The cliffs across the valley radiate a deep burnt orange as the sun drifts low on the horizon. I sit contently on the porch in front of our Lees Ferry Motel room backing up to northern Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs and feel my body relax and my soul replenish. I gaze at the cliffs with hopefulness. Will I see a California Condor glide on the waning thermals? I am content to watch a Say’s Phoebe helicopter over the nearby brush as it seeks its final insect of the evening. My eyes begin to droop and I call it a night.
After my early bedtime, I am wide awake at 5:30 a.m. and anxious to get started. I rouse my daughter and we eat instant oatmeal on the picnic table in front of the motel room as the morning sun turns the craggy rocks behind us the color of cedar.
“Are you going condor watching?” the clerk in the motel asks as I check out, spotting the binoculars dangling from my neck.
“I can only hope,” I reply.
“There have been two of them flying around Navajo Bridge,” she offers and tries to call one of the trackers. “They must be there already, or still asleep. Look for their truck with the antennas.”
We are the only ones in the visitor center parking lot. I gaze up and down the river, but don’t see any condors.
A Rock Wren is singing brightly on a post across the highway, and I get out my new scope to observe it closely. Through the long lens I can see the vibrations in its throat as it sings!
We head down into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, passing a campground where everyone is still sleeping. A sign on the information board describes the condor release program, and I learn that the condors can be seen soaring on the thermals during the heat of the day.
It is 10 a.m. when we return to Navajo Bridge, wondering whether it is warm enough for the condors to be flying. As I walk out on the bridge, a man points to his companion and exclaims, “Zoom in on that vulture – the one with white patches on its wings.”
Even before spotting the bird, I know it is a California Condor, and the ‘white patches’ will display its prominent ID number.
The California Condor was officially listed on the federal endangered species list March 11, 1967. Since the early 1900s, the condor population has declined dramatically as a result of predator poisoning, egg collecting and captures for museum exhibits. By 1982, there were only 22 California Condors remaining in the world, prompting their capture and the start of a breeding program. There are currently breeding programs at the San Diego and Los Angeles County Zoos, at the Ventana Wildlife Society in central California, and at the Peregrine Foundation’s World Center for Birds of Prey outside of Boise, Idaho. Today there are approximately 275 condors in existence. Condors have been released and are flying free in Arizona, California and Baja California.On Navajo Bridge I gaze over the railing with my binoculars and spot the condor, its #42 ID tag easily visible. It is sunning itself on a rocky, guano-stained ledge. Both wings are outstretched allowing the morning sun to warm its feathers. I am in awe of the nine-and-a-half foot wingspan. After a few moments it lowers one wing and then another. Then it raises its wings one more time, and this time it glides off and under the bridge.
Condor #42, a male, was hatched April 2001 at the Peregrine Foundation’s World Center for Birds. Flying free in northern Arizona, it offers the hope of generations of future condors – and a time when they will be well enough established that they won’t have to be marred with ID tags and radio transmitters. At Navajo Bridge I am seeing history in the making!