11.12.2007

Close Encounters of the Condor Kind



Gilda and I decided to get out of Salinas for the day and head towards Pinnacles National Monument. It's about 30 miles south of us, in the Gabilan Mountains. The drive through the Salinas Valley is always a liberating one, with wide open views of the sloping Gabilan Mountains on one side and the Santa Lucia Range on the other. Route 146 carried us past vineyards and wineries and into the bubbly foothills. The road narrowed to one lane at places, evidence that it was a road less traveled.

We pulled into the Chapparal Ranger Station, ruffling the feathers of the park rangers because we parked in the lot before paying our use fees. The nerve of us! wanting to park once instead of twice! I got the routine spiel from the head ranger there about places to go. The drone and precision of his pronunciation gave me the impression that he's done this for a long time! Gilda and I looked at the display detailing the hikes we could take. We passed on the all-day hikes because it was already 3pm. We either would go on the 100 ft-elevation-change hike to the Cliffs and Cave or the 1200 ft-elevation-change to the High Peaks. We both agreed on the peaks. Once underway, we discovered what kind of a hike we were in for.

Our approach took us through Juniper Canyon with an impressive view of the Pinnacles and a gradual slope. We met maybe 10 hikers on their way down. We were the only ones going up at the time, as the shadows across the mountain tops were getting longer and the light struck the rocks with brilliant orange and red hues. Then we started up the switchback climb to the peak. This was pretty strenuous, with plenty of water breaks and photo ops taken. Halfway up, we spotted what we thought were juvenile California Condors, an endangered but slowly recovering species. We could tell by their underwing pattern that they weren't golden eagles or turkey vultures. Gilda remarked that they were probably checking us out, too. I doubted that, I mean, we're alive and walking right? They're only interested in us if we're staggering to our deaths, right?

Thirty minutes later we've huffed and puffed our way to the top of the Pinnacles. We sit on a little bench, near the top of Scout Peak. From here one can look down both sides of the mountain. The sunlight was amazing, so we decided to take some self-portraits with the scenery in the background. We had to do a couple of takes because I was getting cropped out of the picture. Little did we know that a creature as large as us was approaching from behind. In the first picture, you can see a bird flapping its wings in the center, just above Gilda's head. Just as we took our last picture, I see this colossal bird fly past us at eye-level. The "Viiwhoozh" of its gliding wings startled both of us before we knew what it was. The second picture was captured just after it passed us. The bird's wingtips were like long fingers grabbing every spare gust of wind. Its head was fuzzy and small, with deep black eyes. I remember a blur of white and black feathers, probably its under wing and back feathers. Of course, something that big and flying could only be a California Condor. And one of 127 surviving in the wild. How rare an encounter is that? After it passed us, it circled higher overhead and turned its head to pan the area where we were standing. Gilda was sure that it was checking us out and now I conceded a "yes". (Later on I would confirm this with my cousin Jessica, who runs the bird lab in Andrew Molera State Park. Condors can see color and are quite curious as juveniles.) After circling, it withdrew behind the ridge to the east side of the park.

I scrambled up to the highest point to see if the condor would circle around one more time. But s/he was gone. With my point-and-shoot camera I could barely zoom in for details, so you'll have to click on these pictures for closer looks. Gilda and I tried to recreate the situation a little later, for posterity of course. We wondered if these condors didn't quite have the "street smarts" to avoid humans because the collective memory of their small population and captive breeding doesn't pass on the message "if you see a big thing in an orange jacket, its a human, so stay away!" We didn't mind because we had an exhilarating experience getting close to something most people have never seen. Two other blogs have recently posted some condor news. Laura's Birding Blog reports that a new California law bans the use of lead bullets in condor territory. Simon Bisson in Big Sur captured a great photo of an adult condor near Nepenthe.



Our descent down the Pinnacles was faster than our climb, the setting sun left us little time to dawdle. Gilda and I recounted our reactions to the event, speculated the chances of it happening again, and wished we had a zoom lens or the video footage of its approach. The red and orange Pinnacles were now an ashy grey, shutting off their splendor to rest for the night. We made it to the parking lot by dusk, eager to come back to the Pinnacles while our 7-day use pass was still valid.

Maybe we'll come next Saturday to see the caves. Who knows, maybe we'll have a close encounter with another magnificient flying creature: a bat!

1 comment:

Dzen said...

Great storytelling, Jeff (and Gilda)! I loved the video... what a remarkable experience in remarkable landscape. Just a wee bit jealous here in snow-covered, gray, flat (and also fabulous in its own way) Estonia... Thanks for sharing the journey.

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