With a wingspan of almost 10 feet, the California Condor is the largest land bird in North America being surpassed only slightly by the Andean Condor for that distinction worldwide by less than 12 inches. Habitat destruction and lead poisoning and some poaching led to the near extinction of this magnificent bird which was described in the annals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. All of the remaining 27 Condors in the wild were captured in 1987 and were placed in a breeding and conservation program at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Bringing back the California Condor to the wild is one of the great success stories of bird conservation. Reintroduction into the wild began in 1991 and the first fledgling in the wild was seen in 2003. Condors have been introduced into Arizona, California and Utah and today the population is around 450 individuals with more than 275 in the wild. There are historical records from my home state of Washington. Maybe someday they will be seen here again.
Andean Condor – Peru 2013
I had seen an Andean Condor in Peru in 2013 (poor photo above) but had never even looked for a California Condor. I doubt I will still be capable of even looking for one by the time they make it back to Washington, so my options were Arizona or California. California was my choice and that decision prompted this trip. My original plan to look first at Pinnacles National Park was changed when the opportunity came to see the Red Footed Booby at Pillar Point in San Mateo County (see my previous blog post) which although successful threw off my schedule. So I opted instead to visit the Big Sur area at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park down the coast from Monterey. Melissa Hafting had recommended the Nepenthe area just south of the Park Visitor Center on Highway 1 as the “go to spot” something confirmed by Ebird reports. I left Monterey early and headed south – Nepenthe being about 55 miles away.
Maybe a third of the way into the trip, a road sign notified travelers that Highway 1 was closed at Milepost (?). I was not able to determine exactly where that was – before or after my destination. I was worried. Very worried. With my very early start I arrived at the Park visitor center before 7:30 a.m. It was closed but fortunately a restroom was open. There had been more signs about the road closure a few miles earlier. I thought there might be some information posted about the road closure but I could find none. As I was walking around, a large bird came into view being chased by a smaller bird – what appeared to be a Raven. Was this my Condor? No…only a Turkey Vulture. Not a small bird – unless compared to a Condor.
A road crew was preparing to head out. I caught the eye of a woman as she prepared to move out on a road grader and approached figuring she could give me information about the road closure. She was great – personable, sharp and funny. She gave me the bad news that I would not be able to continue all the way south on Highway 1 – my original plan to get to my next spot. I would have to backtrack to Monterey. But the good news was that the road closure was south of Nepenthe. Even better was this lady was a local who knew a lot about Condors and gave me very specific information about where the best spot to see a Condor was – just a couple of miles south and just above where the road was closed. It was the same general area Melissa had recommended. Off I went.
There was a brief stop where some roadwork was already underway, then a few minutes later, I got to “the spot” and pulled off the road and parked. Within no more than 2 minutes three GIANT birds flew right overhead. The light was not great but oh my god, here were three California Condors not even 70 feet away. My camera went crazy. With the sun behind and above I could not get the clear detail I would have liked – but who cared. These were spectacular, awesome, phenomenal birds! I was actually shaking with excitement.
All of the Condors that have been released have tags visible under their wings. You can see that these two birds have yellow tags numbered 2 and 4. Condor number 4 is “Amigo” and was hatched in 1999. I was not able to get a clear photo of the third bird and I have not found information on Number 2. Since California Condors can live up to 60 years, Amigo will hopefully have a long life ahead and will be seen by many. He and his cohorts certainly gave me a thrill!
It did not take long for these giants to soar out of sight. It was barely after 8:00 a.m. There was a lot of birding still ahead and I had to backtrack through Monterey adding a couple of hours to my traveling. I decided to count my blessings and move on. Frankly everything else that would happen on this trip would now be icing on the cake.
One of the rarities that had shown up after my initial planning was a Garganey – a small Eurasian teal-like duck. It was being seen regularly at a pond in a public park in Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County. If I had been able to continue south on Highway 1, the park was 139 miles away – about 3 hours on that road. Having to backtrack added over 70 miles but because of the faster roads only about another 40 minutes. I had no choice so I headed north before heading south. I made a few brief stops along the way just seeing some of the local birds and then arrived in Waller Park just before 1:00 p.m.
I had seen a Garganey twice before but never in the ABA area where it is quite rare. My first one was seen in Pecs, Hungary in July 2002. Relatively common there but no photos in those days. I saw one again in Kenya in November 2007. Garganeys breed in Europe and Asia but then migrate to Africa, South Asia and Australia. No photos in Kenya either.
It took a little while to actually find the pond in the large park. But once I did I quickly found the Garganey as it was by far the smallest duck there. As I said, anything after the Condors would be icing but this was really, really good icing.
Garganey – Waller Park – Santa Maria, Santa Barbara County
Garganeys are often confused in migration and occasionally show up in North America. With a bird like this, there is always a question if it might be an escapee from a collection. The consensus has been that especially as a juvenile, this bird is probably for real. I am certainly treating that way until there is some official determination to the contrary – if any.
I had to be in Ventura for my next pursuit – taking the high speed passenger ferry to Santa Cruz Island. That was another 100 miles away. No other specific targets in the area so I did some general birding and made it to Ventura as the sun was setting.
What a great day. A California Condor and a Garganey with photos of both.
New ABA Life Birds: #697 California Condor and #698 Garganey
New ABA Photos: Same
NEW ABA Year Birds: Same
I had not been trying to add species per se – only the targets but just by being in good and different habitats, my trip list was now over 80 species.