California condors soar above all odds

Soaring above a windswept ridgeline in the Santa Lucia mountains, a California condor searches for carrion. Ten-foot wings sport striking patches of white, and a bald orange head becomes apparent as the raptor soars in close to the grassy mountaintop.

Where once on the brink of extinction, condors have been making an astonishing comeback, unbeknownst to many residents and CHS students who live within easy driving distance of their habitat.

Ever since 1987, when the last wild individual was brought into captivity, condor numbers have rebounded from only 27—all in captivity—to more than 240 in the wild, according to the Ventana Wilderness Society, which spearheaded the multimillion-dollar recovery program.

The free-flying condors still need monitoring, tracking and some supplemental feedings, and their population is not yet stable, but now they are facing a brighter future than any possible without human intervention.

Alena Porte, education and outreach manager for the Ventana Wilderness Society, or VWS, sees condors as an iconic species. “To me they embody wildness and freedom. Their fight for survival and the human effort involved in bringing the condors home is truly inspirational.”

Condor Silhouette (Quiet One)

Perched on a Monterey pine in the Carmel Highlands, this 5-year-old condor named “Quiet One” suns his wings after a rainstorm.

CHS senior Tor Mowatt-Larson, a volunteer at the Monterey County SPCA and an intern at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Center, is one of several Carmel High students who has actively participated in the continuing process of condor recovery.

Through the VWS’ Condor Wilderness Camp, a summer camp designed for teenagers interested in conservation biology, Mowatt-Larson spent three days in remote Big Sur canyons, where he learned the basics of radio telemetry and even hauled a dead calf up to a feeding site—both of which exemplify realities for a wildlife biologist in the field.

“I think that the condor [reintroduction] program has had great success,” Mowatt-Larson comments, reflecting on insights gained from the camp. “But I also think you have to look critically at what kind of ecosystem you’re putting them in and if you’ve really gotten rid of the problem.”

Neither of those factors has been entirely fixed, but progress is visibly underway.

Although it may seem small compared to their former range over much of western North America, the new range in which condors are reestablishing themselves includes five release sites: southern coastal California, Pinnacles National Park, the Grand Canyon, Baja California and our very own Big Sur.

And while condors are still the second most endangered bird in the United States—thanks largely to lead poisoning from bullets—legislation has been passed to protect their fragile numbers. Hunting with lead cartridges in California is being phased out in stages, and all lead ammunition will be banned by July of 2019, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Currently, condors are actually expanding their range, and have been seen as far north as Point Lobos and the Carmel Highlands, according to the VWS.

As a resident of the Highlands myself, I have had the unique experience of viewing these great birds in my own backyard twice. The first time, I was able to get a good look at the metal tags on the birds’ wings. Then I entered their identification numbers on Mycondor.org, a program on the VWS’ website, and read about their life stories.

One, hatched in the Los Angeles Zoo and nicknamed “Quiet One,” now flies back and forth between Big Sur and Pinnacles. His companion was born in the wild in Pinnacles, and she is a month older than he is.

Condor (1)

This iconic individual glides effortlessly on the thermals over Pinnacles National Park in San Benito County.

Getting to know two out of the 70 condors in central California was an event that made me realize how special and unique such opportunities are. For those lucky and observant people who have experienced for themselves the majestic sight of a condor in flight, it is an encounter they will not soon forget.

And for any CHS students interested in having that encounter, the Carmel High School Foundation last year offered a scholarship to the Condor Wilderness Camp. Patricia Hunt, coordinator of the CHS College and Career Center, says that “hopefully” this all-costs-paid-for opportunity will be back again this spring.

Of course, condor camp, like any effort for change and education, is dependent on participant interest, as is the continuing success of condor recovery as a whole.

In the words of Mowatt-Larson, “It’s really easy to be ignorant about the direction that the world’s going in, but…we still have a chance to turn it around. It’s amazing how much change you can really make and how easy it is.”

-Michael Montgomery