My recent trip to Arizona to attend the Sedona Hummingbird Festival had two other intended goals – to find and photograph the rare Plain-capped Starthroat hummingbird in Southeast Arizona and the endangered California Condor in Grand Canyon National Park. After my talks at the hummingbird festival, I headed north to the Grand Canyon’s south rim to search for the condors. Arriving in the park just before noon (my first visit to the spectacular canyon), my spirits were doused with heavy rain and fog. Standing at the railing on the South Rim, I could see less than 100 feet, which left me frustrated and concerned about the success of my real objective to find condors.
By four o’clock the clouds began to break up, the fog lifted, and I had my first look into the canyon – one cannot imagine the enormity of what the Colorado River has carved after millions of years of erosion. I did not see any condors, but my larger concern was the weather forecast for the next day. However, the morning brought totally clear skies and the search for condors was on. I was told that a park ranger would be at Hopi Point at one o’clock. The ranger told me that Hopi Point was one of the places the birds could be seen, although I had scoured the cliff walls earlier without success.
The park ranger also gave me another location below the hotels and restaurants at the Rim, and told me that two of the birds had been seen there at four thirty the previous day after the fog lifted. Fewer than thirty minutes later I saw the ranger and a park volunteer biologist standing at the rim rail pointing and looking through their binoculars out over the canyon. An instant later I was next to them and saw two black birds circling up and out over the canyon. My binoculars confirmed that these birds were in fact condors. I started firing my camera as the birds were searching for a thermal. After I took more than 20 photos, the birds disappeared around the nearest point.
I presumed that they might be headed to the spot below the rim hotels, so I headed to the exact spot the ranger had told me where they had been seen the day before. I staked out a spot on the railing about 100 feet above a jutting rock and waited. It was hot, but the temperature would not be a deterrent in driving me away. I was watching the vertical cliff up canyon, when someone spotted the birds overhead descending into the canyon. The birds quickly banked and came right to the rock I had been told to watch. I could not believe my good fortune as I fired my camera at almost point blank range at the birds below.
Each of the 71 condors in the canyon have large, numbered wing tags and radio transmitters. I was looking a large male with the number “87” and a smaller female condor with the number “F-3.” The male spread out his nine-feet-plus wings to soak up the sunshine rays. His pink, orange, red, black, and bare head had perfect light for photos. These birds were so close I could see their orange eyes. After getting many great photos, I moved to a spot on the rim where I could get side shots of the birds. A few minutes later the two set sail into the canyon and out of sight. My mission was complete.
On the internet by using the birds’ tag numbers, I found detailed information about these two condors. The male was bred at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise Idaho sixteen years ago, and the female was bred seven years ago in the Los Angeles Zoo. I also found a photo of number 87 when he was only two years – his head had a scruffy punk feather-doo. I presume these two birds are mates; they must be older than six years to be capable of breeding. In 1987 the 22 condors alive in California were captured and put into a breeding program. The number of condors now stands at over 435 birds, with 235 birds living in the wild in Arizona, Baja California (Mexico), California and Utah.
Several chicks have been hatched in the wild; the latest was in Utah earlier this year. It is a wonderful tribute to the ornithologists to see such a successful program to give these magnificent birds of prey a second chance. Without this program, the chances are these birds would be close to extinction at this time. These two condors gave this old birder thrills he will never forget.