For the first time in a generation, California condors are flying free over Mexico after three of the giant birds were released Thursday in a mountainous region of Baja California.
It took two days for the trio to leave their flight pen and soar above the pine forests of the Sierra San Pedro de Martir National Park.
Two other condors, North America's largest birds, will be freed in the next few weeks.
"There is a biological and symbolic significance here," said Mike Wallace, who heads the San Diego-based condor recovery team. "These birds haven't been seen in this area since the 1930s, when they were lost to shooting and poisoning."
The park rises from 6,000 to 9,000 feet and is covered in old-growth pine, fir, hemlock and spruce forests. Summers are hot, and winters are snowy and cold, unlike most of the other condor habitats.
Condors have now been successfully released in Los Padres National Forest, Big Sur, the Grand Canyon and Baja California.
"Although condors were common in the first half of the last century, these magnificent birds are unknown to the younger generation," said Horacio de la Cueva, who helps run the Baja condor project. "Our education plans aim to teach both about the biology of this bird and the global importance of environmental conservation in Baja California."
The condors, hatched from eggs at the Los Angeles Zoo and the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, have been in a flight pen since August. Wallace released just three of the five condors initially to let them adjust and ensure a smooth transition to the wild.
"It will be far easier to manage three inexperienced birds than the whole group," he said. "Once they have a routine, they can teach the last two condors where to roost and how to find the food we place out."
Condors are fed frozen calf carcasses to keep them from foraging and getting poisoned by lead or other pollutants.
There are now 73 condors in the wild and 129 in captivity. The goal is to establish two populations of 150 birds each in California and Arizona with 15 breeding pairs.
Meanwhile, a necropsy performed on a condor chick found dead in Los Padres National Forest near Fillmore last week continues. Pathologists at the San Diego Zoo say the level of decay has made finding the cause of death difficult, if not impossible.
They said the 5-month-old bird had good stores of fat, no broken bones and no metal in its gastrointestinal tract.