Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Condor Dreams

They are like nothing else. No other birds even come close. With a 9 1/2-foot (3 meter) wingspan, the California condors are the great shamans of the air, flying with a pure, stately grace through the vastness of the Grand Canyon and beyond. As I write this, two days after seeing them for the first time, I can see them in my mind's eye, but I struggle for words. It felt like a visitation from one of the great Powers.

My husband, Michael, and I had taken a brief trip to see Steve Roach in concert in Flagstaff (for photos of that, see his website at www.steveroach.com) and for a few days of R&R in Northern Arizona. Mike suggested that we go up to the Grand Canyon again, and so had arrived at Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, actually found an available room, and were just wandering around deciding what to do with ourselves.
A talk on the condors had been scheduled at Mary Coulter's beautiful Lookout Studio, but I figured I already knew most of what they would say and I hadn't come to stand around in a crowd. We decided on a walk down the rim trail for sunset and were heading back to the X-terra for warmer clothes when we came upon the talk already in progress, so I said what the hell, let's hang around for a few minutes.
And then I saw it: a large bird circling out over the canyon. As it turned, I saw what looked like a white head and assumed it was a bald eagle. Others saw it, too, and began to point and exclaim. Then the guide turned, took one look and said "Here comes one now!" I couldn't believe it...it was a condor!!
We and everyone else in the vicinity scrambled for a good view. As we watched, more condors came to investigate until there were five in all; apparently they are drawn to crowds and activity. We watched them, and they watched us. At times one would fly by at eye level, so close we could hear the air rushing through their wings. It was an awesome sound, like the wind through the pines. They had a good look and then landed on some outcrops on the cliffs below, took off again, and circled away and back again, playing in the air, for a good hour.

Their flight is rock steady, with wings perfectly outstretched on either side, primaries spread like fingers at the tips. They'll spend hours like this, going as high as 15,000 feet and hundreds of miles in a day. And I can tell you, these pictures don't do them justice.

Nearly all of the condors in canyon country today have been released there from the breeding program (more on that below), and bear plastic numbered ID tags on their wings, as well as radio transmitters. At times, they were so close we could read the numbers through binoculars.

Meanwhile, here are Michael and I, as I took our picture just before the surprise of a lifetime. Nice camera shadow...did I mention I was a professional? Mike's already scanning the skies.

One of the condors perched on a ledge, just hanging out. They relax and wait for the wind to be just right. Taking off, they expend as little energy as necessary: just one or two flaps of those incredible wings, and then they're soaring on the thermals for hours.

The same view, pulled out to show the condor in context with the canyon.

Beautiful in flight. Mature adults show the classic white on the underwing, with an orange and yellow head and gorgeous red eyes. They often fly with their white feet hanging down, and so look a bit like planes with the landing gear down. I would guess this helps increase drag, so they can slow down when they want to get a good look at things, like us. They strike me as very intelligent and full of character.

Hours later, still watching the condors from the Rim Trail in the afterglow of evening. They will fly until darkness falls.

This was the unexpected culmination of a dream of a lifetime for me. Condors captured my heart in the 1980s and became sacred animals for me, even as I learned that they were in grave danger of extinction. I drew pictures of them and even named my studio Whitecondor Studio. In the spring of 1987, just as I was taking my first tour around the Southwest, the last wild condor was captured and brought into captivity in Southern California for a controversial breeding program. It was an almost desperate measure to try and increase their numbers and someday release them back into the wild.

When their numbers were at their lowest, there were only 22 condors left alive.

The captive breeding program was a success, and in 1992, the first captive-raised condors were released in California. In 1996, the year we moved to our home in New Mexico, the first condors were released at the Vermillion Cliffs north of the Grand Canyon, part of their ancestal territory. They quickly discovered the Canyon, condor nirvana, and have become--incredibly--a common sight on the South Rim.

Today, there are nearly 300 condors alive, and several dozen call the Grand Canyon and the surrounding country home.

I watched them fly away into the distance of evening.

When I first visited the Canyon in '87, the idea of seeing condors flying in the Southwestern skies seemed like an impossible dream. At most, I hoped someday, once in my lifetime, to see one flying free somewhere. On Sunday, October 26, 2008, that dream unexpectedly came true as I returned to the Grand Canyon and saw not one, but five breathtaking condors flying wild, so close that I heard the wind whistling in their wings.

If you would like to contribute to the restoration of the condors, please visit


thanks...until next time,


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