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Waiting for a big bird fly-by

Condor watchers gather at Hi Mountain to get an update on a species that's barely escaping extinction.

October 25, 2005|John FitzRandolph | Special to The Times

SOMEWHERE OUT THERE, just miles from our pitched tents set around the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout, somewhere between the hazy Pacific Ocean on the horizon and the forested canyons far below, pairs of California condors in cliff-side nests stir in the chill of an October morning.

Up here at 3,198 feet, we're in the heart of the condor recovery range, a stone's throw from a bedrock outcropping used by Chumash Indians to grind acorns. There are 75 of us who made the steep trek up from Pozo Road, a pothole-plagued dirt track.

We watch, wait, sip steamy coffee and hot chocolate in small clusters and speak in whispers.

And though we've been advised that chances are slim of seeing a cameo flyover by a resurgent condor -- its awe-inspiring nearly 10-foot wingspan it's the largest bird in North America -- none of us are deterred.

Most of my fellow condor aficionados, who have come from as far away as Oregon, share my refusal to accept coordinator Steve Schubert's remark that -- notwithstanding the mountain's strategic location between Big Sur and Ventura County's Hopper Mountain as a condor telemetry and tracking station -- the odds are "1 in 100" that we'll see one.

But hey, so what if the chances for a close encounter are remote, says a bearded older man in our shivering cluster.

Let's all remember, he continues, that in 1979 the official chances offered were "slim and none" for the then pitiable population of 10 remaining condors to survive another year.

Twenty-five years later, thanks to an aggressive condor recovery program, we gather to celebrate the 125 in the wild.

Another 49 are being readied for release from captive breeding facilities. They currently are in survival training at the L.A. Zoo; the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park; the Wild Birds of Prey Center in Boise, Idaho; and the Oregon Zoo.

After tedious behavioral instruction using condor look-alike puppets, most of the captive birds will eventually soar free over refuges in Big Sur, Hopper Mountain, Pinnacles National Monument and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Kern County.

Sudden wind gusts whip across the ridgeline, whisking away fog that sent the sun packing an hour earlier. U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Denise Stockton steps forward to offer some not-so-pleasing condor updates.

It's a life-and-death struggle for the resilient birds, she says as we listen attentively in a tight circle beneath the west-facing tower of the lookout.

In fact, Stockton says, one adult condor and two condor chicks in the Hopper Mountain area recently died. It's troubling, she says, but not a threat to the program.

"Condor AC-2 was released last June but was found dead in late September," Stockton explains. "He may have been attacked by predators, or died of old age. He was found nearly totally eaten."

Also, an egg produced by a pair of Hopper Mountain condors was discovered to be infertile and was carefully replaced by a healthy egg from the San Diego Zoo. The replacement chick hatched, and the parents accepted it, but in a few months nest-watchers noticed that the chick was struggling.

The condor specialist who had replaced the original egg recovered the chick, and it was taken by helicopter to the L.A. Zoo.

"Trash was surgically removed from the chick's stomach," Stockton says. "It survived the ordeal and is expected to be returned to its foster parents in the spring."

Trash also was found in the stomach of a second sickly chick plucked from its nest in the Hopper Mountain refuge area. The chick died -- not from trash, but from West Nile virus.

"It's the first condor to die of West Nile," Stockton explains.

A third Hopper Mountain condor chick also perished in September, this time entirely due to complications from trash in its diet.

Stockton says scientists are puzzled as to why condor parents feed their chicks food that contains bottle caps, shards of broken plastic and glass, spent casings from firearms and other micro-trash.

"Maybe the condors need calcium," she speculates, noting that the birds may confuse shiny objects with potential nutrients.

The bad news settles in, but it's offset by firsthand accounts of encounters with the big birds by interns who watch nests and record condor movements, tracking the birds through radio signals from transmitters attached to both wings of each bird.

"By far the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me in my life was the day a condor showed up at Hi Mountain," says Jamie Miller, a fifth-year biology major and Hi Mountain condor telemetry intern. "It was my first sighting."

Miller, who attends Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, has spent more than eight months monitoring condor movements between Big Sur and Hopper Mountain.

"I was inside the lookout building, and my colleague out on the deck called out, 'Hey, Jamie, I've never seen a condor, but there's a big bird out here.' I rushed out, and there it was!"

The colossal bird "circled for a half an hour, looked down at us and seemed extremely curious, and then left," she says, noting that it was harassed by a red-tailed hawk for a few moments before the larger bird flew south.

In the end, the birds are no-shows. Miller's tale is the closest I'll come to a condor sighting this weekend. But as the moon rises and campers huddle around their tents, I can't help but hope that the recovery program would proceed despite human carelessness and disease, and that the condor's winged brushstrokes will increasingly adorn the canvas of our remaining wilderness.

*

For information on the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout Project or to arrange a visit to the center, call Steve Schubert at (805) 528-6138 or go to www.condorlookout.org.

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