I was happy to be doing myself, except I was taking it all in from the comfort of a moving 4×4. Knowing that there are plenty of choices for the birds, I didn’t expect to find them right away, but in our arsenal we had the locations of a few favorite spots for the condors.

birdgraph.jpgAs we continued our drive, we spotted a large black bird in the distance. Could it be? Get the binoculars! Darn. It was the one bird most often confused with a California condor, the turkey vulture. As we meandered past the scenic highway, the fire’s damage became apparent. Hillsides were charred and trees were dry and black. A group of large birds was perched on a pine tree. Condors are gregarious and are usually found in groups, so this is a good sign. Sigh. Again, we found them to be turkey vultures—or TVs as I affectionately began to call them. Time and time again we spotted TVs.

From a distance, when you see a TV in flight you have to look again before you recognize its familiar shape. The TV has a slight bend in its wings, while the condors wings are much straighter. If you’re close enough to see the white underneath the wing it’s a dead giveaway. The TV has white wing tips, it looks like it’s wearing gloves. The condor has a white triangle and its feather tips are black.

The disappointment was evident. Now when we saw a black bird we were certain it was a TV, and perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy because each black vulture we saw had a small wingspan of six feet—turkey vulture—and not the nine-foot wingspan of the condor. We found ourselves leaving empty handed that day. We had beautiful images of a waterfall that drained onto a beach with waters as blue as the Caribbean. It was a perfect sunning spot, but even after visiting the condor’s “favorite” hangout spots, we saw none. We stopped in several spots. We did what you’re supposed to do, hang out patiently and look carefully in the trees. But alas, Shea would go another day without seeing a free-flying California condor. Sorry, Shea. Michael sighed and said he has never gone out in search of condors and returned home without seeing them. We are not going home yet, so we still have tomorrow, Michael. We still have tomorrow.

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