This summer I heard about a young woman involved in what must be one of the more exacting jobs around. At 5 in the morning she picks up a flashlight and, leaving a base camp in a canyon of the Santa Lucia Mountains, she works her way down a ridge, a half-hour hike, to a small hut-like structure built into the hill under an oak tree. There she will sit until 9 in the evening — a 15 1/2-hour hitch — peering through a one-way mirror about the size of a commercial airline window, taking painstaking notes for the sake of science.
What she looks out on is a large, nylon mesh-enclosed "flight pen" in which are perched seven birds: California condors, the largest flying bird in North America, up to 25 pounds in weight, with a wingspan of 9 to 10 feet, more than two feet wider than the golden eagle's.
I learned of the young woman from three officials of the Ventana Wilderness Society. I was in the Central Coast area in hopes of spotting a condor in the wild — surely one of the great sightings, because the bird, whose range once covered most of North America, is now so rare. Kelly Sorenson, the program's executive director; Joe Burnett, the condor field coordinator; and Sheila Foster, who is in communication and development, had picked me up at their headquarters to act as guides. Their account of the young woman's task evoked a low whistle of admiration. Though a bird-watcher myself, that kind of dedication was beyond comprehension. I made a note to talk to her about it later, hoping to hear that this entry-level ornithology is not just a tedious job to her.
With Joe at the wheel of a four-wheel-drive SUV, we drove into the hills, eventually bumping along a dirt road for over an hour. On the way, the biologists talked about the condor. It is not a handsome bird, the adults with orange-red heads, bare necks, jet-black plumage and a great hook of a beak to rip into carrion. One of the main reasons for its rapid decline (other than decades of egg-collecting, indiscriminate shooting and poisoning) was its measured domestic life — under good conditions, a pair raise only one chick every two years. By 1987, only 27 California condors were left.
Their only, and somewhat forlorn hope for survival was through a captive breeding effort. To this end, wildlife biologists captured the remaining birds and sent them to the San Diego Zoo, the Los Angeles Zoo and in later years the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. The parent birds and their offspring were kept in captivity until 1992, when biologists began to cautiously set them free. Today, there are 222 California condors, 85 in the wild.
Before their release, birds are kept in flight pens. We were headed for the Santa Lucia pen. It's there that the young woman (actually there are two who share the duties) spends more than 15 hours peering through a one-way mirror. "The one at the pen right now is Nora Toth," Kelly said. "She's Hungarian here on an exchange program."
"Is she into birds?" I asked.
"You'll have to ask her," Joe said.
The conversation went back to condors. They have no vocal cords. They grunt and hiss, and in response to a threat — say the approach of a coyote while they're feasting — they vomit. Kelly said that some authorities suggest that the vomiting is not to frighten off the coyote but to hope he'll eat the vomit, a dubious choice, rather than partaking of the carcass.
The social life of the condor is murderously slow. It isn't until age 6 or 7 that the condor feels the urge to find a mate, perhaps, Joe joked, because the sexes are indistinguishable. When they do mate (which they do for life), the two birds fly together as if exhilarated by each other's presence.
On an average day, the condors fly up and down the length of Big Sur into Southern California, about 150 miles altogether, on occasion at altitudes of 15,000 feet. To keep track, biologists attach tags, and in some cases radio transmitters, to the wing. I asked why they weren't attached to the birds' legs. Kelly explained that one of the condor's stranger habits is called urohydrosis — to cool off in the oppressive heat, the condor defecates and urinates down its legs.
"They can't pant like dogs, so that's what they do. The residue would build up on a leg band and the transmitter couldn't function."
Storks, he said, also practice urohydration, and to my surprise he said that condors were more related to storks than to raptors. "They have toenails rather than claws, which is why one never sees a condor carrying anything." For a nest, the condor scrapes an indentation in the rocks and soil in the cliff with its foot so the single egg won't fall out.
"Are they nesting in the wild?"
Kelly shook his head. "Very few. In California, one pair in 2001, three in 2002, one so far this year." In captivity the condors are tricked into doubling their birth rate; the biologists remove the first egg, settle it into an incubator, and the female is thus induced into laying a second. It takes six months for the hatched birds to fly, compared with the 11 days before the average warbler leaves the nest. The young are then put in pens (the kind Nora was monitoring) in the care of a "mentor" — an adult bird that instinctively acts as a foster parent to teach its charges proper condor conduct.
Sometimes they are wayward students. Upon release, No. 125 (the 125th condor identified since the capture of the wild birds in 1975) took to landing on patios, in campsites, on rooftops looking for handouts from humankind — bad behavior, indeed. No. 79 misbehaved at the Esalen Institute and another became so involved with what was going on at a posh Big Sur inn that the staff nicknamed him "Walter." In such cases, the biologists recapture the birds for remedial education that can last years. "They can behave like the boys in 'Lord of the Flies,' " Joe said. "They need to be regulated."
There are other problems. A condor's wingspan being almost 10 feet, one perched on a power line can, simply by touching a parallel line with a wingtip, get itself "arced" into a lifeless sack of feathers. On the training grounds, a six-volt electric wire has been installed that jolts the birds off every time they land, this in the hope they will avoid such landing spots when they take to the wild.
Joe finally brought the SUV to a stop and we stepped out, Kelly motioning me to keep quiet since we were within earshot of the flight pen. Joe hadn't taken more than a couple of steps when he brought up his binoculars and gave a soft whistle of surprise. "What luck," he said. "Condor."
The bird was perched on a post at a corner of the pen, as if it wished to rejoin its younger brethren within. Its tag, No. 242, was plainly visible on its shoulder. We were about 300 yards away. Nora, watching through the one-way mirror, was within a few feet. Sometimes the condor huffed its feathers, shifting slightly, head turning as if considering the best flight plan, and we brought up our binoculars to watch. Nothing. "We're on condor time," Joe said.
We watched for more than half an hour. It was as if we were checking on one of those wooden owls that people use to ward off pigeons. Then suddenly a second condor appeared — in flight, just beyond the pen, rising on an updraft in the valley, just a glimpse of its back before it dropped out of sight.
My viewing was brief — not more than three seconds — but the sight was exhilarating, the excitement of seeing a rare bird for the first time but also of seeing one which represented the effort of humans to restore a species so grievously brought to near-extinction.
We waited 15 more minutes. No luck. Joe looked back as we got into the SUV.
"Nora'll keep an eye on it for us," he said.
Her official title is condor-rearing specialist. "What I do is not boring," she said firmly when I finally talked to her by phone. "It is the best thing in the world. I see from so close many things that people never see, small things — that they close their eyes from down to up."
"Oh, yes," I said.
Nora said she was from eastern Hungary and in the United States for seven months on an agricultural exchange program. She had no idea she would end up staring at condors through a one-way mirror.
I asked if she'd always been interested in birds and to my relief she replied in the affirmative. "I am in the best place in the world," she said.
I asked her about the most exciting thing she'd seen. It was when the birds hopped down and took a bath in the little pool.
"Sometimes they go crazy, jump, turn around, and when they see a coyote, maybe, they puke "
"Yes, they vomit."
"And you write all this down?"
"Yes," she said. "In a little notebook." The very best part, she said, was to see the freed birds flying — a rare sight, but she'd seen it, the wild birds soaring overhead.
"Cool," she said. "Very cool."
"Absolutely," I said.