With a wingspan approaching 10 feet, the condor is one of the largest flying birds on the planet. They are also among the most critically endangered.
As recently as the 1980s, only 22 California condors were left in the world. In1987, the last wild condor was captured and taken into captivity. Since that time, an intensive captive breeding program has-beens successful in hatching baby chicks and releasing them to re-establish wild populations.
"We began reintroducing condors to Big Sur in 1997," said Joe Burnett, senior wildlife biologist with Ventana Wildlife Society. "Since then, every year we release five or six condors. We now have a flock of 52 birds in the wild, with seven nesting pairs."
In 2003, the nonprofit organization partnered with the National Park Service to establish a flock at Pinnacles National Monument. Since then, the Big Sur flock and the Pinnacles flock have essentially become one, with birds nesting along the Central Coast. As a whole, there are now 93 wild birds in California.
Successes have not come easily. Raising juvenile condors is a challenging task, since they require a great deal of parental care for the first two years of their lives.
"We call them the flying primates because they are extremely social with a hierarchical structure within the flock,"said Burnett. "They have to know how to integrate with the flock.
They place the mentor bird in a natural field pen with approximately five juveniles, a process Burnett refers to as "graduate school for condors." The training not only teaches young birds how to feed them-selves and negotiate the social hierarchy of the flock, but also to avoid some of the many dangers they will face in the wild.
For example, in the early 1990s, many condors were electrocuted while perching on power lines. To eliminate this behavior, Ventana biologists place mock power lines in the field pens.
The main threat to adult condors in the wild is poisoning from lead ammunition. Despite the recent ban on lead bullets throughout the condor's range in California, lead poisoning continues to be a persistent problem.
Because lead bullets fragment upon impact, the metal scatters in the body of game. Deer and wild boar frequently flee after they're shot, dying elsewhere. As scavengers, condors will ingest the lead-tainted tissue, become poisoned and many eventually die.
The best way to see these high-flying birds, however, is to hike the coastal mountains.
"Condors spend about 75 percent of their time on higher ridges, soaring," said Burnett.
To see the birds, he recommends several hikes out of Big Sur, including the McWay Falls Overlook Trail (an easy hike)and the Ewoldson Trail (a moderate to strenuous hike). Both have trailheads at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Because of recent fire damage and subsequent mudslides, these trails may be closed. Check the state park Website for trail closures.
Burnett also recommends the Mt. Manuel Trail at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a strenuous full-day hike, but one that he says is well worth it. To the south, Cone Peak is another good place to spot condors.
To almost guarantee a sighting of these magnificent creatures, Ventana Wildlife Society offers three different types of condor tours.
The two-hour California Condor Viewing Tour takes place the second Sunday of each month and costs $50 per person.
The Base Camp Tour gives you an all-day experience high in the Big Sur wilderness, plus the chance to tour the research camp. The full day costs $250 per person and includes lunch. For the most adventurous, the Overnight Tour will gives visitors the exclusive opportunity to spend the night at base camp and a chance to feed the condors. The overnight outing is $500per person and includes meals. For tour information or volunteer opportunities, call455-9514 or see www. ventana. org.
"Big Sur is spectacular enough, but to see a condor gracefully soaring along the coast, you can't put it into words," said Burnett. "It's a moving experience for people. It's an animal that's on its own level. It carries its own mystique. The only way to grasp that is to see it for yourself. It's magical."
COOL CONDOR FACTS:
· In the early 1900s, condors ranged along the entire Pacific Coast, from British Columbia to Baja California. Fossil evidence shows their prehistoric range was throughout the southern United States, down into mainland Mexico and even up into New York.
· Condors were listed as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1967.
· Condors can travel distances of up to 150 miles in their search for carrion.
· They use visual cues to locate food and, once found, will circle the sky above as a signal to other condors that a food source has been located.
· Their scientific genus name, Gymnogyps, is Greek for "naked vulture," referring to this species' naked head, neck and feet. This is an adaptation that allows the bird to stay relatively clean while feeding from the body cavity of a dead animal.
· On the Central Coast, marine mammals such as beached whales and dead sea lions are one of the condors' biggest food sources.
· Condors have ridges on their tongues that correlate with grooves on the top of their mouths they perfectly fit together to form a straw-like structure, an adaptation for feeding.
· These animals reach sexual maturity only after 6 to 8 years and they can live up to 50 or 60 years.
· Condor pairs mate for life.
· Females usually lay only a single egg every other year (but they will often lay a second or third if the first one is removed or falls from the nest).
· The facial skin of adult condors changes color with their emotions.
Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.