May 08, 2018

Photo Essay: A Day of the Condor at Hopper Mountain

There are a few things about Southern California that began to fascinate me pretty much as soon as I started coming here: the lost railroads, the ghost towns, the Channel Islands, and the wildlife. (Later, I came around to investigating and appreciating the flora, geology, water and oil history, and modernist architecture.)

"Wildlife" is such a broad umbrella for the living creatures we have here in SoCal -- from the small mammals like the Island fox to the megafauna like the Catalina bison, not to mention our mountain lions.

And then, of course, there are the birds.

I've been "into" birds ever since I took Vertebrate Zoology as part of my Biology minor in college, but since I have so many other interests in this life, it's taken me a long time to do all the birding I've wanted to do.

And among all the species you'll find living here or at least passing through, towards the top of my list for several years now (certainly in the seven years since moving to LA) has been the California condor.

Once extinct in the wild, a captive breeding program largely spearheaded by the LA Zoo has helped the population recover, fly freely, and spread out over a wide geographic area -- now reaching as far and wide as the Tehachapi Mountains, Big Sur, and Pinnacles National Park. I knew of sanctuaries where they were protected and reportedly thriving close to LA, but I just didn't know how to get close enough to any of them to actually see a condor.

I think the only time I'd ever encountered a condor in person, it was in captivity at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. I can't imagine I've ever witnessed one flying overhead while driving or on a hiking trail. They say that if you ever think you may have spotted a condor in the wild, it was probably the far more common turkey vulture.

As with many of the challenges in exploring this great, expansive, sometimes unforgiving, and often inaccessible land, my patience and diligence to actually watch a condor in action eventually paid off -- thanks in no small part to a non-profit called Friends of California Condors Wild and Free.

This past Saturday, I joined the organization's car caravan and headed onto the winding roads of the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, just east of the Sespe Creek and north of Fillmore in the lower foothills of Los Padres National Forest.

To my surprise, when we arrived to the first condor viewing spot, we were surrounded by an active  drilling operation known as the Sespe Oil Fields, which date at least as far back as the 1950s (not far from the first commercial oil well, Pico Canyon).

Situated between two seismic faults, this is clearly an area of keen geologic interest. And the uplift that you can see among the ridges and the mountains that rise as high as 4000 feet also "traps" naturally occurring crude oil in wells just beneath the surface, where rigs can relatively easily tap into them.

Considering all the wells, drills, pipelines, and fracking that's here (which does provide some good access roads to what's otherwise the-middle-of-nowhere), the condors seem to be doing pretty well. But maybe that's because they're not subject to the kind of vehicular and foot traffic (of tourists, hikers, hunters) that some of our more popular national parks and more publicly accessible areas are. After all, despite their size (as the largest flying bird in North America, with a 10-foot wingspan), condors are actually pretty vulnerable.

They've got "chicken feet," not talons. They're a big, visible target, and although they can eventually hit freeway speeds, they have to start running in order to get up in the air. Because they scavenge the food they eat, one of the biggest risks to their survival is microtrash -- seemingly innocuous pieces of litter (like bottlecaps, candy wrapper bits, etc.) left behind that a curious adult condor will end up eating and may even attempt to regurgitate it to feed their chicks. Of course, no bird can digest those tiny pieces of plastic or broken glass, so they get lodged in their digestive systems and often cause starvation.

Besides that, there's the issue of lead -- not only little bits of lead bullet shells left behind by hunters, but also the lead bullets that end up lodged in a deer or other game animal that runs away from its human predator and dies elsewhere to become dinner for the condors (and the turkey vultures and whichever other scavengers are around).

Fortunately, there's no hunting permitted on these lands -- which also saves the condors the risk of being shot themselves (a federal offense) and keeps the fiddlenecks from being trampled, too.

This industrialized area of the mountains had a nice splay of wildflowers for this time of year, though certainly the non-natives (like the European tall oat grass that's found there, commonly used for cattle grazing) are choking out their habitat.

While I distracted myself with the springtime plant life of Hopper Mountain, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was busy listening for condors on their radio frequency tracking device. It's how they find condors in real time -- but since they can't be in all places all at once (and condors frequently hide in caves during nesting season), they also monitor them with GPS statistics that map out their movements throughout the day and upload the data no more than once daily.

Because condors are such social, curious birds, we knew if we stayed in one spot long enough, one would come check us out. We could see one perched on a dead tree perch down the hill and another resting on a metal cage over in the other direction, but we'd really come to see one fly overhead.

And then, just like that, one appeared -- not a raven, not a hawk, not a turkey vulture, but a real-life honest-to-goodness California condor, spreading its wings to their full expanse and clawing at the air with their finger-like feather tendrils at the end of each one.

And then another appeared (remember, these are social birds), and together they soared above tracing large circles in the sky, dipping down past the California poppies and then catching another gust of wind to carry them high above the peaks. "They're putting on a show for you," our tour guide said, noting that it was unusual to see the wings flapping as we were, since condors typically try to conserve energy and just hover and glide with the wind.

In the end, we lost track of how many we'd seen -- something like four or five or six, though not all visible in the viewfinder all at the same time. Those with telephoto lenses tried to read the numbers on their wing tags and determine the colors, which would indicate their approximate age but also some life history. Although condors can live as many as 80 years (on average, more like 60), the survival rate of the chicks is only 50%. And with so few birds in the wild (around 80 or so at Hopper Mountain), it's important for wildlife management teams to know as much as possible about each individual bird.

That's why they're frequently trapped in cages (lured by the scent of carrion) -- so volunteers and Santa Barbara Zoo staff can reattach GPS trackers that may have fallen off (common after molting), assess their health and look for diseases like West Nile virus, and conduct genetic testing to confirm which offspring belong to which parental pairs. Although condors take the vow of "'til death do us part," if one dies, the survivor may pair up with a new bird. And according to the experts on our tour, they're just like humans -- sometimes they cheat (or have a threesome). But sometimes if a mate gets trapped in a feeding pen and held for observation, its partner will wait for it right outside the cage.

Even if we hadn't seen any condors, it would've been a lovely day in the grasslands, hanging out among the purple lupine and gazing out at the orange swaths of poppies unlike any I'd yet to see this wildflower season. And when you're looking for condors, you've got to prepare yourself for disappointment.

And as a species, the California condors are still in a fragile state, despite how much we humans have stuck our noses into their business and snuck into their breeding caves -- going so far as to replacing nonviable eggs in the nest with viable ones from the local zoo and hoping the parents don't notice.

The captive-bred condors have been trained to avoid power lines (with which their enormous wings otherwise have a tendency to collide), and hopefully that training will trickle down to their fledglings who are born in the wild.

In 1987, the last wild condor was captured, leaving only 22 living California condors, all in captivity. Now, although that population has increased 20 times over (with a total of 446 living in captivity and in the wild),  it's still one of the rarest bird species still in existence.

And it's still considered critically endangered.

To see some condors in real time (especially chicks this time of year), view the "Condor Cam" of the San Diego Zoo Wild Safari Park. An archive video from 2016 via Cornell Lab of Ornithology is below.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Over the Ridges and Through the Creeks of Tejon Ranch
Photo Essay: Walking with a Hawk
Photo Essay: Falcon Flight

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