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At Pinnacles, looking in on a condor nursery

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I'd never accuse the good rangers at Pinnacles National Monument of pulling a bait-and-switch, but they did have to recently perform some serious family counseling in order to keep a condor couple's maternity plans on track.

That the couple, Condor 317, the female, and Condor 318, the male, are the first nesting condors in the park in 100 years was inspiration enough for some ranger sleight-of-hand, but the fact that there are fewer than 350 California condors in the world gave special urgency to ensuring a productive roost.

Pinnacles, wedged between U.S. Highway 25 and Highway 101 near Soledad, Calif., is an otherworldly place of jutting rock spires and twisted towers that looks as though it was wrenched from dinosaur times. "Wrenched" is fitting: The park's craggy upthrusts are the partial remains of an ancient volcano. It's a landscape in which a pterodactyl might choose to make its home, and thus a bird almost as rare (and with an impressive 10-foot wingspan) would feel cozy here too.

When it was discovered that 317 and 318 — let's call them Esme and Gilbert — were in a family way, the park was abuzz. The pair had chosen a narrow cleft in a charmingly inaccessible crag to place the fruits of their labors, but because the release program at Pinnacles attaches tracking devices to the big birds, radio telemetry enabled the rangers to pinpoint the nest placement.

The dire state of the species required the stripping away of romantic privacy: When both birds were out of the nest, National Park Service biologists rappelled down the cliff to check the egg's viability. The chick was not alive — remediation tactics were immediately engaged.

A ‘Trojan Egg'?

Those tactics included substituting a synthetic egg, mimicking the size, color and weight of the condor egg, for the parents to tend while the bad egg was replaced. Yes, a synthetic egg. NPS biologist Jess Auer says, "Condors have a very poor sense of smell and weren't able to discern it wasn't their egg." Suffice it to say, the birds lovingly tended their artificial charge until those resourceful rappellers replaced the odd egg with a viable egg from the San Diego Wild Animal Park's captive condor-breeding program. Good parents that they are, Esme and Gilbert shared in the egg's incubation, and a new condor chick came into this world in late March, just a few days after the onset of spring.

The two days my sweetheart, Alice, and I spent chasing condors in the Pinnacles were ordered from a four-star menu of the outdoors. I've hiked in the park many times and have never seen it as lush. Great sprays of poppies, lupines, Indian paintbrush, shooting stars and all sorts of jewel-like wildflowers — more than 100 species — adorn the trails this time of year.

The viewing point for the condor nest is off the Juniper Canyon / High Peaks Trail, which from the park's west entrance is a trek with a 1,200-foot elevation gain over its 4.3-mile route. But the hike is well worth it, because you will be treated to a succession of vistas of those beguiling rock outcrops and monoliths. And the star nestling will be there for a while: A condor chick requires 30 days of constant nest sitting by its parents to regulate its temperature; both parents alternate the chick-warming chore. It will take up to six months for the fledgling to take to the air, and more than a full year of tutelage at the wings of Esme and Gilbert before the chick is fully integrated into the park's flock.

Pinnacles has a merry menu of hikes long and short. Having summited to the condor condo on our first hiking day, we on the next returned for a jaunt on the less populated North Wilderness Trail, which has a more gradual ascent past moss-draped oaks and flowery meadows. We went only a few miles, but if you go farther, it curves back into one of the cave-passage (bring a flashlight!) trails for a nice nine-mile loop.

Soaking in style

Hiking can take its toll on your haunches, but the Inn at the Pinnacles, a lovely bed-and-breakfast just a few miles from the park, was the remedy because several of its six suites have large spa tubs for soaking away pain. The approach to the inn takes you past hills covered with vines — most of them plantings by the inn's co-owner, Jon Brosseau, who hosts each evening's wine and cheese sampling, often offering vintages from his own vineyard.

Jon and Jan Brosseau also set a mighty table for breakfast, with croissant French toast leading the charge the first morning and a savory egg soufflé the next.

Alice and I traveled about 25 minutes down the winding road to Soledad one evening for dinner, deciding on Frankie's Grill, where I had tasty tilapia tacos with a nice smoky flavor. The atmosphere was a tad funky, but the food was fine and the price was right.

It's great to see a creature at the apex of the endangered species list making a go of it. We hope this chick thrives, and that its parents, who will take a breeding year off to care for it, will try for a little brother or sister the next round. A surreal place like Pinnacles might not seem to be the most hospitable nursery, but for a condor, it's a bit of heaven. And not too bad for a hiker either.

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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