Residents keeping an eye on the sky along the coastline and in the hills north of Cambria might be treated to the extraordinary sight of a gigantic California condor or two.
When lead condor biologist Joe Burnett announced last spring that seven juvenile condors would be released high in the hills above San Simeon, a jolt of excitement and anticipation surged through wildlife-minded citizens in Cambria and the county.
Burnett’s pledge has come to fruition. As of Nov. 11, all seven juvenile condors — North America’s largest land birds, with 9½-foot wingspans — have been released and are flying free in and around the North Coast hills and coastline, according to Ventana Wildlife Society Executive Director Kelly Sorenson.
The first of the seven condors was released from its fly pen Sept. 23, and that very day an adult condor from Big Sur paid a visit “hours after the pen doors were open,” Sorenson said. Biologists received another “exciting and positive sign” via GPS — attached to each bird — which revealed that a San Simeon condor made a “successful round trip to the Big Sur release site,” Sorenson said.
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As of early December, nine older condors from Big Sur and Pinnacles have flown down to visit with the seven juveniles (whose heads remain black; they won’t turn the pink-red-orange shade until they reach adulthood).
The Big Sur condors are known to have flown through the San Simeon area since the early 2000s. Sorenson said condors are being brought to San Luis Obispo County to “speed up this process of condors utilizing their entire range.”
Biologists hope the condors will nest in the San Simeon area wilderness, and with a core group of seven birds that will reach breeding age in three years, there is the real possibility that chicks will be hatching here in the near future.
The seven birds — referred to as “The Magnificent Seven” — are assured of a healthy, clean, lead-free food sources because VWS places stillborn calf carcasses nearby. In time, it is expected that they will discover carcasses from elephant seals and other marine mammals that wash up on North Coast shores.
The older condors in Big Sur have been feasting on the carcasses of sea lions, which, along with whale and other marine mammal carcasses, historically offered the main source of food for these ancient birds. Condors don’t kill their food; they feast on carrion.
Burnett said, “It’s a scary time for a young condor and for us as their caretakers when they are first released,” because wildlife managers cannot be certain how the birds will respond. In fact, these seven birds were raised in isolation at the Los Angeles Zoo and have been kept in fly pens in Big Sur and in the hills above San Simeon; hence their release is their first outing into the wild.
“We’ve been pushing for this (expansion of Condor territory) for seven years,” Burnett told an audience of about 70 people at the Rabobank meeting room in May. “They may come down the coast and land in big trees … they may be seen in Cambria and San Simeon; we don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Dr. Francis Villablanca, professor of biological sciences at Cal Poly, was a participant in the biological field work in the early 1980s that determined just 22 condors remained the wild. He has also been intimately involved in training and placing Cal Poly biology students as interns at Hi Mountain Lookout above Pozo.
“And with the knowledge of that number of birds in the 1980s, everybody including Fish and Wildlife service, Audubon, all the folks involved, decided to pull all the remaining birds into captivity.” In 1997, condors raised in the captive breeding program began being released into the Ventana Wilderness, Pinnacles and Hopper Mountain in Ventura County.
Today, including the seven released in San Luis Obispo County this fall, about 80 birds are flying free in the three mentioned locations. In all, more than 400 birds fly free in several locations in the western U.S and Baja.
These condors make the vultures and eagles look like sparrows.
Shirley Bianchi, former SLO County supervisor
Asked for his response to the recent release, Villablanca said it is a “huge, huge, huge success story to have condors back in the wild, but to also have a population established in San Luis Obispo County. It’s awesome,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s one of those things you dream of coming to reality. It’s just fantastic.
“It brings an incredible sense of group accomplishment, and a big sigh of relief.”
Dave Clendenen, an instructor in the Biological Sciences Department at Cal Poly, was also involved in the research that led to the decision to place the last 22 Condors in captivity. “That’s absolutely wonderful,” Clendenen said, when reached by phone. “This is an important step. The birds belong here. San Luis Obispo County is an important part of the historic range of the condors.
“It was a difficult debate back then, it was very emotional and a lot of people felt strongly” that the birds should be left to their inevitable fate, extinction, he recalled. “It took a while to talk it out, but I was definitely a proponent of the captive breeding program.”
Former North Coast county Supervisor Shirley Bianchi and her husband, Bill, who live several miles up San Simeon Creek Road, saw one of the seven recently released juvenile condors glide past their house. “It’s amazing when you see one,” Shirley said. “The vultures and eagles are not small birds, but these condors make the vultures and eagles look like sparrows.”
Sorenson provided the seven birds’ names and numbers: Wilbur (696), Poseidon (697), Hades (703), Icarus (706), Big Gulp (717), Orville (716) and Apollo (718).
Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s column appears biweekly and is special to The Cambrian. Email him at john fitz44 @gmail .com.
How to report a condor sighting
In a media release on Dec. 11, Ventana Wildlife Society Executive Director Kelly Sorenson emphasized it’s important that citizens report sightings. Though all seven condors in San Luis Obispo County have GPS tracking technologies, “we don’t get the (GPS) information right away, nor does it tell us what is going on with the bird or what’s going on around it.”
Occasionally, VWS receives a sighting report that leads to the discovery that a bird has gone missing, or its GPS system wasn’t working properly. Citizens should report sightings at www.mycondor.org, and they can identify the birds with their wing tag numbers.
Additional information on the Condor Recovery Program or on the opportunity to receive free copper ammunition (using lead ammunition is illegal in condor range) is available by visiting www.ventanaws.org.