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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

Both Condors 176 and 235 were bred and reared at the Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. They are both females. Condor 176 hatched on March 19, 1998, and was released into the wild on November 18, 1998 at Hurricane Cliffs, just north of the Grand Canyon and about 60 miles south of Zion National Park. Condor 235 hatched on April 30, 2000 and was released into the wild on December 29, 2000 at Vermilion Cliffs, about 60 miles east of Hurricane Cliffs in northern Arizona.

I learned this at the Peregrine Fund's web site (www.peregrinefund.org), which contains a feature called "Notes from the Field." Here, you can read about the progress of the Peregrine Fund's California condor restoration project, as reported by the field biologists who are actually doing the work.

For instance, on August 15, 2003, biologists observed a baby condor, estimated at 15 to 16 weeks old, in a remote cave in the Grand Canyon. Its parents are female Condor 127, hatched at the San Diego Wild Animal Park on March 31, 1995, and male Condor 123, hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo on May 20, 1995. The birds were released into the wild at Vermilion Cliffs on May 14 and May 26, 1997, respectively.

Well, on November 6, 2003, Condor 127 and 123's chick took its first flight (the first California condor chick to fledge in the wild since 1981), circling and landing 500-600 feet below its nest cave. It has been named Condor 305, and, as of December 23, 2003, it was doing just fine as its parents provide it with food and it learns to fend for itself.

Maybe someday they'll take it over to Zion for a visit.

Previous columns by the Birdman of Bel Air
New Bird-Watching Column: "The Birdman of Bel Air"
The California Towhee, Boldly Bland
At Home With Hooded Orioles
Scrub Jays Go Nuts for Peanuts
Northern Mockingbird is a Wary Neighbor
Christmas With the Pelicans
California-Quail Close Encounter
Yosemite Steller's Jay Encounter
Banding Birds at Devils Postpile

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