Readers’ wildlife photos: El cóndor no pasa

Brucy Lyon, evolutionary and behavioral ecologist at UC Santa Cruz, is back in spades with an amazing tale of encountering a California condor.  His words are indented and his pictures are stupendous.

A close encounter of the condor kind

A few weeks ago I went to Pinnacles National Park in search of California condors (Gymnogyps californianus). Pinnacles, two hours south east of Santa Cruz, is one of several sites where small populations of the critically endangered condor have been established. Based on a website describing each tagged condor, it seems that some 30 individual condors reside in Pinnacles or surrounding areas, and two or three pairs also nest in the park each year.

By 1987, condors had become globally extinct in the wild: the final extinction in the wild was a deliberate conservation decision—the last remaining wild birds were trapped and added to a small captive population for a grand total of 27 condors left in the world.  This captive population (and more recently established ones elsewhere) was used as a breeding stock to produce offspring that could be eventually released in the wild to reestablish several wild populations, including ones in Arizona, Mexico (Baja) and a few sites in California (including Pinnacles). Pinnacles was a good choice because condors nested here historically— the last reported historical nest was in 1898 when a local rancher collected an egg from a nest. Pinnacles is also protected: it was formerly a National Monument but gained National Park status in 2013 under the Obama administration.

Below: The global condor population has grown steadily, but quite slowly. The slow growth reflects a slow-paced life history strategy—it takes a chick 6 or 7 years to reach reproductive age, and then adults lay a single egg every two years. Mathematically, long times to maturity combined with a very reproductive rate results in slow population growth. In addition, in species with such life histories, population growth depends on having a very high adult survival rate. In condors, however, adult survival has been chronically threatened by the lead shot used by hunters (the condors ingest the lead when eating carcasses that have been shot by hunters). Research by University of California Santa Cruz wildlife toxicologist Myra Finkelstein and colleagues studied the impact of lead poisoning on population persistence in condors and concluded that chronic exposure to lead threatened population recovery because of its impact on adult survival. If I recall correctly, this research played a significant role in the recent California state-wide ban on lead hunting ammunition that became law last year. When this legislation was in the works, the NRA was not happy and, according to one online article I saw, mounted an operation called ‘Hunt for Truth’ that sought to discredit the science. It didn’t work—the condors took on the NRA and won!

The park is a great place to see condors, and hikers/birders often get great views of the birds soaring among the rock pinnacles. About a month ago a friend was rock climbing at Pinnacles and when he got to the top of his climb there was a pair of condors waiting for him, a mere three feet away. His encounter inspired me to visit the park and look for condors myself. The park has been closed to the general public during the pandemic but the park is allowing people to camp and, with a reservation at the park campground, one can bike or hike in the park. The park is normally overrun with visitors, so this is a rare chance to enjoy a nearly empty park.

Below: Pinnacles gets its name from the many rock pinnacles scattered throughout the park.

Below: The gray pine (Pinus sabiniana) (also called foothill pine) is a characteristic tree of the region. I love this tree—it has an unusual growth form in which multiple secondary trunks branch off the main trunk, giving the tree a broccoli-stem look.

I visited the park twice this spring. On the first visit I saw, from a great distance, 11 condors soaring around the picturesque High Peaks formation as they were coming into roost in the late afternoon. I could also barely make out birds landing on the tops of the pinnacles and spreading their wings to bask in the late afternoon trip. Even at a distance, the sight of these birds was impressive because they are so huge!

Below: On my second trip I made a beeline back to the area where I had seen the birds roosting on the previous trip. I arrived early in the morning to find about half a dozen condors roosting on the rocks and in pine trees, but they were far away.  A bit higher up the trail I had a nice view of a condor—it was perched on top of a pinnacle 60 feet away. All condors have wing tags with uniquely numbered IDs, and they also have tracking devices. According to the website with information about the tagged birds, a green tag (700 series) with the number zero means this bird’s ID number is 700. Bird 700 is a male born in 2013 at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho and released in Pinnacles in 2015.

Below: I would have been happy with my initial encounter, but condor 700 had other ideas. He left the pinnacle and flew directly to me, landing ten feet away and perched and posed for a bit.

Below: Soon after, the condor decided that ten feet was too far and he hopped to within five feet of me. Here he is hopping.

Below: Since this is a critically endangered bird I did not feel comfortable being so close, so I slowly backed up until I was 30 feet away. The damn bird followed me and again got to within 5 feet of me. So, I backed up again, and again the bird hopped right up to me. I then decided that if I backed up just a bit the bird might stop following me so I moved ten feet away and tucked myself against a rock wall to be less conspicuous. The bird settled down and preened and just watched me and we enjoyed each other’s company for several minutes. Eventually I heard what sounded like a jet roaring overhead and looked up to see a condor swooping low 20 feet above me. Condor 700 took off to join the second bird. Here is a panoramic photo from my phone.

Below: I find that the face and neck is the most photogenic part of the bird, so I took a lot of head shots. I had no idea that the birds were this colorful. I also love the purplish unibrow. Both sexes of adults are similarly colored (juveniles are gray) and the adults have the colors year-round (so it is not just for mating). Apparently, the heads get more colorful (blush) when the birds are excited. Pretty mind-boggling to get a view like this of a bird that dropped to 27 individuals left in the world.

Below: I had not realized that condors have fairly long necks because the neck is normally scrunched up and hidden.

Below: Further along the trail I came across a second condor perched beside a cliff. I did not approach it and it did not approach me.

I chatted with a few other hikers who described seeing condors but, based on their descriptions, I wondered if some people were confusing turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) with condors. Vultures are far more abundant. As this photo-composite from park website shows, the two species differ in several ways and can easily be distinguished with practice: (1) condors are huge, with double the wingspan of vultures, (2) condors have relatively bigger heads, (3) vultures are paler on the hindwing while condors are paler on the forewing (and conspicuously white in adults), and (4) the primary projections or ‘fingers’ on the tip of the wings are more pronounced and numerous in condors. (Park Service photo)

The ‘fingers’ at the wingtips of condors and vultures are important for allowing these birds to circle slowly enough to remain in localized thermals of rising warm air without losing lift and stalling. In part, wings generate lift by causing differential airflow in which air pressure on the top of the wing is lower than the pressure under the wing. However, this pressure differential means that at the wingtip air from the higher pressure underwing curls around to the lower pressure top of the wing, and this air flow creates loss of lift (called ‘induced’ drag). This effect is particularly problematic at low speeds, which is a problem for birds that slowly spiral to remain in localized thermals. The primary extensions at the end of the wing help reduce this drag and allow the birds to fly more slowly than would otherwise be possible and to therefore spiral in tighter circles. We see these primary extensions in a variety of soaring birds like hawks, eagles, vultures and storks.

Below: This wingtip vortex effect occurs in aircraft too and also interferes with lift. When the cloud conditions are right, as in the photo below, one can see the pattern of air movement left behind the aircraft. Some types of aircraft have wingtip structures to reduce this type of drag and improve lift.

A nice study of African vultures showed that body mass relative to wing area (wing-loading) predicts how early in the morning different species of vultures become airborne from the rising air from thermals. I explained the geometry of wing-loading in a previous post about hummingbirds. Basically, larger birds have less lift per unit mass because wing area is a square of linear body size while mass is proportion to the cube of body length. Birds with lower wing-loading need weaker rising thermals to become airborne and can get aloft earlier in the day.

Below: I watched for this pattern at Pinnacles and it seems to hold—the smaller turkey vultures started soaring earlier in the day than the condors. The photo shows a few vultures starting to soar first thing in the morning but the condors were not up in the air until quite a bit later.

Below: Condors and vultures have shitty legs—literally. Check out the chalky white feet in the photo of bird 700 (and note the actual pink leg color at the top of the leg). The legs are white because the birds excrete urate-rich (white) urine on their feet. Studies of turkey vultures reveal that the evaporation of the urine cools the legs and that the birds are more likely to do this behavior in really hot weather. This behavior, called urohydrosis, occurs in New World vultures (which includes turkey vultures and condors) and storks. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Below: I took some video on my cellphone. At the time I noticed what I thought was the bird doing a display—it bowed and grunted. However, when I got home and looked at the video on my computer it turned out the condor was depositing a load of urine on its feet while grunting in the process. Here is the video.

Finally, in the event that readers want to see what a condor nest looks like, here is video of a nest cam at a nest in a giant cavity in a redwood snag in Big Sur, California. At Pinnacles, condors nest in small caves/cavities on cliff faces.

 

31 Comments

  1. Posted June 13, 2020 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Gorgeous photos!

  2. Posted June 13, 2020 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    What a fantastic experience! I bet you ever expected to be chased by condors!

  3. Posted June 13, 2020 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Oh, wow. Those pictures are *gorgeous*.

  4. Debra Coplan
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this informative post.
    The photos and videos are incredible.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Excellent photography. It is due to the likes of the NRA and other non science groups that it took 25 years to get this ban on lead shot since the ban was first initiated for duck hunting. As long as the lead shot can still be manufactured and sold it will continue to be a problem.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted June 15, 2020 at 5:32 am | Permalink

      Agreed. We have the same issue in the UK. There has been a long running campaign to outlaw lead ammunition but it has not yet been successful. It is not allowed to use lead when shooting over wetland habitats but because you can still by lead shot for use in other habitats this means that it is very hard to prevent it being used illegally in wetlands.
      Recently several of the main organisations representing game shooters in UK have come around to acknowldeging the need to phase out lead ammo (having spent years rubbishing the science) but their preferred approach inevitably – is a voluntary phase out.

  6. rickflick
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    In the nest video, you can see an egg with a hole pipped out at about -8:42.
    The chick appears, -8:36.
    Chick picking sticks, -5:10
    Mom takes a shit, -3:53
    Film cuts back to before egg hatched, but then gets back on track.
    Older chick preening, -1:38
    I was hoping to find some feeding, but no luck.

    • rickflick
      Posted June 13, 2020 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      P.S. Scan at 2X speed.

  7. Posted June 13, 2020 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Thank you! Stunning photos & fascinating commentary.

  8. Posted June 13, 2020 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Holy crap! Those are amazing photos.

  9. Kahlil Jabroni
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Wonderful post, which brought back memories. Some years back, I was temporarily transferred to Santa Clara (CA) by the company I worked for, & made 3 or 4 trips down to the Pinnacles area. I can attest that the hiking trails are heavily populated in non-pandemic times. Thanks for this!

  10. Posted June 13, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Truly marvelous pictures of the condors and Pinnacles N.P. I’ve visited there. Not only a great and quiet national park, but a fine winery nearby as well (Chalone in Soledad). Time for another trip.

  11. nay
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I wonder if 700, having been raised in captivity, thought the human might feed him/her. Great pix and fabulous vortex photo.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted June 14, 2020 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      Not everyone goes around with a sack full of carrion for bird feed.

  12. loren russell
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Condors historically ranged into Oregon — in fact the type locality for the California condor is Astoria OR, specimens shot by Lewis and Clark. As late as 1910, condors still migrated to the Columbia River in the autumn to feed on spawned-out salmon.

    When I came to Oregon State Univ. in 1969, I met a faculty member then near retirement who saw, possibly, the last Oregon condor. Six or so years old, sometime around 1910, Frank was frightened by a “thunderbird”, much larger than the common hawks and vultures, and dove for cover as prudent hominine children should when they see ginormous soaring birds.

  13. Joe Dickinson
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Great post! We have camped at Pinnacles a number of times and it is pretty cool to sit in a camp chair late in the afternoon and watch condors soar out from the cliffs.

  14. Douglas Keck
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the pictures. I live just north of Pinnacles in Hollister. In recent years I have seen Condors soaring here occasionally. Let’s hope they are here to stay.

  15. Janet
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I envy your experiences!

  16. Posted June 13, 2020 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. That was a spectacular series of pictures with commentary to match.

  17. Steve Pollard
    Posted June 13, 2020 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Stunning. Thank you so much.

  18. Posted June 13, 2020 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Noteworthy is the clarity of the air in these pictures. One of the few good things about the pandemic shutdown.

  19. Posted June 13, 2020 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your outstanding post and photos, Bruce. Could Bird 700 have been showing fearless behaviour learned during the time he was reared by humans?

    • Bruce E Lyon
      Posted June 13, 2020 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

      I was wondering this but I thought they raised condors without seeing people to avoid that situation. I am going to try to find out why some bird are so interested in people.

      • Posted June 16, 2020 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

        I’ve seen documentaries where the chick rearers certainly try to keep ‘at arm’s length’, using a simulated mother condor’s head to feed the chick. But maybe the chicks notice the humans now and then. Would be interesting to learn more about this.

  20. Posted June 13, 2020 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    El condor no pasa. The condor doesn’t happen? They’re happening at Pinnacles N. P. 😀

  21. Jenny Haniver
    Posted June 14, 2020 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    These photos are astounding, the condors are beautiful.

    I’ve bookmarked the condor cam. The chick makes some strange moves and sounds. Wish I knew what’s going on.

    I must find a way to get to Pinnacles to see them before I’m ready for them food-wise. However, I’d really like a sky burial and this would be the place. I wouldn’t mind being digested by condors and vultures

  22. Posted June 14, 2020 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    This was great! Thanks so much for sharing!

    GCM

  23. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted June 15, 2020 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    Absolutely fantastic photos of a beautiful species! Thank you! I remember a while ago seeing a youtube clip of a Californian Condor being released by a biologist and when the bird opened its wings to take off the wingspan was truly astonishing.

  24. Andrea Kenner
    Posted June 15, 2020 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating!

  25. Posted June 15, 2020 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Great photos and text Bruce! Thank you! Your discussion of lift-induced drag is good.


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