August 18, 2006
California Condor in flight
California Condor in flight
In this column this summer we've visited four canyons in the Sky Islands south of Tucson where many of Arizona's most sought after species can be found.  Before cold weather sets in I have another beautiful canyon I want you to visit which will take you in a different direction, both in scale and on the map, for a spectacular bird whose presence in our state is often dismissed by hard core birders and overlooked by casual birders.

Just as the intimate and verdant canyons of the Huachucas seemed the perfect setting for the tiny gems we call hummingbirds, the Grand Canyon in all its earth-toned vastness plays the perfect backdrop for North America's largest thing with wings, the California condor, and its successful reintroduction into the wild.

From a nadir of 22 birds in 1982, a captive breeding program run by the Peregrine Fund at its Boise facility had increased the population of this Pleistocene relic to 273 birds by the end of last year.  Releases at the Vermilion Cliffs north of the Grand Canyon began in 1996, and the first wild reproduction in Arizona occurred in '03.

Even though condors are not yet "countable" by American Birding Association rules, if you've not been to the Canyon since the condors arrived on the scene, go now.  If you're at all interested in wild things, if you consider yourself an environmentalist, if you're alive and breathing, go now.  This is, after all, a 25 pound bird with a 9 1/2 foot wingspan, a member of our "charismatic megafauna"--wolves, bears, whales--animals at the top of the food chain whose size and personality allow us to identify with them and truly understand that a world without them would be a lesser place.

My epiphany occurred at sunrise several summers ago.  From the Canyon's rim trail I had spotted a group of condors on an overnight roost so far below me along the ledges of the Toroweap they were just dark specks.  Looking for a better vantage point, I crossed the top of a promontory, crested a small rise where the path again brought me within yards of the edge, and was brought to an incredulous halt in mid-stride.

The huge birds were boiling up out of the canyon all around me!  As the rock walls began reflecting the sun's heat, the condors had caught the early thermals, launching upon their daily activities of searching for food and assuaging their innate curiosity about the tiny upright creatures milling about the rim.  Some were still below me, circling up the wall.  Some were already above me, soaring out of sight around the promontory.  Two were drifting right toward me, rim level, too close to focus camera or binoculars.  I dropped to my knees, heard the wind through their wings as they passed within yards, spoke aloud to them, sat for moments unmoving, out of body, out of time, some lone pilgrim lost on some premodern planet.

Please note at the end of the second paragraph I used the word "reintroduction" rather than "introduction."  Carbon dating has confirmed old bones found in a Canyon cave are prehistoric condor bones.  Brought near to its demise by lead poisoning and random shooting, this supervulture nearly twice the wingspan of our turkey vulture, evolved in a niche in time when wooly mammoths and dire wolves roamed the planet.  Visit the Canyon again.  Listen to the ancient echoes.  Rejoice in our attempts to rectify past sins.