Birding Column: California Condor Close Encounter

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
February 17, 2004

Once common across the United States, the California condor was persecuted almost to extinction. In the mid-1980s the last few birds were rounded up and placed in sanctuaries for breeding and controlled reintroduction to the wild. Birding columnist Mathew Tekulsky reports on his encounter with two of the reintroduced birds in the Zion National Park, Utah.

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular National Geographic News column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California.

I had just arrived at Zion National Park when I got a tip that there were California condors up at Weeping Rock. I hightailed it immediately up to this famous site, where water seeping through 2,000 feet (about 600 meters) of Navajo sandstone meets impervious shale and drips down from a wide overhang. As I looked up at Weeping Rock 100 feet (30 meters) above me, a pair of wide wings came into my field of vision over the top of Cable Mountain, 2,450 feet (746 meters) above Weeping Rock.

Condors, I thought. Two of them. And how magnificent they were. They circled around in front of me, hugging the cliffs and catching the thermals effortlessly. They had been feeding on a mule deer carcass just across the Virgin River to the west, in a long meadow among the cottonwood, box elder, and ash trees. But this time they didn't land, and before I knew it, they soared away over the summit of Cable Mountain to the east.

The next day, April 14, 2003, I returned to Weeping Rock to see if I could observe the condors again. As luck would have it, there they were, circling around overhead—but not landing in the canyon. One of the condors perched in a pine atop Cable Mountain and just sat there for the better part of a half hour.

I decided to explore the Riverside Walk at the north end of Zion Canyon, and I planned to catch the condors again on my return. While at the Riverside Walk, I became entranced with an American dipper that was poking around along the side of the babbling river—but I tore myself away from the dipper in order to get back to the condors at Weeping Rock. And am I glad that I did!

There, perched on a red sandstone ledge about 200 feet (60 meters) above the valley floor, stood one of the condors—so close that I could read the identification tag (76) on her right wing as I looked through my 1000mm lens. (This was actually Condor 176, as the first digit of the condor's "name" is left off of the tag in the interest of space.)

I saw some movement on a ledge about 30 feet (10 meters) above Condor 176, and lo and behold, there was the second condor—which I later learned was Condor 235 (I couldn't see this bird's tag, since the bird was partially hidden by the rock).

Now, Condor 176 was poking around at a few sticks that lay on her rocky ledge, and she also spent a great deal of time preening. I ran off a few shots of this bird in the late afternoon light, hoping to get at least something on film in the limited time I had at this location.

That was the last time I saw these two condors during my visit to Zion, even though I explored the park for another two days. It turns out that the authorities had to move the mule deer carcass to a secluded location, because some idiotic person actually threw a rock at the condors while they were feeding. I guess this person thought it was fun, but he ruined the fun for the rest of us. So it goes.

In the meantime, as of January 1, 2004, both Condors 176 and 235 were doing fine in the wild. Long may they live!

Tailpiece: California Condors At Zion National Park

Continued on Next Page >>


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