a discussion by Don Roberson
featuring photos by
prehistoric California Condor — one of the world's great birds — is
back in the skies of Monterey County. Prior to the recovery project,
the last wild condor in Monterey County was seen 10 Dec 1980. That was
when the entire world population, centered around Mt. Pinos in southern
California, was on the brink of extinction. Eventually all of the last
27 wild condors were captured in hopes of captive breeding, the final
one in April 1987. The captive breeding effort was successful: the
world population was over 80 birds by the time of the first releases of
captive-bred condors in January 1992 at the Sespe Condor Sanctuary,
Ventura County. By January 2000, there were 53 condors back in the wild
and another 105 in captivity.
Here in Monterey
County, condors from the Sespe project began appearing by the year
2000. On 11 June 2000, nine Sespe condors settled on the roof of the
Oliver observatory operated by the Monterey Institute for Research in
Astronomy (MIRA) on Chews Ridge in the Santa Lucia Mountains. The MIRA
caretaker, Ivan Eberle, took these impressive shots at MIRA during that
event ... the avian equivalent, I suppose, of the discovery of a
passing comet [photos above & right © Ivan Eberle, used with
permission; all rights reserved]. After resting a bit they took off and
flew south again, leaving Monterey County airspace within a few hours.
last nested in Monterey County in 1905. The Ventana Wilderness
Sanctuary, a private non-profit group, began releasing captive-raised
condors in January 1997. Condor pairs formed, found nest sites, laid
eggs, and hatched wild young in Monterey County by 2006. The very first
nest discovered in March 2007 featured the pairing of condors known as
C208 (a female) and C192 (a male). Researcher Joseph Brandt managed
this wonderful shot of C208 peering into the nest while Jospeh was
checking the status of the egg (below © Joseph Brandt/VWS, used
nest site was in the jumbled rock face of a very remote cliff in the
Ventana Wilderness (below © D. Roberson). All condors were then
wing-tagged: the male of the pair, C292, is sitting near the nest in
March 2007 (left © Joe Burnett). Because the interior of the cave
could not be viewed from any location, VWS made 3 nest entries in 2007
to confirm the presence of an egg, and (later) to check on the health
of the chick (second row below, right © Joe Burnett). Each entry
required a team with helicopter and rappelling expertise (second row
below, left © Joe Burnett). The chick eventually fledged in Sep
2007 but, alas, was killed later that year, probably by a Golden Eagle.
Two other nests that year, though, fledged young that survived.
wild-hatched condors are among the cohort of condors centered on the
Big Sur coast and at Pinnacles National Monument. There are nesting
pairs in both populations, but birds fly from the coast to the
Pinnacles, or vice versa, whenever they desire. There are ranches that
provide still-born calves for condors to eat, but they also feast on
dead deer and other carcasses. Lead poisoning, which comes from eating
animals killed by hunters with lead shot, remains one of the biggest
challenges to condor survival.
On the Big Sur coast,
condors have learned to follow Turkey Vultures to dine on “wild” food,
including sea lion or cetacean carcasses on the Big Sur coast. The
foraging on dead marine mammals is particularly poignant since the
California Condor was first described to science in 1792 by George
Vancouver from a condor eating a dead whale on the shores of Monterey
Bay. In this photo from May 2006 (below © Ryan Choi), three
condors are among the other scavengers (Turkey Vultures and Western
Gull) at the carcass of a Gray Whale on a remote beach on the Big Sur
coast. Among the full-length articles on the recovery of California
Condor on the Big Sur coast is that by Roberson (2008) in Rare Birds Yearbook 2009. A number of these photos were published with that article.
about the turn of the 21st century, the United States issued a series
of quarters featuring the fifty states: the California quarter was
issued in 2005. The symbols chosen to represent California on the
reverse side of the coin were John Muir, Yosemite Valley, and the California Condor
(inset above). Condor researcher Joe Burnett holds that California
quarter (above, photo © D. Roberson) at a favored condor site on
the Big Sur coast. It is an overlook along Hwy 1 high above a rocky
cove used by California Sea-lion to breed or to lounge onshore. Condors
search this area for stillborn seal-lions or other carcasses, and can
sometimes be found sitting on the steep cliff below the overlook.
A map from eBird
shows this location among other sites favored by condors on the Big Sur
coast (below). The spot where Joe Burnett was standing (above photo) is
labeled as an eBird hotspot called "Big Sur Scenic Overlook ['Condor
beach overlook']. There are two small paved parking lots here, on the
ocean side of Hwy 1, and the upper one gives a view down to the
sea-lion beach just to the north. Another very good overlook that often
has condors is a half-mile north, called "Grimes Pt." It is shown as a
red droplet on the eBird map; it overlooks an A-frame house and condors
sometimes soar overhead or sit on the cliffs below (right, photo Feb
2006 © D. Roberson). These two overlooks — Grimes Pt. and Big Sur
Scenic Overlook — are on Hwy 1, about 2.6 miles south of Nepenthe
Restaurant, and 2.0 miles south of the Henry Miller Library. If you go
south from Nepenthe and come to an art facility called "Coast Gallery,"
you have gone just a little too far south. [The other small blue
droplets on the maps are personal locations in eBird where observers
have seen condor.]
Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP is 5.1
miles south of the Big Sur Scenic Overlook, and can also be a good spot
to look for condors soaring above the ridges to the east. Condors are
most active on sunny days without fog, and prefer mid-day when updrafts
are present. Some years ago there was a roost at Pfeiffer Big-Sur SP
(which is 3 miles north of Nepenthe Restaurant), viewable from the Hwy
1 bridge over the Big Sur River (also a good spot for American Dipper).
Andrew Molera SP is another 4.8 miles north of Pfeiffer Big-Sur SP, and
condors sometimes fly over the ridges there, east of Hwy 1.
released condors have wing tags (MTY releases have carried white,
yellow, blue, or orange tags) and each has a number on the leading edge
of its wing. It is difficult to determine the color of the tag -- and
particularly hard to determine the number -- unless you get very good
views through a telescope or you are fairly close. Even at that, you
will see only two numbers, not the three numbers used for tracking. You
have to know the combination of wing tag color and the two-digit number
to i.d. a particular individual. Radio-tracking is the preferred method
of following condor movements; each condor carries a small antennae. In
short, with condor releases having occurred for 15 years and wild
breeding for more than 5 years, it is not really possible to determine
which condor is which particular individual, unless you are part of the
condor recovery team. You can keep up on the progress of the
re-introduction of condors in Monterey County at the Ventana Wilderness Society's website.
Searching for MTY condors:
Highway One along the entire Big Sur coast is good from the vicinity of
Bixby Bridge south to Lucia. Watch for swirling groups of Turkey
Vultures — sometimes condors are with them. Sometimes condors cruise
the coastline alone. Beware that vultures can look "huge" when roosting
close to you [if you have any doubt you are looking at a condor, you
aren't]. When a dead seal or sea lion washes ashore, condors may feed
on the carcass for weeks. One such event in July 2000 was on a beach
visible from dirt pull-offs on Highway 1, just a half-mile north of the
entrance to Julia Pfeiffer-Burns State Park (7.1 miles south of
"Nepenthe" restaurant, or a half-mile south of the paved parking lot
labeled "Vista Point" that has an outline of a Gray Whale painted on
the pavement). More recently, condors are most often encountered at
Grimes Pt. or the "Big Sur Scenic overlook" [map above].
are times, though, when condors soar right over Highway 1. The
following two photos are of yellow-tagged #22 right over our vehicle on
18 Dec 2011 (© D. Roberson).
History of MTY condors — some interesting facts about wild condors in Monterey County:
- The first California Condor known to science was described from the shores of Monterey Bay in 1792.
were once a regular part of the MTY avifauna. Nests were known from the
interior and condors were regular along the coast into the 1900s.
Jenkins (1906) reported seeing 8-10 roosting in tall redwoods along
Villa Creek 18 July 1904 (on the southern Big Sur coast). Pemberton
& Carriger (1915) saw a bird over Big Creek and reported that a
local rancher had seen up to 10 at a carcass as late as 1910 in what is
now the Los Padres NF. There are two specimens from MTY from as late as
1918 (#California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco). A few condors
were regular visitors to southeastern MTY until the late 1960s; up to
18 together had been seen in Cholame Valley (Eben McMillan quoted in
Roberson 1985). Even as the numbers of birds declined, MTY remained
within the expected range of wandering individuals, with 13 records
from 1970-1980, all apparently of adults (Roberson 1985).
Condor eggs were collected in MTY from 1859 to 12 Apr 1905, and this
collecting contributed to the extirpation of the local breeding
population. Nest sites were apparently in the Palisades area (now in
Ft. Hunter-Liggett) and along the ridge that forms the southeastern
border of the county (Wilbur 1978).
of MTY condor sightings from 1970-1985 that were judged “positive” by
the Condor Research Center or by Roberson (1985) were: 25 Oct 1970 Cone
Peak (P. Kinder), 28 Jan 1971 Pebble Beach (T. Robinson), 21 Mar 1971
Marble Peak (J. A. Rodgers), 22 May 1971 Cone Peak (P. Kinder), 28-29
Sep 1971 Cholame Valley (J. Edwards), early June 1973 Turkey Flat near
Parkfield (B. Walton), 22 May 1974 Lower Arroyo Seco Cr. (M. Crutcher),
22 Aug 1974 Smith Mt. lookout, near Bradley (C. Halle), 31 Mar 1975
Hunter-Liggett (L. Sitton), 6 Sep 1977 Los Padres NF (T. Raley, seen
from helicopter during Marble Cone fire!), 31 Mar 1979 near Devils
Canyon, Los Padres wilderness (R. Phillips), 2 Aug 1980 (3 adults)
southeast MTY (F. Klouda) & 10 Dec 1980 Mt. Mars (J. Lopez). The
Condor Research Center has on file another 9 reports between 1970-1985
evaluated "neutral" and not included here [also a 1985 report listed in
Roberson (1985) should be disregarded].
of the original wild condors taken from the wild in the 1980s was an
adult female known as "AC-8" [condor researchers have "names" for each
individual condor based on their data base designations]. In April
2000, "AC-8" was released back into the wild near Mt. Pinos. Condor
"AC-8" has a blue wing tag on which is the white number 12. The rest of
condor cohort released with blue wing tags were young birds, so she was
the only fully adult condor with a blue wing tag. In summer 2000 she
was in the Sierran foothills of Tulare County to which she commuted
from her winter range around the Sespe refuge. The latest rumor,
though, was that "AC-8" disappeared or died in the first decade of the
- The first four young condors
released in January 1997 proved to be poorly adapted to the wild (one
spent substantial time curiously investigating humans at Esalen) and
all were returned to captivity in June. In December 1997 five different
youngsters were released from their hack site high above Big Sur in the
Ventana Wilderness. Unlike the first set, these had been reared by
adult condors early in their life and were less imprinted on people.
Additional releases since then, including six on 4 Mar 2000, brought
the local population to 15 birds at that time.
Wilderness condors have flown 150 miles south to mingle with condors
released in the Sespe area. They also regularly mingle with condors in
Pinnacles National Monument.
- The first
wild nests from the recovery project were in 2007. Three eggs were laid
in 3 nests, and all 3 youngsters fledged, but one was killed, likely by
a Golden Eagle, during its first winter.
The "countability" of MTY condors:
From a bird-lister’s standpoint, the captive-bred released birds in the
late 1990s and early 2000s were not “countable” condors. Captive-raised
birds are not "countable" under the American Birding Association (ABA)
rules, even those released back into the wild. However, this changed
with the fledging of wild young from wild nests within the Condor's
native range. Local observers long ago agreed that wild-hatched birds
would be "countable" on all lists.
2012, and some five years since wild-hatched condors were fledged, it
is not possible to distinguish the wild-raised birds from zoo-raised
birds. The tag numbers for the wild-raised birds were not widely
disseminated and, in any event, it can be very difficult to 'read' a
tag, which requires both the number and color on the tag, and then
access to the stud-book.
Both Bald Eagles and
Peregrine Falcons were re-introduced to the central California coast
during the 1970s–1990s, and both the eagle and falcon have fledged wild
young from local nests annually. No one has raised any concern about
the "countability" of any eagle or peregrine, and it has become
impossible to know which ones were released birds and which are not.
The situation with California Condor is now the same. We welcome all
birders to "count" California Condors on their life lists, state lists,
county lists, year lists, yard lists .... er, well, you should be so
lucky . . . . .
circling in the distance:
California Condor (top)
and Turkey Vulture
(© D. Roberson)
With 'countability' issues out of the way, it is
sometimes possible to determine exactly which condor you have seen.
Condors still do have radio transmittors (see the antennae sticking out
of the back of the adult, above [25 Feb 2012 © D. Roberson]) and
still do have wing tags. With combination of tag color and number, one
can determine the three-digit condor number, and then check out VWS website biographies of the Big Sur released or hatched condors.
example, yellow-tagged adult condor "04" (above) is named "Amigo," and
the combination of color and number makes it #204. He is an adult male
hatched in 1999 at the San Diego Zoo. After release and becoming an
adult, he paired in the wild with a female named "Cosmo". But in 2010
Amigo was found badly injured and was taken back into captivity to be
nursed back to health. By time time Amigo was released again, Cosmo was
paired with another male. Now, in 2012, Amigo has lost his territory
but has become of the foster parent to young condor "Fuego,"
white-tagged #70 (left), whose full number is #470. Fuego is a
wild-fledged condor that survived the 2010 Basin Fire that swept over
the VWS release site and came very close to Fuego's cave. When these
photos were takin in Feb 2012, the two (Amigo and Fuego) were always
seen together, both in flight and, when Amigo landed, so did Fuego, who
then scrambled up the steep cliff to join his foster parent.
the same time, though, a third condor was watched in flight, bearing
white tage "38." We ran into Tim Huntington, a local condor-watcher and
wildlife photographer, who explained this condor was a visitor from the Pinnacles flock. The "Condor Spotter"
website also identifies this adult female is one types in "38" and
chooses "white tag." Of course, one must be able to determine both the
wing tag and color to use these resources. It is also wise to keep in
mind that there is interchange between the Big Sur and the Pinnacles
condors, as well as visits from southern California birds. Still, it is
a great time to be enjoying the California Condors in Monterey County
(young Fuego, overhead, below © D. Roberson).
Good luck in your search....
H. L. 1906. A list of birds collected between Monterey and San Simeon
in the coast range of Calif. Condor 8: 122-130.
J. R., and H. W. Carriger. 1915. A partial list of the summer resident
land birds of Monterey County. Condor 17: 189-201.
Roberson, D. 1985. Monterey Birds. Monterey Peninsula Audubon Soc., Carmel, CA.
Roberson, D. 2008. "California Condor: Ice age icon adapts to the modern world," pp. 28-35 in
Rare Birds Yearbook 2009: the World's 190 Most Threatened Birds (Erik
Hirschfeld, ed.). Birdlife International, Shrewsbury, U.K.
S. R. 1978. The California Condor 1966-76: A Look at its Past and
Future. North America Fauna 72. U. S. Fish & Wildlife Serv.,