Monthly Archives: September 2013

September 15: Day of the Condors

California Condor #418, female hatched in LA Zoo in 2006

It would be very hard for me to put together a top ten list of my very favorite birds because I love so many individual species for such different individual reasons. But something about the plight of the California Condor touched my heart from the moment I learned about this extraordinary bird, consigned to a body unable to digest anything but meat, yet equally incapable of taking a life to sustain its own. (Well, condors probably swallow a few maggots here and there, but not on purpose.)

California Condors don’t have as well refined a sense of smell as Turkey Vultures do, but their extraordinary vision helps them keep track of vultures that are miles away. When vultures start spiraling down toward a carcass, condors may join in. When the vultures are dropping toward a large carcass, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement, because condors have more powerful beaks and neck muscles than Turkey Vultures do, and can tear into thick hides vultures couldn’t possibly deal with.

Turkey Vulture eating a Common Gallinule

In general, Turkey Vultures, which weigh about 4 ½ pounds, prefer carcasses too small to share, and in captivity prefer fresh to decayed meals, but are sociable both in their roosts and at large carcasses. Their populations have flourished throughout their wide range as they’ve successfully adapted to feeding on road-killed animals.

Condors outweigh vultures by from 300 to 500 percent. (They weigh 15-22 pounds.) The fossil record and condor feathers found in archeological diggings show them ranging along the Pacific coast from Baja California to British Columbia, along the southern US to Florida, and up the Atlantic coast through New York, though some researchers believe that some feathers found in the East may have worked their way there via trade rather than being dropped by living condors. No matter how far their range extended before written records, it had shrunk by the early 19th century to a much more restricted area extending east only as far as western Colorado. None were spotted in Arizona after 1924, and by the 1930s, condors were restricted exclusively to California.

In 1987, with only 22 individuals remaining in the entire world, scientists discovered that every wild individual California Condor was suffering from dangerously high blood lead levels, so in a last-ditch effort to save the species, every one was trapped and taken into captivity. My friend Marge Gibson, the founder and director of the Raptor Education Group in Antigo, Wisconsin, was one of the expert rehabbers involved in the final capture of these birds—a heartbreaking task with no guarantees that condors would ever fly wild in the skies again, because condors had not yet bred successfully in captivity. Scientists theorized that condors evolved to capitalize on the huge carcasses of Pleistocene megafauna such as mastodons and giant sloths, and many comforted themselves with the belief that the species was doomed to extinction anyway.

But the loss of mastodons is hardly the cause of the species’ ultimate imperilment—we humans have been poisoning them. Even after all the work involved in breeding condors in captivity and releasing them, so that the number of birds now in the wild from reintroduction programs numbers about 226, about a quarter of the wild birds die each year, mostly due to lead poisoning. Extensive research has pinpointed the precise chemical form of the lead, verifying that the source is ammunition. Condors pick up lead shot and bullets in discarded gut piles from deer and other large game animals, from prairie dogs and ground squirrel carcasses left after farmers and ranchers shoot them, and from other shot carcasses found throughout their range. Of course, lead is dangerous to humans as well as condors. Indeed, a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and the North Dakota Department of Public Health concluded that lead scatters so thoroughly in meat harvested through hunting that pregnant women and children should never eat it.

Yet the extremist NRA has fought tooth and nail to prevent lead bans over most of the condor range. Only after a huge environmental battle did California pass legislation, signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, banning its use in 8 counties. Right now legislation that would ban its use statewide has been approved by the California Assembly, and will go into effect if Jerry Brown signs it. Meanwhile, lead shot and bullet use still flourishes in Arizona (Note that the one comment published for the linked article, to “”, directs you to an NRA site rife with erroneous information.)

Of all the species of conservation concern I’m trying to see during my Conservation Big Year, the California Condor has been one of my highest priorities. This bird has been uniquely special to me since I learned about it during the first Earth Day in 1970. In 2011, Russ and I drove to the Grand Canyon so I could mark my 60th birthday, on 11/11/11, by seeing a condor in the wild for the first time in my life.

California Condor

I devoutly hoped I’d have as much luck this year on my Conservation Big Year’s official “Day of the Condor.” The Monterey Bay Birding Festival was held from September 12-15th, and I signed up for the field trip managed by the Ventana Wildlife Society that would bring us to the best spots in the Big Sur for finding one.

California Condors weigh up to 22 pounds and have a 9½-foot wingspan, dwarfing the Bald Eagle’s 6–14 pounds and 6½ foot wingspan and the Golden Eagle’s similar dimensions.

California Condor

Condors have matchless flying skills when held aloft by thermals or updrafts, but until the sun rises high enough to help those develop in mid-morning, or during foggy or rainy weather, the birds are stuck. The early birder may get the Worm-eating Warbler, but won’t usually see any condors. Our group headed for the Discovery Center of the Ventana Wildlife Society at mid-morning, where two experts, Mike and Robin, met us and explained about the reintroduction project before driving us out to California’s beautiful coastal Highway 1.

Ventana Wildlife Society

Mike from the Ventana Wildlife Society operates radio telemetry equipment to locate and identify individual California Condors.

Robin from the Ventana Wildlife Society writes down our California Condor sightings data

Looking at California Condors at a pullout off Highway 1 in California's Big Sur.

Condors often gravitate to the coast to feed on the large carcasses of marine mammals, from sea lions to whales, washed to shore. Pullouts along this busy road provide spectacular looks at the Big Sur as well as the occasional condor.

Big Sur

Our first stop overlooked the dramatically rugged, rocky shoreline. It didn’t take much searching to spot condors roosting off in the distance, not much further than the condors I’d seen in the Grand Canyon. I was thrilled.

California Condor flying over a seal resting spot

After watching them for a while, we headed a bit further south on the highway, to another pullout. There, atop a Monterey cypress tree, was a condor, with a second one somewhat obscured in the branches below it. These two were so near to us that I had to pull in my 100-400 mm lens to fit them both in my camera’s field of view. I’d never ever imagined being so close to a wild condor, much less two. I can’t begin to describe my elation. They were backlit, but I didn’t even care.

California Condor

It was worrisome that the birds were so close to the busy highway, but apparently they don’t focus on roadkill—they’re merely roosting in the tall trees. Condors may have discovered that very strong thermals develop above heated pavement, and may realize that their takeoff at midmorning is easier when they’ve been roosting in a tree near a road. We savored the two for many minutes before heading further down the road.

At another pullout, we came upon another two condors roosting at the top of cypresses, these two even closer to us and both in full sun.

California Condor showing #167 "Kingpin" (left) and #418 (right)

California Condor #167 "Kingpin" hatched 1997 at LA Zoo

California Condor #418, female hatched in LA Zoo in 2006

Now we were spotting more distant condors as well, some sitting on rocks far above us, some on rocks or trees below the road. When we couldn’t see a wing tag, our wonderful guides from the Ventana Wildlife Society used radio telemetry to work out which individuals we were seeing.

California Condor

California Condor

It’s sad to realize that not one condor in the wild is unmarked, and that the wildlife society must capture each individual at least once or twice each year to check its blood lead levels. Tragically often, birds require chelation treatment to get the lead out, and even with careful monitoring, annual mortality is far above what would be sustainable if captive-bred birds weren’t being released every year.

As of April 2012, a total of 405 condors existed on the planet, 179 in captivity. The Arizona wild population numbered 80, the Baja California population 21, and the California population 125, of which the Ventana Wildlife Society manages about half. It was thrilling to see at least 10 different individual condors on this field trip, and richly satisfying to hear information and stories about the individuals we were watching, but sad to hear stories about these birds’ brushes with death and the mates and young some of them had lost. It must be endlessly sorrowful and frustrating for people giving their hearts and souls to this project to hear the lies spouted by paranoid spokesmen for the NRA discounting the proven scientific conclusions about shot and bullets being the primary source of the lead that is the primary cause of mortality in these magnificent birds. And marine mammals continue to store organochlorides, including DDT, in their tissues, so eggs produced by condors feeding on whales and seals have thinner shells than is healthy. The Moonglow Dairy, a wonderful farm that allows birders on their grounds to view wetland birds, including Tricolored Blackbirds, sends stillborn calves to Ventana, which sets them out in safe areas to give the condors at least one uncontaminated food source. Like the condors themselves, the wildlife managers and helpful volunteers get up each day and do what needs to be done without writing off condors as doomed before their time. These quiet heroes understand that every lost condor diminishes our nation and our planet.

When the weather isn’t perfect, or if the condors aren’t hanging around the coast, they can be tricky to find even with radio telemetry, so my Day of the Condors, when we saw at least 10 different individual condors, was exceptional. Many people manage to find condors on their own by driving along the right stretch of Highway 1, watching for condors, sometimes aided by the flocks of birders and photographers that gravitate together, their spotting scopes and large cameras pointed at condors. If you find yourself in California, I recommend attending at least one condor tour by the Ventana Wildlife Society. Your $50 fee helps sustain the work of this splendid organization, ensuring that we, our children, and our children’s children will be able to enjoy this amazing spectacle long into the future.

As of today, September 20, 2013, I’ve seen condors on exactly 2 of the 22,594 days I’ve been alive. Just knowing that condors are out there has been important to my peace of mind and overall happiness during the 15,890 days since I first learned of their existence on Earth Day 1970. And the moments I’ve spent with condors in the Grand Canyon and now California have burnished my memory with a glowing luster that will last a lifetime.

Some of the individual birds we saw on September 15:

#534, Female hatched May 18, 2009 at the Oregon Zoo.

California Condor #534 female hatched in 2009 at Oregon Zoo

#167 “Kingpin,” male hatched May 6, 1997 at the LA Zoo.

California Condor #167 "Kingpin" hatched 1997 at LA Zoo

#418, Female hatched May 10, 2006, at the LA Zoo.

California Condor #418, female hatched in LA Zoo in 2006

#351, male hatched May 28, 2004 at the LA Zoo

California Condor

September 6 and 9: Debi Shearwater Pelagic Trips from Monterey Bay and Half Moon Bay

Blue Whale

When Russ and I were living in Madison, Wisconsin, in the 70s, one of my birding friends, a retired Forest Service ecologist named Frank Freese, went on a couple of birding trips out in the Pacific Ocean off Monterey Bay with a woman named Debi Shearwater. Frank was thrilled with the breadth and depth of her knowledge and her competence as a guide—he said no one in his experience was so quick at spotting distant birds, accurately identifying them, and making sure other birders on the boat got a chance to see them before they disappeared. At that point Russ was working on his Ph.D. and I was earning low wages as a Catholic school teacher, so no way could I afford a trip so far afield, but ever since Frank planted the idea in my head, I’ve wanted to get out on one of those Shearwater Adventures. I met Debi in Duluth during our great owl invasion in the winter of 2005, but otherwise have admired her only from afar.

What with doing my Conservation Big Year, I knew I’d never be able to reach 600 species without getting at least some of the huge assortment of oceanic birds that are an essential part of North America’s avifauna but are seldom visible from land. Some breed on remote islands and some along rocky coastlines. The breeding grounds of one outlier, the Marbled Murrelet, weren’t discovered until 1974, when a tree climber discovered a chick high in a California redwood. I went on an Atlantic pelagic trip in January during the Florida Space Coast Birding Festival, and saw nesting seabirds on Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine in June, but wanted to see Pacific seabirds as well, and decided Debi Shearwater’s pelagic birding trips were the way to go. Thanks to a generous gift from my friend Susan Eaton, whose backyard gave me my year’s Eurasian Tree Sparrows, I booked seats on two Shearwater Adventures, one into Monterey Bay and one out of Half Moon Bay, for September 6 and 9.

Debi Shearwater is widely known for being the inspiration for Angelica Huston’s character, “Annie Auklet,” in the movie The Big Year.” The real Debi Shearwater is blonde and pretty, but like Annie Auklet, is known for being a taskmaster. Like the best junior high teachers—the ones all the parents hope their kids will get—she knows what birders need to do to get the most out of her trips, makes her expectations very clear, and immediately takes you to task for breaking a rule. She reminded me of a world-weary teacher, still very much loving her job and doing her level best to make sure everyone on her boat sees as many birds as possible, but knowing through hard experience that people are going to ignore her rules, sometimes with awful results.

Both of the trips I went on boarded at exactly 7 a.m., and were all-day adventures. Skies were clear on the Monterey Bay trip, only fogging up as we returned to shore in mid-afternoon. It was foggy and still all day on the Half Moon trip. In fog or when seas are choppy, binoculars and cameras get covered with droplets of salt water. I kept a plastic rain guard on my camera all day. I always keep my lens hood on—it sticks out, making the camera four inches longer, but that protects the lens filter from dust, and in this case from spray and foggy droplets. I still had to spend a lot of time wiping spray from my eyeglasses and my binoculars, though those only got wet when I forgot to keep the rain guard on the eye pieces. Knowing what to expect, thanks in part to having been on a couple of Atlantic pelagics and partly thanks to Debi’s excellent rules, I didn’t miss a single bird on her trip, which helped my year list grow significantly.

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

As Forrest Gump didn’t quite say, birding is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get, but it’s sure to be sweet. Before I set out on Debi’s Monterey Bay and Half Moon Bay trips, I was certain I was going to get at least a few lifers—birds I’d never seen in my life before—and several new birds for my Conservation Big Year list. But I had no idea what we’d see. Usually the most abundant bird on Pacific pelagics is the Sooty Shearwater, which can number well into the thousands seen on a single trip, but Debi said that during the 38 years she’s been leading these adventures, on one trip they didn’t see a single one. So as with all birding, there are no guarantees.

While we were still in the no-wake zone setting out into both bays, we searched the rocky jetties, picking out each of the three species of cormorants found there, along with Brown Pelicans, a few Black Turnstones, Surfbirds, and even one Wandering Tattler. These birds can be found here and there along the coast, too, so even when something fun was seen, we didn’t slow down. We were on a mission.


California Sea Lion

Everyone’s mindset was on the most wondrous possibilities, so much so that one professional guide even called out a Pacific Loon that on closer view was a cormorant. That’s how it goes in pelagic birding, and no one minds, because everyone realizes that it’s better to call out a South Polar Skua that turns into a Pomarine Jaeger than to wait several seconds for a more certain identification, in which time everyone might miss their one chance at that skua. As we set out, it was fun picking through the many Western Gulls for the daintier Heermann’s Gulls. The Beach Boys famously disapproved of both species, since they wished they all could be California Gulls, but there were enough of that one, too.

Seabirds can be exceptionally tiny, like the Red-necked Phalaropes we saw spinning about even in the deepest waters, or huge, like the Black-footed Albatrosses that occasionally followed the boat a ways, giving me lovely looks and photo ops of this yearned-for lifer.

Black-footed Albatross

On both trips we mostly saw Sooty Shearwaters at first as we got into deeper water. This is an extremely abundant species that I’ve seen from a fishing boat off the coast of Oregon in 1979 and from a whale-watching boat from Long Beach last fall, but it was good to study this all-dark, medium-sized species, in the air and on water, so I could quickly pick out any outliers. Friday we had a handful of Pink-footed Shearwaters, which are larger than Sooties and have a whitish underside.

Pink-footed Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

By Monday, having studied both those species well at all angles, it was much easier to pick out Buller’s Shearwaters, with their subtle but noticeable upper wing pattern and whiter underside all the way up to their throat, giving their face a bi-colored appearance.

Sabine's Gull, Buller's Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Pink-footed Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater

When a Flesh-footed Shearwater passed by (no photos), I forgot what to look for, but picked out the all-dark bird, huger than a Sooty Shearwater, just before it flew beyond the distance of conjecture. The one Manx Shearwater that showed up on that same Half Moon Bay trip (no photos) was equally elusive, but by keying in on the outlier, I got a quick look at this tiny guy, even spotting the tiny white crescent behind the ear feathers.

I got a momentary look at a single Ashy Storm-Petrel in Monterey Bay, but leisurely looks at thousands of them on the Half Moon Bay trip. Again, taking time to study them is how I picked out the outliers—the noticeably larger Black Storm-Petrel, the white-rumped Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, and the soft gray Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. During lulls in activity, there were always one or two birds in view, and I tried to stay focused on them. Even though I’m inexperienced at seabirds, this focus allowed me to pick out new things more easily.

There were quite a few Common Murres out in the water throughout much of both trips. I checked out every one of them, making it easier to pick out the Rhinoceros Auklets on both trips, and a Cassin’s Auklet, a Pigeon Guillemot, several Scripp’s Murrelets, and a few Tufted Puffins.

Tufted Puffin

Pomarine Jaegers were seen on both trips, one Long-tailed Jaeger raced by the boat on the Monterey trip, and two South Polar Skuas appeared and lingered for a few seconds on the Half Moon Bay trip. And I finally got my lifer Sabine’s Gull–a bird that turns up virtually every year in Duluth, but that had been my nemesis bird for lo these many decades.

Sabine's Gull

We didn’t see a single whale on the Half Moon Bay trip, but did have a couple of Humpback Whales and several Blue Whales on the Monterey Bay trip. Debi Shearwater said that the number of birds and species composition changes dramatically from season to season, and often from week to week or day to day, so she can’t say one destination is better than another. Pelagic trips are fairly expensive, because the expenses of chartering boats are so high, but boy oh boy—I had two of the funnest days of my life on these, and sure hope I can get out on Debi’s boats again some day.

Humpback Whale

(More photos will be added in a few days)