Imagine traveling to a new place, alone. You are over 1000 miles from home and all of the people you know. The environment is different; the culture is different. You are travel weary, dirty, and almost out of money. But all of that is okay, because you are about to have a huge adventure!
This was how I felt the first time I went to California. I had been accepted as an intern on the Condor Recovery Program, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I was going to California! I was going to intern with California Condors! I was going to be in California, with California Condors!
The California Condor is a huge North American vulture. With a wingspan of over 9 feet, and weighing over 20 pounds, it is one of the biggest flying birds in the world. It is also one of the most endangered. It was widespread over the US in prehistoric times, with fossils being found as far east as NY and FL, but by the time European explorers arrived, it was restricted to the west coast and already uncommon.
In the 1980s, with the population under 30 individuals, it almost went extinct. Biologists made heroic efforts to save the species, capturing every wild bird that was left. Currently, the overall population, captive and free-flying, is over 400 birds. It’s a significant improvement, but the species still has a long way to go to achieve recovery, and it is heavy monitored. I felt honored to have been offered the internship.
When I left home in Pennsylvania, I was filled with excitement. I drove away, with about $500, representing all of my money, my little Pontiac Sunfire stuffed with all of the things I thought I would need.
It took me five days to reach the west coast. I was blown away when I crossed the border from Arizona into California, and saw the Mojave Desert for the first time. Vast, hot, sunny, dry, and unforgiving. At every rest station, huge black ravens panted in the shade and eyed me wearily when I got out of my car. I got my breakfast out of a vending machine, and finished my journey through the desert.
I skirted around Los Angeles. I had been dreading this, but it turned out okay because it was Sunday morning, and headed north toward my destination, Ventura. I spent the night in a hotel, so I could clean up and be presentable the next morning when I made my debut at the office.
My first day was like being caught in a whirlwind. There were introductions to staff and fellow interns, there were forms to sign. I was given t-shirts, a windbreaker, and a hat. I was assigned a locker. Arrangements were made for ATV training. After a few hours, I was carted off for my first 10-day shift, which included tours of Hopper Mountain and Bittercreek NWRs.
Hopper Mountain is surrounded by oil drilling property and national forest. It is only accessible via a narrow, windy road that is mostly dirt and gravel, with the occasional paved spot. The road is steep, with no guardrails. My guide pointed out the infamous spot where a previous intern had driven off the edge of the road and rolled down to the canyon below. The intern survived with no permanent injuries, and no memory of the accident. My guide reminded me to drive carefully.
A few days later, I took my ATV training. It was my first experience on an ATV. I drove around orange cones, I accelerated; I braked. My teacher praised my budding skills. After several hours of learning, it was time for a trail ride. I followed my teacher to the trailhead. My trail ride would be up to the top of Hopper Mountain. This was a particularly important ride, because Hopper Mountain is the best place on the refuge for taking radio signals, and I would be making regular trips to the top. Looking up the steep trail, I felt like I was preparing to ascend Mr. Everest.
My teacher gave me a few reminders: first gear, lean forward, don’t stop, then he revved his engine and took off.
I followed, feeling numb, palms and brow beading sweat. I was terrified. But I remembered what I had been taught, and made it to the top, where my teacher was waiting. Success! I still have my laminated ATV Training certificate, proudly displayed in a scrapbook.
Hopper is where the condors in Southern CA nest, so I was instructed, by one of the techs, on how to do condor nest observations, for the four active nests that I would be watching when I was at Hopper. Basically, it involves sitting for 8 hours with your eye to a scope and making notes about every single thing the chick does. Nest observations provide valuable data on how condors are breeding in the wild since they have been reintroduced. It can also be considered a nest-guarding program. If the chick looks ill, or is in danger, it can be rescued by biologists. Every individual bird is valuable.
The tech pointed out a Cabela’s backpack hanging from a tree, and a spot on the hillside that had been cleared. The pack contained a wildfire kit. If there was a wildfire and I couldn’t hike out in time, I was to take the pack to the cleared area, set up a heat reflective tent, and hang out there until the danger had passed.
Several days later, I headed over to Bittercreek National Wildlife Refuge. Bittercreek is an old ranch property now belonging to the USFWS, and serves as a roosting and foraging ground for the SoCal condor population. It has a huge flight pen for housing condors. The pen serves two purposes: to introduce new condors to southern California before release into the population, and as a holding facility for birds that are either going to get veterinary work-ups or are going to be sent to other locations.
Here I was shown how to take care of the birds in the flight pen and where to set calf carcasses out for condors to feed on them. Eventually, I also received training on how to trap and handle condors for the annual work-up.
Ah, carcasses. Retrieval of calf carcasses was another intern duty. I was given a map and instructions on how to get to several dairies around Bakersfield. These dairies had a relationship with the refuge and allowed us access to their properties to take still-born calves. All of the calves given to the condors had died of natural causes. This was hard, dirty work. Some of the calves were almost 100 pounds!
After each carcass run, I was usually hungry, and would stop at an ice-cream stand in Maricopa and get a delicious chocolate milkshake.
One of the things that suprises you about condors, and vultures in general, is how likable they are, despite their bald heads and gross habits. Each bird has its own personality. Some bird pair up and are dedicated mates for years. Other birds switch mates regularly. Some birds form little cliques and hang out together. Other birds are rebellious and will strike out on their own to explore. New objects in their environment attract rapt attention, and sometimes become playthings, with the condors getting so excited by their toy that they hop-flap into the air.
The condor population is still in recovery, and will be for decades to come. Initially reintroduced into SoCal, condor populations have been established in Central California, Mexico, and Arizona. The birds are explorers and travelers, and the AZ birds regularly visit southern Utah.
The species is considered to be a relic by some, a piece of a bygone time, the current population an experiment. I consider it to be a jewel in the environment of the west and I hope that the birds continue to exist for a long time to come, gracing the landscape with their huge shadows.
Hello, I'm PJ. I'm a wildlife biologist and artist. I enjoy drawing and photographing the plants and animals I see when I'm in the field. I have lived in several states in the US, including CA, TX, and MI. I'm originally from Pennsylvania.