Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

Unsightly scavengers worth seeing

EVERYONE WHO WORKS for a “fish and game” agency does so because they love wildlife/wild fishes, being in the wild and the interactions these two passions bring. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of working as a Sensitive Species Biologist is the variety. In some way, by default or choice, I find myself the local “expert” on all the birds and mammals (sometimes reptiles, amphibians and insects) that don’t usually get the attention attributed to game animals. In my mind, though, these lesser-known and under-appreciated species are of greater interest. The challenges of learning where and how they live, why they behave as they do and how we can best conserve them, are the driving force for my job.

My charges include over 200 species of birds and dozens of mammals. Many of the latter (such as pygmy rabbits, American pika and northern flying squirrels) are poster children for cuteness.

Most of our sensitive species can fit in your hand. One of these “sensitive” critters—and by far the largest of them—requires at least two people to handle: the California condor. Most people probably know this is the largest flying bird in North America (over 20 pounds with a 9.5-foot wingspan) and that it is one of the rarest birds in the world (only 414 total).

Not many would describe the condor as a very attractive bird—most of the species I manage are much more pleasing to the eye. But there is something intriguing about their orange and yellow heads, and you cannot fail but be impressed by their size.

Chris Parish of The Peregrine Fund snapped this close-up of a California condor in Phoenix.

California condors first came into Utah from releases in northern Arizona in 1996. My first view was at a release on the Arizona Strip in 1999. To be honest, it was not very inspiring. We were about a mile away the release cliff. The birds did not fly. All I saw were large, black objects hopping around on the rocks.

My next sighting, however, was quite different. It was on a family vacation. I decided to take my family past the Vermillion Cliffs and across Navajo Bridge (US 89A across the Kaibab Plateau) on the off chance we might see a condor. As we approached Navajo Bridge, I saw what looked like a small, single-engine airplane dive into Marble Canyon near the bridge. I wasn’t certain what I had seen—I was hoping it wasn’t a plane crash. When we started to walk across Navajo Bridge, my suspicions were confirmed. My family got their first close-up view of a California condor.

To date, I’ve seen condors at the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and around Kolob Reservoir. I never get tired of seeing them. Size is the first thing that’ll impress you, and the one thing that will stay with you afterward. The white-on-black coloring on the underside of the wing is noteworthy, too.

Condors’ natural curiosity and lack of fear of humans often allows for excellent viewing; however, these traits can also put people and condors in unsavory situations. Well-intentioned condor enthusiasts must be careful not to interfere with condor behavior. Several birds have had to be returned to captivity because they have become too familiar with people. Although condors haven’t ever harmed people, their beaks are strong enough to crack open bones.

An adult condor flies free at last year's condor viewing event.

Condor viewing is gaining popularity, and this weekend (July 14, 2012) my compatriots from the DWR, Zion National Park and The Peregrine Fund will be hosting The Day of the Condor viewing event near Kolob Reservoir. I will never forget the awe and excitement of seeing 17 condors soaring directly above the crowd at our first event in 2008. We had nearly as many accommodate us again the following year. Though we can’t guarantee so many birds this year, just to spend a morning on the Kolob Terrace looking across the glory of Zion National Park is enlightening. Please join us, if you can. You just might enjoy yourself. If you want to follow the condors from the comfort of your own home, check out the Peregrine Fund website. I hope to see you Saturday.