Condors over Cambria

—As seen in Journal Plus
Condor in Flight
Photo courtesy of Ventana Wilderness Society


Charmaine Coimbra

You were walking along Cambria’s Main St., and the shadow of an enormous bird crossed your path. You looked up, blinked, and thought, “No, it can’t be.” And if you thought it was a California condor because it was much bigger than the more common turkey vulture and it had the telltale large white triangle markings under its wings, it was probably condor 716, aka Orville.

Orville, the brother of Wilbur, condor 696, are two of the “Magnificent 7,” the seven juvenile male condors recently released near San Simeon. Orville’s GPS tracking device showed him soaring about 1000 feet over Main St. in Cambria.

And whether it was Orville or another member of the seven, Cambria residents have sighted a juvenile male condor perched in the pines, and others have photographed a juvenile condor viewing the landscape from a barren tree branch in the San Simeon area.

The seven condors have taken to the North Coast, and have even attracted other condors to come visit and nest. Five more birds are scheduled for release near San Simeon this June, and another five to seven condors set for 2017 release.
This is wonderful news for the recovery of the California condor population — a population that came much too close to extinction in the wild by the 1980s.

The California condor is North America’s largest flying land bird with a wingspan of 9.5 feet. San Luis Obispo County is a historic habitat for the bird. And with this recent release, Joe Burnett, a biologist and coordinator for the Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor program, said that between the topography of the county, the open spaces, and the elephant seal population, these condors, along with others slated for release later this year, may be the chit that brings them full health as a species.

Unlike our more adorable and endangered sea otter, vultures have a public relations issue. Admiring vultures is an acquired appreciation. Their bald heads with massive beaks that can tear through a thick hide, and their food source — dead animals — is an unlikely point of polite conversation. It’s a image issue. Even if condors are a social and intelligent species, Leviticus 11:13, warned the Israelites “… you shall detest among the birds; they are abhorrent, not to be eaten: the eagle and the vulture and the buzzard.” Even Charles Darwin claimed, “These are disgusting birds with bald scarlet heads that are formed to revel in putridity.”

Besides their lack of cuddle charisma, and like the California condor, vultures around the world are both threatened and endangered. Some populations, like the Gyps vulture in South Asia crashed in the mid-1990s. In a 2012 TED talk, Munir Virani, Ph.D, a noted research biologist, explained the importance of vultures to our ecosystems: “So why are vultures important? First of all, they provide vital ecological services. They clean up. They’re our natural garbage collectors. They clean up carcasses right to the bone. They help to kill all the bacteria. They help absorb anthrax that would otherwise spread and cause huge livestock losses and diseases in other animals. Recent studies have shown that in areas where there are no vultures, carcasses take up to three to four times to decompose, and this has huge ramifications for the spread of diseases.”
So, when a gray whale washed up along the Big Sur coastline in 2012, it was California condors to the clean-up. They fed on the carcass for three months.

Now with about 23,000 northern elephant seals hauling out along the Piedras Blancas region of SLO County, researchers revel in the potential food source for the Magnificent 7 and other visiting condors.

The carcasses that condors scavenge, remain a part of the threat in keeping the current population healthy. A portion of the California sea lion population still have DDE (the breakdown product of DDT) accumulations in their blubber. Consequently, condors consume the exact contaminant that further ushered in their population demise decades ago. Elephant seals, as far as most researchers know, are considerably lower in DDE than sea lions. Lead poisoning is another issue for condors. When a condor feeds on a carcass brought down by lead bullets, they begin their feed at the bullet’s point of entry. Lead bullets shatter at the impact point and becomes an unfortunate pepper for the scavenging condor.

Because San Luis Obispo County has responsible hunting and huge ranches, researchers believe this is an essential factor in bringing about a healthy wild California condor population.

Now when visiting Cambria and the North Coast portion of SLO County, and the shadow of what looks like an unusually large bird crosses your path, look up, it may be Orville, Wilbur or any of the California condors in the condor recovery program.


California Condor Facts

  • In 1982 only 22 California condors remained in the world.
  • The Ventana Wilderness Society released condors in Big Sur in 1997.
  • In California, there are 150 wild condors, with about 20 breeding pairs.
    86 of those condors nest in Central California
  • California condor release sites: Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, Big Sur, Pinnacles National Park, San Simeon.
  • Other release sites include Arizona and Baja California.
  • In total, there are 250 California condors in the wild.
  • Condors can cover 150 mile a day in flight.

Unsure what that bird is soaring over Main Street? From “All About Birds”: The immense size of California Condors is hard to judge from far away, making it surprisingly easy to mistake them for other raptors. Look for the very heavy, stable flight style with almost no flapping. When condors do flap, it’s usually a single, deep wingbeat with the wingtips almost meeting on the downstroke. Turkey Vultures hold their wings above the horizontal and are much less stable in flight, constantly teetering or rocking as they soar. Threats to condors include, lead poisoning from ingested ammunition, micro-trash (from foraging for food along the highway that they feed to their chicks), and DDE still found in the California sea lion.
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