EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
Another brilliant day dawns as we head to the Pinnacles, the National Monument rising from the chaparral foothills of the Gabilan Mountains in California. The Pinnacles are strange and wondrous rock formations with spires, ramparts and crags that reach for the sky amid massive monoliths, canyons and caves created millions of years ago. Many birds including the rare and gigantic California condors, that Danny and I were fortunate to see last time, breed here. Although Dylan has been a West Coaster for 24 years, this is his first visit to this beautiful wilderness.
It is hot and very dry ... the fire alert is dialed to "extreme." As we wander toward the caves, we linger in the little shade provided by the cottonwoods and pines. The streamlet the path follows is completely dry, but chestnut-backed chickadees, oak titmice, spotted towhees and a lovely ash-throated flycatcher appear.
Now and again very fit pairs and trios of Californians hike by, some carrying huge flashlights. "Not to worry," Danny says, "I have my maglite."
The path gets narrower and narrower, and soon, we are maneuvering through foot-wide openings, climbing up goat paths, and at one point, crawling under a craggy rock braced between two walls.
Dylan comments, "Not the place to be if there were an earthquake." I wince and continue on my way up and over the stony path that leads to the caves, patting my vest for my clear glasses -- which, alas, are in the glove compartment of the car.
Dylan forges the way and comes to a point where he has to climb down a stone stair, backwards, with our small flashlight. Like Alice in Wonderland, he disappears into a hole, but moments later, his head emerges again. "Way too dark to see," he says, "Though there is a barely visible arrow ...." Danny and I look at one another. Danny, shakes his head and says, "Let’s turn back," just as I, shaking my head, am saying, "I really was never much interested in spelunking."
We meander back to the car and come across not one but two groups that missed their turn to hike back to the east side. They talk to a ranger who shrugs and points. It’s a three-mile hike back in 90-degree heat! As the drama of the lost hikers unfolds, we eat our lunch. One group with three young children looks distraught. Danny, Dylan and I look at each other and offer them the rest of our water and food. Showering us with thanks, they start their march eastward.
Sated with a quick lunch and comfortably cool in the car, we drive over to the east side to continue our search for the condor. We make a huge U around the borders of the park. The road goes south through plowed and planted fields on the right and barren, brown hillsides on the left. The drive east is through a moonlike landscape, bare and sandy looking. Surprisingly, all of this territory is fenced and neither creature nor air is stirring. Some areas have hints of cattle ranching. As we turn north, in a field not to far off the road is a clot of turkey vultures feasting on an animal carcass.
Soon we reach the parking lot for Bear Gulch where there is a trail to yet more inviting caves. We decline. Scanning the Pinnacles, only turkey vultures soar above the rocky crags. In the shady trees near the closed info center, acorn woodpeckers, clown-like with those white-encircled eyes, flit from tree to tree and then to the water fountain. Everyone needs a drink in this heat!
No condors on this side either! After a while we get back in the air-conditioned car and head back to Salinas Valley. A family of quite tame, western kingbirds hops from wire to pole to wire again along the barbed wire fence. I say, "You know we should check out that carcass again."
We cruise along and Dylan slows to a stop as we sight the carcass in the field. This time I see that there are two sizes of birds, not big and baby turkey vultures, but enormous condors that dwarf their turkey vulture companions!
Dylan slowly moves the car forward and stops again. Four gigantic California condors are feasting on the cow/deer carcass. One with a pumpkin-orange head and feathery neck ruff stumble-flies away to the hillside flashing white in those enormous wings. Condors, the largest land bird in North America, have a wing span of nearly 10 feet! His hungry mates do not follow, so intent they are on lunch and on keeping the timid turkey vultures at bay. One condor lifts his left wing -- the No. 89 is quite visible. The nine "tiny’’ turkey vultures wander around waiting, waiting, waiting their turn.
We watch for a bit, but soon tire of seeing strings of guts hanging from the condors’ bloody, curved beaks. These birds are the closest creatures I’ve ever seen that truly resemble dragons, but, unlike dragons, these birds have been brought back from near extinction.
Although fossil evidence shows that condors soared in the skies from coast to coast in prehistoric times, they, as the years passed, became residents of the west only. Like other species, poaching and habitat destruction diminished the population. Worse was the effect of man not only from killing for trophy and fun, but also from condors eating freebee meals rife with lead bullets. Lead poisoning is still the leading killer of condors.
Conservationists, realizing the species was on the brink of disappearing all together, began a extensive program capturing condors in the wild and breeding them in captivity for later release. In 1987, the remaining 27 condors were in captivity. None were left in the wild. Even though condors only lay an egg every two years, the population grew and grew. Released condors thrived and, by May of 2013, 435 now live free while another 198 are still in captivity and successfully breeding.
I report our condor sighting to the Pinnacles Condor Project and find out that No. 89 was actually No. 589, hatched at the Center for Birds of Prey in 2010 in Boise, Idaho and released at the Pinnacles in 2011.
So this year Danny and I have observed two of the rarest birds in America: the whooping cranes and the California condors. Stay tuned for the next episode: Giants of the sea!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle