Dec 03 2017

California Condor

Photographing One of Earth's Rarest Birds

Categories: Hiking, Utah, Wildlife, Zion

The California Condor is the largest bird in North America, with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet. The bird has been on the endangered species list since 1967, and by the 1980’s there were only 22 of the birds left alive. Thanks to the hard work of wildlife officials the population is now 450. Historically the birds ranged from Canada to Mexico and even as far east as New York. Today most of the Condors cover terrain in California, Baja Mexico and the Grand Canyon eco-region, which includes Southern Utah.

While the reintroduction program seems to be working in California (there are even plans to release some in Redwoods National Forest in 2019), the program is having trouble keeping a stable population in Utah/Arizona due to the high use of lead bullets. Lead is the leading cause of death for the birds and nearly 30% of the Condors tested in the region have lead poisoning.

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The low winter sun creates long shadows all day long.

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Condors live among the caves and crevices of the high cliffs. So if you want to see them you have to go up there!

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I didn’t see any birds in the area I had hoped so, dejected, I decided I might as well head up Angel’s Landing since it was only a 1/2 mile. I counted 30 people up there and ate a snack. On my way back down I finally spotted some Condors perched on a massive column of rock in the sun.

It was Condor N6 who originally caught my attention while warming his outstretched wings. Condors are lazy and N6 did this for about 10 minutes.

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Originally there were only two of them. I’ve never seen more than two of them at once so it was a huge surprise when Condor J3 showed up to the scene. I never saw the one in the middle stretch its wings or fly so I’m curious if it’s the offspring of the other two.

In Zion National Park the scavengers are doing better. Condors can soar 15,000 feet high and travel 150 miles a day so it makes sense that these power gliders would enjoy nesting on the highest sandstone cliffs in North America. I have seen them many times on my visits to the park but I never got any pictures of them because I usually on carry one wide angle lens on my backcountry escapades.  My telephoto is heavy. It’s heavy enough I need a tripod for it and it’s heavy enough that my travel tripod isn’t sturdy enough, which means I have to bring my heavier tripod to hold my heavier lense. So I don’t go hiking with it. Even so, this weekend I decided to only bring a telephoto and to go specifically to look for some shots of these incredible birds. I’m amazed that I live in a place where I can wake up in the morning, decide I’m in the mood to go look for endangered Condors, and then actually go find some and successfully photograph them on the same day!

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Finally, they took off.

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They teased me a while darting in and out of deep shadows.

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Once they did some warm up acrobatics they glided off.

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The fly very close to the massive cliff walls, and as they flew away the sheer size of the cliffs began to swallow them up. I had to start looking for their shadows before i could see the birds. If you look close you can see rock climbing rigging in the wall. I imagine rock climbers must occasionally get some great views of these birds, but their hands are mostly like not free for a photo.

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After a brief regrouping on the pedestal, they swooped down below me and into shadows where I never saw them again. I assume they headed around Angel’s Landing and down valley. Hint: The Condor is in the lower left corner.

I was lucky that the birds had spend so much time flying up canyon, away from the sun. Coming back down the Angel’s Landing trail you can see it was a smoggy day when looking down canyon.

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I had one last surprise when this pretty Stellar’s Jay landed on the trail right in front of me. He was super shy though, even more difficult to shoot than the Condors!

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