Last summer, while driving through Big Sur, I rounded a turn on the road where four or five large birds were circling overhead. A dozen or more cars had stopped, and people were frantically scrambling to take photos. “Oh my God,” I shouted, as I quickly pulled over. A guy with a tripod and a large camera jogged by. “Are those what I think they are,” I asked. “Yes, they are,” he replied. California condors. I had never seen a California condor before. As a biologist from the East Coast, I was thrilled.
The big birds soared out over the Pacific, then floated back above the road, looking down curiously at the crowd of humans below. Juxtaposed against the mountains, sea, and sky of Big Sur, the condors were majestic, the perfect union of bird and landscape.
As we watched the condors catch an ocean breeze and drift out of sight down the coast, I realized I had witnessed the intersection of two of the cornerstone ideas of conservation. Habitat preservation and captive breeding/reintroduction of endangered species had come together, resulting in the preservation of one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world, and the rescue of a magnificent bird from extinction.
Birds near extinction
Poaching, habitat destruction, and poisoning caused a serious decline in the condors population, and by the early 1980s condors were on the verge of extinction. In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to capture the few remaining wild birds and move them into a breeding program with a small number of captive condors. Captive-bred condors began to be released in 1992, and wild condors now inhabit several sites in California, Arizona and the Baja peninsula.
“The flock was only 27 birds in 1987,” said Joe Burnett, senior wildlife biologist and field supervisor for the Ventana Condor Restoration Program, which is run by the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization based in Salinas. “The current condor population consists of a captive flock of 195, and a wild flock of 188. Fifty-six of those wild condors live in the Big Sur area.”
Condors are the largest flying North American land bird, and one of the rarest; but, the rationale for preserving these magnificent birds goes beyond that.
“As obligate scavengers, condors serve an important and vital role in keeping balance within the food web,” Burnett said. “The condor plight was as a direct result of human activities. Now, we are in a position to reconnect condors to the landscape.”
This is where Big Sur fits into the condor recovery program.
Big Sur has role
Stretching nearly a hundred miles along the central California coast, from the Carmel River near Monterey, south to San Carpoforo Creek, the dramatic landscape of Big Sur is natural beauty on a grand scale. The Santa Lucia Mountains rise from the vastness of the Pacific and tower thousands of feet above the winding ribbon of road known as California Highway 1. Steep rocky cliffs tumble hundreds of feet below the roadway down to the sea, where huge waves slam into giant boulders and jettison plumes of water high into the air. An assortment of wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs are scattered across the mountain slopes, and clusters of redwood trees dot the coastline. Blue sky and blue ocean extend as far as the eye can see.
Big Sur was protected from major development by the efforts of a variety of individuals, including celebrities such as actor Clint Eastwood, and by public and private organizations such as the California State Parks Department, the U.S. Forest Service, The Big Sur Land Trust, and The Nature Conservancy. Large tracts of land in Big Sur were purchased or donated, and became off limits to development. The rugged terrain and protection from development make Big Sur a largely wild and unspoiled area that includes more than 500,000 acres of protected land.
Condors may fly up to 150 miles a day in search of food, and with such a huge area of wild land, Big Sur provides ample space for the large birds to roam. Burnett cites additional reasons that make Big Sur prime real estate for condors.
“Big Sur is a geological wonder, where mountains meet the sea, and the interaction of the wildlife within this landscape is simply spectacular.” Burnett said. “Big Sur offers condors ample food sources in the form of marine mammal carcasses, such as California sea lions and gray whales along the coast, and ample nesting sites in the coastal redwoods, plus the fact that human occupation and impact in Big Sur have been minimal and the area remains largely protected and intact for wildlife to thrive.”
Burnett adds a cautionary note about condors feeding on marine mammal carcasses, however, and acknowledges that this additional food source for coastal condors can be a double-edged sword. “Preliminary data suggests exposure to marine contaminants (DDE) may be thinning condor eggshells”, he explains. DDE is a breakdown product of DDT, the pesticide that was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Burnett says more research needs to be done to determine the potential impact of DDE on condors.
The individuals who worked to preserve Big Sur decades ago probably never imagined their efforts would someday benefit an iconic endangered species like the California condor.
“When I see a condor in Big Sur, soaring over the coast, I see a perfect natural relationship,” Burnett said. “And I still can’t believe that perfection was almost lost.”
Don Lyman is a biologist and adjunct instructor in the biology department at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. He can be reached at Donald.Lyman@merrimack.edu.