Return Of The Wild Things
On the eve of the young bird's release, the Ventana Wilderness Society strives to keep condor chicks out of harm's way.
Thursday, April 5, 2001
After compressing six days of gear into my pack and tossing it into the back of our callused Isuzu Trooper, I help Marylise, the chick-rearing specialist of our Ventana Wilderness Society''s condor crew, load a road-kill black-tail deer carcass into the truck''s bed. We consult the most recent weather update and hit the road around 7:30pm. As I drive, my thoughts are preoccupied by the hideous weather forecast for the following week.
My mind slowly shifts through a checklist of equipment and chores necessary for the trip to the condor camp. I begin wondering about the spare fuel for the chainsaw, if we''ve charged enough radio batteries, and where the condors are currently roosting. But my mental inventory is interrupted by a distinctive odor drifting to the front of the truck, and my offended olfactory senses jerk me into the present. Marylise and I instinctively lower the windows, allowing the cool night air to ventilate the truck cabin.
After a quick stop at Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park for coffee, we plunge into the backcountry of the untamed Ventana Wilderness. The dirt road to the condor camp worsens with heavy winter precipitation, and I am happy to have four-wheel drive. This muddy and dusty road mercilessly pummels the Trooper throughout the journey. The deer is growing less fresh by the minute.
Progressing into the blackness of what is often called "wasteland," I take a deep breath, reassuring my every nerve that we have left civilization behind. Around 9pm, we arrive at the condor sanctuary parking area. Although the road continues, we rarely drive farther, minimizing human impact in the condor''s place of refuge.
My foot sploshes through the muddy ground, and I notice a light rain has begun to fall. After applying an extra layer of clothing plus rain gear, Marylise and I unload the Trooper. We waterproof our backpacks with trash bags, heave the condor''s protein-fortified meal onto a pseudo medical stretcher, sigh deeply and begin hiking.
As we tread onward in the rain, every brain synapse converts to condor mode. Each word whispered, movement exerted and thought pondered links directly to the condors. Our night vision compensates for the dim moonlight, eliminating the need for headlamps (we conduct our field work nocturnally to prevent the condors from associating food with humans).
Following a brief hike, we drop the dead deer at trailside and drag it down the slope of a grassy ridge. Marylise vanishes into the darkness to clean algae from the condor''s stagnant water bath. I choose a location to place the deer that''s appropriate for the condors, as well as a good spot for my observation purposes. After pounding a wooden stake into the ground, I wire the rear leg of the deer to it, ensuring the condors remain in my line of vision.
Upon completion of all necessary tasks, Marylise and I reconvene beneath the shadow of a quiet ponderosa pine. Marylise whispers that she is going to sleep in the chick-rearing facility and will contact me in the morning via radio. I nod in agreement, and she disappears toward the facility, where Ventana Wilderness Society has trained five condor chicks for survival. They will be released today, Thursday, into the Big Sur wilds.
Condor Dream World
Filtered moonlight guides me along the path to camp. With silent footsteps, I''m careful not to unnecessarily disturb the wildness of this untouched ecosystem--though while blindly following a bend in the path, I startle a bewildered gray fox. I am confident in the safety of the backcountry, but its wildness demands one''s complete attention and respect.
As I near camp, our local great-horned owl welcomes me back as it hoots in search of a mate. Upon arrival, I hurriedly empty my pack, crawl into my sleeping bag and fade off into a condor dream world.
I begin heating water for my coffee at 7:45 in the morning as I wait for the condors to abandon their roosting sites in search of a meal. Observing through a powerful spotting scope, I note that Orange tag Number 12 (Or12) is the first condor at the deer, though it has not yet started feeding. My water begins boiling, and I leave the scope briefly to feed my morning addiction. I am unconcerned about missing much action, for it is well known that the California condor has the patience of Gandhi himself.
Marylise checks in from the rearing facility to report that all the chicks appear healthy and are intermittently feeding on an old deer carcass. I next use radio telemetry to receive signals being transmitted from tags on each condor. Since each individual transmits a unique frequency, I am able to record presence, absence and approximate location of each condor.
The cell phone rings around 9am, and I hear Katie''s voice on the other end. Katie is closely monitoring the condors with radio telemetry from Highway 1. She will remain in contact with me throughout the day to ensure we have locations on each individual. Since these birds lack the guidance of a mature adult, we must ensure they remain out of harm''s way.
After proving their patience for six hours, the 10 condors present begin feeding ravenously on the deer carcass. I meticulously observe each bird, recording feeding duration, crop sizes and behavioral displays. I watch with interest as Blue tag Number 64 (B64), the flock''s dominant male, runs and collides chests with a younger male, Or9. Flailing down the slope, Or9 begins scraping with wings and talons to regain control. Afterward, Or9 creeps slowly back towards B64 with his head low and wings bobbing to signify submission. Satisfied with his dominance, B64 allows him to return to the banquet.
Within an hour of the feeding frenzy, an uninvited golden eagle joins the party. The eagle relentlessly stoops the condors, attempting to flush them from their meal. Persistence does not pay off, since the condors stubbornly refuse to forfeit their ground advantage. Because it is capable of killing a condor, I am relieved to see the eagle depart.
While the meat on the deer vanishes, the condors disperse to post-feeding activities. Most of them absorb the sun with extended wings, while others bathe and drink from the water bath.
Panning along the forest''s edge through the scope, I catch a glimpse of an intrigued bobcat making its way toward the mostly devoured deer. As it draws near, the condors lethargically alight from the grassy ridge. Once airborne, they soar with majestic ease, wings rigidly extended at lengths of 9-10 feet, larger than any other North American bird.
Many of them aim predictably northward, where they will most likely roost for the night in their favorite stand of redwoods. Others settle in nearby ponderosa pines, hoping the bobcat will shortly lose interest. He does not, and stands guard over his find until the day''s light fades beneath the far surface of the Pacific Ocean.
Ross Conover is a condor field biologist with the Ventana Wilderness Society.