A Face Only a Mother Could Love…by Brad Marks

Welcome everyone. I have to apologize for being a bit out of pocket lately and probably going to be spotty for an unknown amount of time going forward. Linda’s oldest brother is not doing well and need to focus on helping her and the family where I can. In the meantime I am going to put you back in the very capable hands of Brad for this and likely a few others as we close out the month.

Take it away Brad!

When I was in middle school (summer 1977) my dad took my sister and I to see Yellowstone National Park and the American West.  He wanted us to experience the park as he did in the summer of 1960.  After driving from central Illinois for what seemed like weeks we arrived at Yellowstone.  He took us on a Readers’ Digest tour of the park, driving the whole loop in just one day.  We did get to see Old Faithful, the Paint Pots, lower Yellowstone Falls, and a bison or hundred.  But as night fell, we exited the East entrance for my great aunt’s house outside the park.  (BTW, after he passed, I found the slides he took while we were there in 1977 as well as those from his trip in the 1960.  Now I have photos of Yellowstone from 1960, 1977, and 2008.  While the park structures haven’t changed much, the car styles and photo quality sure have.)

Fast forward a bit to 2008, I thought it might be fun to take our family on a driving tour to see a few of the larger National Parks in the western United States.  Since they are so far apart, we wanted to see as many as time and patience allowed.  My daughter said “Dad, it’s just a bunch of rocks, do we have to spend so much time there?”  Being the parent, and rather enthusiastic about the parks I said “Of course we do, it will be educational!”  Instead of driving we flew to Salt Lake City where we rented a car and drove to Yellowstone to stay for three days.  When we were leaving Yellowstone, my daughter asked if we could stay a few more days.  I said “I thought you said it’s just rocks”.  She said “yeah, but these rocks are so cool!”  We drove 700 miles from the June snows of Yellowstone to the 100+ degree temps of Moab, UT for Canyonlands and Arches National Parks for a few days.  More cool rocks!  And the finale, not because of grandeur but mostly because of geography and our travel route, was two days at the Grand Canyon. 

Fast forward to Spring 2022.  When we were planning a visit to western Colorado with our daughter and her boyfriend, she asked if we can visit Arches National Park.  I said it’s just a bunch of rocks. But she then said “yes, but they are really cool rocks!”  Actually, it has been very fun and rewarding to watch her grow into a very cool adult. I could write a whole series of articles on that original six state 4,000-mile driving trip, but that’s a whole different story (maybe a future multi-part series here if Brian starts training for another 100k run).   This article is on one solitary creature; the largest living land bird in North America and some say so ugly it has a face only a mother could love.

California Condor by Brad Marks

Hit the jump to read more about Brad’s ug….hmmmm… let’s go with “inner beautiful” feature.

During the late twentieth century there were only twenty-seven California condors left in the wild.  In 1987 the last free-flying condors were taken into captivity to preserve their gene pool, effectively putting them on the “Extinct in the wild” list.

The current Grand Canyon population is proof of the successful effort to repopulate the species.  To get back to the “Critically Endangered” list or the “Not Nearly Extinct” (my term) list is a HUGE improvement.  There are only just over 500 adult California condors left in the world with about 340 flying in the wild.  I was lucky enough to capture photos of #10, #22, #33, and #87 on this trip.  There were a few others, but they were too far away to be able to read their wing tags from the photos.

California Condor by Brad Marks

California condors have a wingspan easily reaching 9 feet (nearly 3 meters) and each bird can weigh up to 25 pounds (12 kg).  Those giant wings allow condors to maintain a 15,000-foot (5,000 meters) cruising altitude with barely a flap.  Some say at a distance they have been mistaken for small planes.

Condors are mostly scavengers.  Since the California condor has no sense of smell, they need to rely on finding a meal by spotting other scavengers already circling or feasting.  With the exception of bears or golden eagles, condors rule the roost for carrion feasts.  Bears just ignore them, but a Golden Eagle will fight a condor for a meal.  In the wild a condor will eat ever couple of days with stretches of up to two weeks between meals.  They are opportunistic feeders (“Can we have your liver then?”) and therein lies part of their downfall.  Condors will help themselves to a kill from a human hunter.  Until very recently, lead poisoning (from eating animals taken down with lead shot) was a leading killer of condors in the wild.  Power lines, widespread use of DDT, and habitat destruction have also taken their share of condors in the past.

California Condor by Brad Marks

The Bright Angel Trail is part of a 24-mile hike, one direction, between the South Rim and the North Rim via the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  Once at the bottom near the Colorado River, you will hike back up 4,500 vertical feet to the South Rim or 6,000 up to the North Rim.  That is, after getting down to the bottom in the first place on foot or on a mule or rafting.  These photos were taken about half-mile along the Bright Angel Trail (no we didn’t hike the whole thing, just enough to capture these photos) and about 200 feet below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  We had stopped to admire the scenery when Jan pointed to this very large bird just “over there” (about 50 yards away).   It was a California condor sitting on top of a rock, sunning itself.  Since I was using my long lens, and the light was fading, I used my backpack as a rest for the camera and began to take photos. 

California Condor by Brad Marks

Jan then noticed some condors flying . . . how do I say this . . . below us.  I snapped a few more from the backpack and began hand holding the camera.  Now I have the camera with my longest lens all the way at 500mm, in dimming light, aiming down at a flying bird!  The condors were still at least 100 yards (or meters) out from us and another 100 yards or so below us.  The images aren’t quite as sharp as I would like.  Keep in mind the photos of the tops of the birds were taken a few hundred feet above them.  How often to you get take a photo of the TOP of a bird in flight with your feet firmly planted on the ground?  Hmmm!  Go ahead, think about it . . . I’ll wait.

California Condor by Brad Marks

California condors mate for life.  They start breeding when they are seven or eight years old.  A breeding pair usually produces a single egg every two years.  This single egg is the sole focus of both parents until it hatches up to 60 days later.  Even though fledglings can fly in about six months, many stay with their  parents into the second year of life.  These enormous birds have been estimated to live up to 60 years.

After noon on our second day, this bird was cruising the thermals rising from the canyon floor.  A perfect way to end the post, just floating on the wind.

California Condor by Brad Marks

While writing this post I tried to find these birds in the myriad tracking systems available online today.  At first, I had not been able to very much about these four, but did find they were still flying as of a list created in 2013.  After that the online trail stopped.  I sent a query to The Peregrine Fund about these four birds and here’s what I learned: 

“They were some of the very earliest birds released into the wild for the southwest population.  Condor #10 lived to be 13 years old and she produced three wild-hatched condors in her time.  Condors #33 and #87 were a pair and produced 3 offspring as well.  They lived to be 17 and 21 years of age, respectively. Condor #22 lived to be 20 years of age and was responsible for producing the 1st wild-hatched condor in the history of the recovery program, back in 2003.  Since then he went on to sire 3 additional wild fledges. All in all these 4 birds have contributed greatly to the recovery of the condor.” 

– from The Peregrine Fund

Credit to Jan for proof reading and editing along the way.

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