Hey tweets, for my 70th birthday recently, my husband John gave me the gift of a year of adventure. We just got back from our second adventure on Friday (email me privately if you'd like to read about our first adventure, which involved musical wax moths). We hopped a plane to Las Vegas on Tuesday, rented a car, and drove to the Grand Canyon to look for California Condors, a bird I had never seen in the wild. I wanted to have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing these majestic birds soaring over the same cliffs and valleys that their ancestors had done during the Pleistocene. Then, they looked for dead mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, and other megafauna. Now they've had to scale back their carcasses to elk-size and smaller, but the soaring and floating are the same.
Before we left, we researched where condors have been sighted most recently. If you're pining to go, these are good websites to try (courtesy of John):
Our first stop was the south rim of the Grand Canyon, starting at Grand Canyon Village (where you can stay if you make reservations early enough - we didn't and stayed in Page nearby, where we also had made reservations, but only a day or two before we left). Along the south rim is a paved walking path that takes you right to the edge of the canyon. We started walking from the El Tovar Hotel to Mary Colter's Lookout, the best places to search for soaring condors.
Sure enough, at 11:10 ( condors tend not to be early risers), a magnificent condor came shooting up over the rim of a cliff and spiraled overhead, showing off its little pale feet (if anything about this bird can be called little) tucked up under its tail, its yellowish head turning this way and that, and its 9-foot wingspan outspread to show off the white wing linings. The sight was breathtaking - or maybe I was just gasping from the altitude, but I don't think so.
No sooner had the condor disappeared into the distant blue than a Zone-tailed Hawk zipped around the canyon bend to soar beneath me, doing its own version of hunting. I have sought this bird in vain for 20 years, so you can imagine how my heart was beating to see this lovely creature at last.
Also on view at the Village: black-backed Lesser Goldfinches, Virginia's Warbler, Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, Pygmy Nuthatches, Western Bluebirds, Hairy Woodpeckers, numerous Turkey Vultures, White-throated Swifts, and Common Ravens, among others.
After this transcendent experience, we left the Grand Canyon to seek more condor sites. On our second viewing day, we headed east for the Vermillion Cliffs, where we scanned the skies from two main sites:
(a) the middle of the Navajo Bridge (for pedestrians) at Marble Canyon off Highway 89A (didn't see any condors here)
(b) the condor viewing station at House Rock Valley Road (BLM Rd. 1065; directions to follow) along Vermillion Cliffs National Monument between Marble Canyon and Jacob Lake.
Along the way, we stopped at the House Rock Wildlife Area, an incredible sagebrush valley loaded with Sage Thrashers, Black-throated Sparrows, Horned Larks, and other desert birds. House Rock Wildlife Area is at Forest Service Road 8910. We also found more jack rabbits than we had ever seen before. Most were resting under the shade of big bushes along a wash and gave us wonderful views of their giant ears, translucent in the bright sunlight. This wildlife area is enormous, with many side roads. We didn't have a good map so we stuck with the road going directly from the highway, and we didn't go down it very far. There is no cell phone reception here, so you are on your own if your car breaks down. We took 3 gallons of water with us, in case John had to hike back out to the highway, leaving me behind with the rabbits and the birds.
From the wildlife area, we drove east on Highway 89A, scanning the Vermillion Cliffs along the way, to a turnoff at House Rock Valley Road (BLM Rd 1065, which measured 27.4 miles from Navajo Bridge). After we turned off, we drove 3 miles north to the condor viewing kiosk (signed) at the side of the road. This is a great place to sit at a covered picnic table and scan the cliffs for condors. It's more popular in the winter and early spring months (so said the signage), when the condors roost on the cliffs. We could see much whitewashed evidence of this but no condors. Still, we hoped some would come our way, searching for food, and sure enough, 3 (!) eventually did. We think 2 of them were a pair, as they circled the thermals together, but perhaps they were just two chance-met condors. At any rate, at one point, we had them both in our binoculars as they orbited the thermal under the pale moon. What a sight!
Greedy for more condors, we drove to our last viewing site, Big Bend at Zion National Park. This overlook is on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, a paved road that runs south to north through the park, more or less. You used to be able to drive it yourself, but now no cars are allowed. Instead, you can bike or hike or take a free shuttle bus. The shuttle bus stops at 9 different places along the road to drop off anyone who wants off and pick up anyone who is waiting to be picked up. The shuttles run every 15 minutes or so. Normally I dislike riding on shuttles, but in this case, it's a great way to see this part of the park because you can have long moments when you're all alone, and only the sound of the wind through the trees blends with the chorus of bird song. No people, no cars, nothing to interfere between you and nature.
We arrived at the first pickup point, the visitors' center, well before dawn, which, with the time change was 6:15 a.m. There was already a line of people waiting for the shuttle - maybe 50 people ahead of us, and believe me, that is hard to do when you get up as early as we do. They were all young hikers who wanted off at the first stop, the trailhead to Angel's Landing, a rugged hike to the tippy-top of the ridge, with sheer drops on either side. Just to the north of Angel's Landing is a long flat slab of rock that runs from the top of the ridge to about halfway down the cliff. It is cut with 3 large cutouts or caves. In the third one down is a condor nest. To see it properly, we got off at the Big Bend stop and waited for dawn. As the moon slowly faded into the deep blue of the morning sky, an immature condor floated by, silent and still, wafted by a breeze I could not feel. It wasn't just the chill of the morning that made the hair on my neck stand up. It was the thought that the condors are returning to their ancient hunting grounds. How I wished the mammoths and mastodons were still here to greet them. But now people are one of the few remaining megafauna. I made sure to get up and move around as the condor searched the canyon.
We never did see the nestlings or the parents at this site. We fear the baby that is thought to have hatched in late May may not have survived. But another nest in the Vermillion Cliffs has a two-month-old chick that seems to be doing well. Condors still need our help, but the breeding/release program has resulted in a population growth from 27 individuals to an estimated 400+, of which 276 live in the wild. I urge all you tweeters who haven't experienced them wild and free to do so. Your eyes will never feel the same. - Connie, Seattle