I feel like I’ve been hearing about California condors all my life. When I was a kid back on the other side of the Mississippi, the story was about the imminent extinction of a giant bird in a faraway place. In the ’80s, the story was about the capture of the last 20 or so wild birds and the beginning of a captive breeding program in Southern California designed to save them. Since then, most of the news has seemed remote and mixed: the condors have reproduced fairly readily in captivity. They’ve been reintroduced to areas in Southern and Central California as well as Arizona and Baja California. According to the San Diego Zoo, which launched the captive breeding effort, the California condor population stands at 348, which 187 birds in the wild. On the other hand, much of what we hear about the wild condors is bad news: birds that have been shot, killed by power lines, or died of lead poisoning after ingesting lead shot or bullets in carcasses they’ve dined on.

Bottom line, the birds have seemed remote to me. Part of another world, for all the effort that’s gone into saving them. That was how I felt before today, anyway.

Yesterday, we drove down to Pinnacles National Monument after hearing earlier in the week that a pair of condors nesting are incubating an egg in the back country there. I hadn’t realized until then that maybe a couple dozen condors have been released in the area, and at least one other pair has produced an egg. The drive is about 130 miles from our place, through San Jose and the towns south of there, then down a road that follows the San Andreas fault into a remote part of San Benito County. We got there too late to see any birds, but stayed in King City, about 30 miles away in the Salinas Valley, so we could go back again.

I wasn’t worried about getting there early because I had been told that condors “keep a teenager’s hours”–since they don’t fly until the day has warmed up a little, you generally don’t see them in the sky until mid- or late morning. We got back to the park at 11 or so, only to discover we couldn’t take Scout, The Dog, on any of the trails. While we stood in the parking lot outside the visitors center, Kate pointed and said, “Look!” Big bird overhead. Didn’t look like a vulture; bigger body and heavier wings. Didn’t look like an eagle; heavier wings with those splayed-out feathers at the tips. We grabbed the binoculars and each looked. No doubt about it: a California condor. In two or three minutes it was joined by one, then four, then five others: six condors wheeling upward–directly above the visitors center. One-thirtieth of the wild population, circling overhead.

There were about 40 people standing in line to catch a shuttle bus to a trailhead higher up, and not one of them was looking up or seemed aware of what was happening above them. I couldn’t resist calling out, “Look up, everyone,” and Kate walked over to point out what we were seeing. Binoculars and spotting scopes came up. I had my radio sound kit with me and talked to a few people about the condors. I found two people in line who had close encounters with them in Big Sur. One of the people was a volunteer condor guide and knew all about the birds, the other had managed a construction project that the condors visited. The endangered birds pulled stunts like pulling out a 50-pound box of nails and strewing it around the site. The condors apparently love to dig into things and would rip out insulation when they could get at it; on one occasion, a bird ripped out the seat from a bulldozer.

In the course of the day, and after having seen the birds myself, they suddenly seem real. Check out the video below, one of the first things I came across when looking for condor information this evening. (And here’s a link to a sort of hammy video with some good shots of the condors at the Pinnacles.) That’s it–except for our bonus sighting of the day: a golden eagle that appeared above the road on our way home and circled for awhile after we pulled into a church parking lot to watch it.

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