Story and photos by David A. Laws.
“Birdwatchers look at birds. Birders look for them” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Birdwatching, feeding and enjoying birds in our backyards, has long been a popular national pastime. As we seek safe, socially-distanced pastimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, the recreational sport of actively searching for them, called birding, is enjoying the fastest growth of any leisure activity in the world. Rock star birding in Big Sur and the inland mountain ranges of Central California offers many opportunities to see eagles, harriers, hawks and especially condors, as they continue to build nests, mate, and rear their young with a freedom that envious humans no longer enjoy.
Endowed with a menacing beak and featherless wrinkled head, a wingspan of up to 9.5-feet, and weighing as much as 25-pounds, California condors are the nation’s largest land birds. But, when soaring over a landscape of untrammeled wilderness, they present a magnificent spectacle of agility, freedom, and grace. Sadly, due to loss of habitat, egg collecting, shooting, power line collisions, and poisoning, especially from lead ammunition, the population fell to just 22 birds world-wide by 1982.
Federal and state agencies worked with California zoos to establish a captive breeding program and in 1992 released the first captive-bred fledglings. The Ventana Wilderness Society (VWS) became the first private, non-profit organization to release condors in California in 1997. Today nearly 500 condors fly free across several western states and Mexico. Although the number of wild births improves each year, threats to the long-term survival of the species remain serious. VWS efforts to rebuild a sustainable condor population in Central California include a release site in Big Sur and free distribution of nonlead, copper ammunition to hunters and ranchers.
First encounter – Pinnacles National Park
My understanding of the plight of the condor began during a spring hike through Pinnacles National Park in 2015. Located in the Gabilan Mountains 50 miles inland from Monterey Bay, Pinnacles is noted for a dramatic geological feature formed by tectonic plate movement along the San Andreas Fault. Jagged ramparts and razor-sharp pillars of granite, the eroded remnants of an ancient volcanic eruption, protrude through chaparral-cloaked slopes like teeth of a giant saw blade.
From the west entry parking lot, my wife Jean and I followed Juniper Canyon Trail into a narrow valley drained by bubbling seasonal Chalone Creek. Fiddleneck, milkmaid, poppy, shooting star, and Indian warrior wildflower blooms burst from rich volcanic soil. Under deep shadow at the cliff face, scraggly gray pines reached up for light through a maze of massive fallen boulders. Stepping carefully up the steep, talus-strewn slope, we traversed a switchback trail to the High Peaks ridgeline.
Resting on a bench near Scout Peak overlook, we surveyed a panorama of bare rock-rimmed gorges and rolling, oak-studded hills beyond to the verdant flatlands of Salinas Valley. Far below us, several large birds rode the updraft of a breeze along the sheer rock face.
“Could they be condors?” Jean ventured.
Seen through binoculars, a characteristic flare of wingtip feathers and striking white triangles on their wings confirmed her sighting. Two more birds launched from an overhang shading a deep cleft in the rock. We watched the soaring ballet performed by these magnificent, feathered aeronauts, until it was time to walk back down to the valley.
With eyes firmly focused on the rocky trail ahead, I sensed an extraordinary presence as a great shadow slid across my path. An icy twinge of fear melted to awe; “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind.” Lacking the display of “cloven tongues like as of fire,” that concludes this passage from the King James Bible, I realized this wasn’t a visit from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost but a routine reconnaissance mission by a hungry condor. I glimpsed a number inscribed on a black vinyl tag attached to the outspread wing just yards above my head.
Back home, I researched condor information on the internet. Condorspotter.com noted that birds are released to the wild with a visible ID tag to aid biologists in tracking their movements. The site identified our stalker, #589, as Pinnacles, a male bird hatched in June 2010 at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, and released in the park a year later. As of this writing, I am happy to report that Pinnacles is still flying, has sired two offspring, and “can frequently be seen getting affectionate with his mate #569.”
Birding in the Diablo Range
Interested in learning more about condors and other raptors, we joined a San Benito County backroads tour organized by the Ventana Wildlife Society. Kelly Sorenson and eagle expert Steve Johnson led our exploration of raptor country that began in Pacheco Pass east of Hollister where Steve identified a pair of golden eagles skimming steep, grass-covered slopes bordering the highway. Debi Shearwater, an icon of the California birdwatching community, is convinced that San Benito County has the highest population density of golden eagles in the world. We were thrilled to see two of them that morning.
For the rest of the day, we traveled slowly south along Santa Ana Valley Road through flat, bare ranchland fenced for cattle. Hawks, kestrels, and kites hovered high above a dry, early-fall landscape. An occasional raptor swooped to snatch an unsuspecting rodent scurrying across the expanse of golden stubble that stretched to the smooth, burnished-bronze foothills of the Diablo Range. Others perched patiently on utility poles, fences, and tree snags with a commanding view of their territory. In this open country, eagles and other raptors, such as red-tailed hawks, typically control an area of several square miles to ensure sufficient food for nestlings and to raise them without disturbance from others. Steve, who tracks pairs of golden eagles that he names after presidents and their wives, pointed out fields favored by a recent presidential couple he baptized George and Martha.
The big moment of the day arrived when we spotted three dark silhouettes circling the eastern ridgeline. Our van driver turned onto Quien Sabe (Who Knows) Road, appropriately named as it quickly narrowed to a dirt track winding up the side of a dry, rocky canyon to places unknown. Sighting large birds ahead, tour organizer Kristy Markowitz climbed from the van grasping a bulky antenna. She explained that a unique radio frequency from a transmitter mounted on the wing or tail feathers of a condor identifies each bird. A burst of sound from a handheld receiver confirmed the presence of condors just seconds before the flock slipped behind the ridge. Thus, our second encounter proved somewhat less dramatic than our first.
While traveling, Kelly recounted the history of VWS and how the non-profit evolved into an important player in returning condors to the wild. Founded in Big Sur in 1977 as a sanctuary for conserving wildlife, the property provided a foothold for bald eagle and peregrine falcon recovery programs. Based on its success with these species, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service asked VWS to join the Condor Recovery Program in supporting the reintroduction of the birds to Central California. By 2019, the region’s population of free-flying condors rose from zero to 100. In addition to managing the condor release site in Big Sur, and free distribution of nonlead, copper ammunition to hunters and ranchers, current VWS activities include natural science education programs, a bird monitoring research station, and a consulting service for conservation and ecological planning, Kelly’s enthusiasm and commitment to these projects inspired us to explore more of the wildlands that condors once again call home.
From Hollister to Big Sur
As the condor population grew, their range in Monterey County expanded from the original Big Sur coastal release site inland to the Gabilan Range and Pinnacles National Park. To explore this region, we decided to follow the route taken by Icarus and Orville, two four-year-old birds fitted with GPS transmitters who flew from Big Sur, across the Salinas Valley and north along the Gabilan Range, covering a distance of over 150 miles in two days.
On a brilliant fall day, we drove State Route (SR) 25, called Airline Highway from an early American expression describing a direct route between two points, through a long narrow valley created by the San Andreas Rift Zone. A favorite of motorcyclists for sixty miles of gentle-curving pavement, the road follows sinuous contours of dry, eroded foothills flanking the Gabilan and Diablo Ranges south from Hollister, passing the eastern entrance to Pinnacles National Park, to SR 198 east of King City. Fenced grasslands, dotted with cattle and scattered live oaks, bordered the highway.
An unbroken chain of telegraph poles lined the road. As we learned to distinguish sleek avian shapes from electrical insulators that crown this ubiquitous furniture of the western landscape, we realized that the southern end of this rift zone, here called Peachtree Valley, probably houses more raptors than humans. With many of them surveying their territory from these strategic vantage points, we counted more than forty red-tailed and northern harrier hawks, a dozen or so kestrels, and a lone golden eagle.
At SR 198, we headed west over a low ridge of the Gabilan Range and down into the Salinas Valley. Dense green willow groves flourished in the Salinas River’s meandering bone-dry course. Their roots reach deep into one of the nation’s most extensive underground flows as water from the “upside-down” river continues to irrigate the rich agricultural valley throughout the long dry season. Fly-over country for condors heading east, this green ribbon of riparian vegetation stretching 70-miles north to Monterey Bay is a favored habitat for several species of hawks.
Raptors surveyed their domain from snags of stately, lichen-draped Valley oaks as we drove south through open rolling hills and cattle country into San Antonio Valley and the army reservist training base of Fort Hunter Liggett. Named by Spanish explorers La Canada de Los Robles (Valley of the Oaks), in springtime, these meadows glow with carpets of white-tipped, blue-purple Sky lupines punctuated with fluorescent orange California poppies.
Three clusters of buildings, each representing a significant era in the development of modern California, occupy ancient ancestral lands of the Salinan native people on the north bank of the San Antonio River near Jolon. The 18th-century mellow adobe quadrangle of Mission San Antonio de Padua, architect Julia Morgan’s mission-revival Hacienda lodge built in 1930 as a party house for William Randolph Hearst and his guests, and 1950s utilitarian U.S. Army structures, all stand in close proximity on Fort Hunter Liggett.
Twenty years ago, while researching writer John Steinbeck’s connections to the area, I stayed in the lodge that is operated by the army as a hotel and open to the public when not required by army brass. I felt the clash of cultures as an idyllic, lupin-filled meadow setting suddenly dissolved into 21st-century reality when two camouflaged Hummers bursting with fatigue-draped troops roared across the scene.
Nacimiento Fergusson Road cuts across rugged troop-training terrain and up over the Santa Lucia Mountains to the coast. This narrow, 24-mile switchback byway rises, seemingly forever, over chaparral-covered, razorback ridges where condors first reestablished their presence on the Central Coast. Finally, the road plunges through a deep green canyon to the ocean at SR 1, where it is popularly known as California Highway One. Images of precipitous slopes, timeless redwood forests, and crashing surf along the continent’s ragged edge entice millions of visitors to travel this spectacular 70-mile road-trip through Big Sur every year.
North of the cliff-edge community of Lucia, the roadbed narrows and cuts into the sheer rock face. As I slowed to sneak a peek at the churning white waters of the ocean hundreds of feet below, a condor swept into view over my left shoulder. My third encounter lasted only seconds but I will remember the thrill forever. We flew by side-by-side, until, with only the slightest tilt of wingtip feathers splayed out like fingers, the magnificent creature veered below the guardrail and down to a secluded beach where a flock gathered to scavenge a stranded sea lion carcass.
Highway One bends inland to campgrounds and services clustered around the rustic roadside village of Big Sur and out to the ocean again at Andrew Molera State Park about 25 miles south of Monterey. The Ventana Wildlife Society’s Discovery Center in the park presented a convenient place to take a break, learn more about condors, and purchase gifts before returning home.
Ignited on the evening of August 18, 2020, near Lime Kiln State Park close to where I “flew” with the condor, the Dolan Fire consumed over 125,000 acres and continues to burn inside a contained periphery as of this writing. Watched in horror by millions of viewers across the nation, a webcam relayed the sight of flames racing towards the redwood tree nest of a 4-month-old baby condor named Inko before going off the air. For several days we mourned the fate of another precious nestling until a physical inspection of the site revealed that Inko had survived. She is now recovering in the Los Angeles Zoo and will be released to the wild in 2021.
Unfortunately, nine adults and two chicks perished as the fire swept through the Big Sur Condor Sanctuary. Today the free-flying count in Central California is down to 90 from a peak of over 100 birds in 2019. “To lose any is a tragedy but we will rise from the ashes and rebuild the condor’s sanctuary,” said Senior Wildlife Biologist for VWS Joe Burnett.
IF YOU GO: (During the Covid pandemic, before you leave, check state and local travel restrictions as well as restaurant and lodging availability. ) 1) Download one of the popular bird identification apps from the Audubon Society or Cornell University to help distinguish between the many species of raptors that frequent the area. 2) Visit the home page for general information on the Ventana Wildlife Society. Click here for access to the Condor cam, and updates on condor recovery programs. From June through November in pre-COVID days, VWS scheduled condor viewing excursions from its Discovery Center in Andrew Molera State Park. Check the Condor Tours webpage for future availability. 3) Pinnacles National Park can be reached from the east on SR 146 south of Hollister and from the west, also via SR146, from Soledad. Note that SR146 DOES NOT exist inside the park and there is no vehicular connection from one side to the other. 4) The Hacienda Lodge hotel on Fort Hunter Liggett is managed by an army concessionaire. Visit the website for booking information. Check that Nacimiento Fergusson Road is open to through traffic before traveling. Fire and COVID restrictions closed the road several times during 2020. 5) Big Sur receives as many or more visitors than Yosemite National Park, but has few restrooms and just one narrow two-lane highway. If popular places such as Bixby Bridge or McWay Falls are overcrowded, bypass them, and move on to the many other beautiful spots along the coast. Just drive — you’ll find them.
Photo Acknowledgments: Thank you to National Park Service Wildlife Specialist Gavin Emmons for his image of condors socializing in the High Peaks, to Linda Abbey for “Dolly,” and to Tim Huntington for the condor over Big Sur. Prints of Linda’s photos are available at the Artisana Gallery in Pacific Grove. Tim sells his scenic landscapes, flora, and fauna prints from his webnectar.com website.