• Otter Views: El Condor Pasa

    by Tom Stevens

    Rising, plunging and cornering like the Boardwalk’s Giant Dipper, the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road is best taken at a leisurely pace on a sunny day. Luckily, those conditions prevailed on a recent drive from Mission San Antonio to the Big Sur coast.

    Leaning back gratefully in the passenger seat, I watched a stunning diorama of Central Coast scenery swivel past: wildflower meadows, shaggy oaks, shady streams, and rugged don’t-look-down ravines. As the road neared the coast, a drizzly fog softened distant crags and treetops like a sumi-e brush.

    We reached the Lime Kiln campground early enough to explore its fern forest, creeks, pools and waterfall before dusk. One trail led to the namesake kilns, which stood in a rusting row like four ancient alien landers. Their placement so far from the ocean puzzled me.

    “Used to be a big limestone deposit back there,” the camp host told me later. “The limestone was dug out and burned to make cement. All the redwoods were cut down to fire the kilns.”

    “But the redwoods there now . . . ?”

    “Planted later on.”

    Indeed, wooden signs commemorate California families who sponsored the redwood reforestation. Judging by the “new” trees’ trunk girth and canopy loft, nature is rewarding their foresight. May that continue.

    The tidal rhythms of exploitation and conservation are also evident where otters and gray whales swim near shore. Driven to near-extinction back when the lime kilns operated, both species have slowly recovered thanks to determined conservation efforts. Commerce in whale blubber and otter pelts may seem today a distant anachronism, but it was really quite recent.

    Another conservation story awaited us at the Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park. On a November visit, thick fog had foiled my bid for a souvenir-worthy snapshot of the park’s McWay Falls. This time, the fog withdrew. Holding my camera at arm’s length in the new 21st century manner, I was set to immortalize the falls when something flew past from the Pleistocene Era.

    Three things, actually. They were too small to be pterodactyls, but too big for crows, ravens, eagles or vultures. As the big black shapes soared overhead, their undersides showed triangular white blazes. At the wingtips, long pin feathers stroked the air like sorcerer’s fingers.

    “Are those . . . condors?” I blurted.

    My friend wasn’t sure, and nobody else within earshot seemed to know, either, so we just kept watching. The three birds banked far out over the bay, then spiraled in on a cliff top eucalyptus grove overlooking the falls. There they flapped to awkward landings in the foliage, their weight bending the branches earthward.

    Cradling our cameras, we hurried back over to the waterfall side. The closer we got, the more big black birds we saw. Some perched in tree tops. Others jostled shoulder-to-shoulder on branches. Other ones hopped in the dirt beside a cliff line fence. Periodically, one or more would lumber into the air and soar out over the bay, only to return and scatter their fellows like bowling pins.

    Validating my guess that these were no ordinary birds were their radio transmitters and wing top number patches. Fearing they would all lift off and vanish at once, I scribbled their numbers on my hand with a pen. For the record, birds 74, 11, 37, 4, 17, 63, 1, 34, 66, 10, 53, 89 and 50 were present at Julia Pfeiffer that day. I think it was them. The ink dimmed when I mistakenly washed my hands.

    A jade diver told me later that I had seen some of the condors raised in captivity and released in Big Sur. Further research revealed that each bird represents about $100,000 in restoration costs. Their wingspans can top 10 feet, and they can fly 55 miles per hour. They can glide 150 miles at one go, can soar to 15,000 feet, and can go two weeks between meals.

    Juveniles have dark heads; breeding adults have orange and yellow heads. I learned that poisoning, gunfire and habitat loss had reduced the entire species to 22 birds as of 1987, when the last wild condor was taken into captivity. From this tiny gene pool, wildlife agencies have since coaxed the numbers up to about 400, distributed  among Arizona, Utah, Baja and California.

    As with otters, whales and redwoods, condor restoration is a long, slow process. The birds mate for life and can live to be 60, but they only lay one egg every two years. The chicks take a full year to raise, then don’t mate until year six.

    The birds I saw seemed unfazed by all that. Grunting softly, they pushed each other around like teenagers at an arcade, then peered down at the humans.

    “Playful and inquisitive,” the book says. Just like us.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 10, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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