John Moir - Return of the Condor Home


Condor Cover
Published by Lyons Press in October 2006.




By John Moir

An hour's drive north of L.A.'s freeways and cement-colored skies lies the Sespe Condor Sanctuary—a fifty-three thousand acre wilderness area that hasn't changed much in ten thousand years. In the mid-1970s, I spent two years living in nearby Santa Paula, a pastoral town just east of Ventura nestled among the orange groves of the Santa Clara River Valley. The sanctuary is part of the mountainous Los Padres National Forest, which I could see from my house.

These wild mountains are my kind of place.

Whenever I could get away into the area's remote canyons and cliffs, I always had one eye on the sky for condors. At the time, however, there were only a few of the birds remaining in the world, and despite many days of hiking and backpacking the chaparral- and pine-covered mountains, I had never seen one.

That changed one windy late-winter day when I took one of my favorite hikes: the steep climb up Santa Paula Peak. I drove to the trailhead east of Santa Paula, clambered over a rusty iron gate, and headed into condor country. Above me towered the formidable summit of five-thousand-foot Santa Paula Peak. After an hour's walk up a dirt road that wound through citrus and avocado orchards, I arrived at the edge of the Los Padres National Forest. Far above, floating in another world, Turkey Vultures and Golden Eagles circled the peak's crumbling cliffs. The road narrowed into a steep trail that switchbacked up the mountain's shoulder. The wind grew stronger, and as I climbed, thick chaparral pulled at my clothes. Every few minutes I stopped to flick ticks off my jeans.

After several hours of hard climbing I reached the summit. I stopped to rest and to eat a sandwich. Despite the wind and gathering clouds, I decided to follow the trail farther north toward the distant peaks of the Topa Topa Mountains. As I picked my way along a narrow ridge, two enormous birds swept over the horizon and hurtled across the sky. They dipped lower, their white wing patches silhouetted in black, and peered down at me with orange-colored heads. The wind howled, but in my memory, I can hear the air whistling through their flight feathers. The birds were gigantic—they looked like small airplanes. These were my first condors.

I scrambled to unpack a pair of binoculars, but the birds dipped their wings and disappeared down a canyon. It was over in less than two minutes. I waited—hoping—but the condors did not return. A few drops of rain splashed my jacket. I turned and hiked down the mountain, my euphoria ebbing into the wind. Now that it had ended, the encounter seemed much too short. And because of the bird's precarious predicament, it appeared very possible that I might never see another condor again.

*                 *                 *

It turned out I would see condors again—many of them—but not before the species nearly vanished. More than two decades of turmoil and trouble passed before I would again have a chance to witness this magnificent bird in flight.

It happened one August day in the mid-1990s. A friend and I drove south from Monterey down the Big Sur coastline, following Highway 1 as it meandered along the edge of the continent. The Condor Recovery Program had just released a handful of birds in the area, and we wanted to see them.

The two-lane highway crossed several creeks via gracefully arched bridges, and skirted a coastline of tumbling cliffs where the Santa Lucia Mountains plunged into the Pacific. Small rock islands crowded with cormorants dotted the coast. The area abounds with Turkey Vultures, we soon discovered, which, to the unpracticed eye, resemble condors in flight. We spent several hours chasing "TVs." By mid-afternoon we were at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where scenic McWay Falls drops eighty feet over a granite precipice into an aqua-green ocean cove. A mile or more inland, we spotted five huge black birds circling a distant hill. Their steady flight and strong flat wings screamed "condor." But the birds were so far away we couldn't be sure. What should we do? We waited another half hour, and then, with doubt eroding any sense of jubilation, we decided to head home.

A mile up the highway we spotted a man with binoculars standing alongside a pickup truck with a rooftop radio antenna. We stopped and asked if he knew where to see condors.

"Sure," he said. "I've got the birds on the radio telemetry right now."

He introduced himself as Joe Burnett, field supervisor for the Ventana Wilderness Society, the group managing the condor releases in Central California. Burnett told us he thought the condors were headed for a spot a mile or two up the coast. We followed his pickup, and five minutes later we stood in a gravel turnout alongside Highway 1. Burnett's radio clicked—the condors were coming.

The first two birds crested the coastal hills beside the road; three more followed. First through binoculars, then with our spotting scope, we watched the condors soar. The mythical birds had come home. After a few minutes, I felt lightheaded and realized I was holding my breath.

We spent the next hour talking to Joe Burnett and watching condors. Someday, when I'm an old man, and I look back to count up the good days—the really good days that leaven one's life—I shall put on my list that afternoon in Big Sur with black-and-white condors flying through a blue sky.

The trip to the Big Sur coast ignited my curiosity. My background as a birder and science writer led me to spend many more days following the birds. As I began to work on articles about the Condor Recovery Program, team members befriended me. I hiked with them to backcountry flight pens and listened to their tales of persistence and sacrifice.

Their stories hooked me. At first, the tales tugged gently at my curiosity. Eventually they grew into a floodtide that carried me away. They created the momentum that led to this book.

Writer Wade Davis said, "I believe that storytelling changes the world." In following the condor's story, I discovered that this epic is also a saga of human courage and controversy. And I learned that the tales of some of the last wild condors are as compelling as those of their human counterparts.

All these stories, however, are anchored by the heart-stopping experience of seeing a condor flying overhead: the bird sweeping across the sky, its wings stretching to an impossible ten feet, white triangular patches on the undersides flashing in the sun, shivers running up your spine. As the gigantic bird swoops lower, looking down at you with curious eyes, the ordinary world drops away and magic prowls the horizon.

While it is one thing to describe a condor with words or to see a picture, it's quite another to view it soaring across the sky. During my research, I've watched people witness the bird for the first time. It's a moment to remember. What happened one spring morning in 2004 is typical. I came upon a group of hikers on a ridge at Pinnacles National Monument. Several condors had been released in this Central California location just a few months earlier. The hikers were looking at the first bird of the day, perched two hundred yards away on one of Pinnacles' volcanic spires. It didn't look like much—a bundle of black feathers hunched on gray stone. Then the condor spread its wings and lofted into the air. Several hikers gasped.

"That's amazing," a woman behind me said. The bird wheeled no more than fifty feet overhead, its stunning size and colors on full display. "That's amazing," the woman repeated. As the bird traced lazy circles above us, she said again, "That's amazing." Ten minutes later, softer now, still unaware she was speaking aloud, she continued her mantra for the flying condor: "That's amazing."

If you listen carefully as a condor passes close overhead, you can sometimes hear the air whistle through its flight feathers. The wind song of the condor is the music of hope. Hope that America's largest bird will once again fly free, without the shackles of number tags and radio transmitters. Hope that by preserving the condor we open the way for protecting less majestic but equally vital species from extinction. Hope that our children and grandchildren may one day enjoy the flight of the condor. Hope that by saving this ancient bird, we can save ourselves.

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