Condors again

I woke later than usual and strolled down to the Navajo Bridge to see what time California Condors get up.  #54 was still sitting on his or her metal girder and his or her companion resolved himself or herself to be #73.  They looked quite perky together but the world was still ignoring them so I strolled off to have breakfast.

Over a breakfast of cream cheese bagel, V8 juice (tastes like tomato juice but has lots more healthy things in it) and coffee I wondered why Marble Canyon wasn’t making more of its Condors.  If I hadn’t had a clue that they were here then I would have met nothing in Marble Canyon which alerted me to the presence and visibility of one of the world’s rarest birds. Even on the Navajo Bridge itself there are several interpretation boards but none of them mentions Condors.

So I drove back down to the Bridge and was disappointed but not very surprised to see that #54 and #73 were missing.  But then I realised that they were only missing from their spot on the Bridge, they were actually sitting on the cliff opposite – and still the world ignored them.

As I looked, a young man with the words “Peregrine Fund – Condor Project’ walked by and I engaged him in conversation.  Eric Weis, handed me a small Condor leaflet and started to explain why he had been throwing stones near a critically endangered bird species which has all sorts of legal protection.  I wish I had seen that.

Eric’s leaflet and talk told me a lot more about Condors.  Apparently there are now over 350 of them in the wild, they live for up to 60 years and lead poisoning is one of the main threats to them.

I know a bit about the lead poisoning story and was able to do a bit of name-dropping that convinced Eric to stop and talk some more – even though it was his day off and he was doing his stone-throwing through love.

I told Eric that the late Bill Burnham, the former boss of the Peregrine Fund, had once shown me, at the RSPB Headquarters at Sandy, an X-ray of a deer carcass, shot with a lead bullet, with many tiny fragments of lead distributed widely through the muscles and organs of the deer.  These tiny fragments can then be eaten by scavenging mammals and birds (like Condors) or by humans if the meat goes into the human food chain.

Eric told me about progress and difficulties of solving this problem for Condors in their range and we swapped anecdotes about the situation on either side of the Atlantic.

And Eric told me about his stone-throwing.  Apparently, #54 with whom I had had my nocturnal tryst the other night, is a ‘bad’ female Condor and Eric and others are concerned that she might be leading astray other Condors, so she must be discouraged from being bad!

Condor conservationists are worried about too many Condors getting too tame, sitting around on bridges, visiting car parks, getting too friendly with humans and becoming reliant on people for food.  This could lead to problems if Condors start taking food from people – and this does happen – in a similar way to the previous problems with bears in National Parks when they became tame enough to feed.

Nobody wants Condors to be taking hot-dogs from children – particularly if it leads to children being bitten.  And there are still ranchers who are not Condor-friendly because they, wrongly, believe that these large carrion-eaters kill cattle so tame Condors are more likely to end up as dead Condors than ‘wild’ Condors.

So female #54 is a ‘bad’ Condor as she is taking a walk on the unwild side – and particularly if she leads others astray by example.  She already seems to be having an unfortunate impact on male #73 – such is the way of the world! And, so, even on his day off Eric has to throw the odd stone out of love.

Midway through our conversation, Eric and I had been joined by a lady who had overheard some of what was said and was clearly interested.  As I wished Eric goodbye and thanked him Lee-Anne and I got talking about Condors.

Lee-Anne was well wrapped up against the sun and looked to me to be a bit older than me but our subsequent conversation indicated she might be a bit younger so I apologise for my initial misdiagnosis.

She had arrived in Marble Canyon, by plane, yesterday evening and was going on a white-water raft trip down the Grand Canyon tomorrow.  She was from Maryland and was interested in birds too.

We talked about Condors and we swapped experiences about travelling alone and then I drove her the short trip down to Lee’s Ferry where her aquatic adventure would start tomorrow.  Lee’s Ferry was one of the few crossing points of the Colorado River when wagon trains and horseback riders were travelling these parts and is an important historical landmark still.

The short drive through the Arizona desert country, past big red cliffs and ancient boulders was striking and when we came to Lee’s Ferry there were yellow and blue inflatables setting forth packed with supplies for their journeys and slightly nervous looking passengers. I noticed some of the men talked a lot – bravado I reckon.

Lee’s Ferry itself had very calm water but only a little downstream we could see the water running faster and getting rougher.  Lee-Anne told me that she had given up ‘the addiction to the corporate dollar’ back in December and this raft trip was her equivalent of my trip across America.

Good luck! to her and I’ll be thinking of her over the next couple of weeks as she makes her way the 200 miles down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon itself, as 22,000 people a year do.  We parted back at Marble Canyon for Lee-Anne to do some painting and me to follow Eric’s directions to see some more Condors.

Down (or up – I’m not telling) the road, a few (or many – I’m not telling) miles I came to the Condor release area and saw the cliffs with their white-spattered Condor roosting sites.  Up to four Condors were in the air at any one time making the Ravens look tiny in comparison.  I stayed a while to watch the distant birds and then, before crossing the new Navajo Bridge to leave Marble Canyon I called into the Chevron garage to see whether John could sell me gas today and another ice cream.

John was in good form – perhaps because the gas had indeed come – and he seemed eager to talk to a Brit.  I learned he taught drama in the winter, was a Texan, did this garage thing as a summer job, was a fan of Oscar Wilde and had, no surprises here, been a big fan of Elton John back in the 70s.

I bought gas, an ice-cream and thanked John for pointing me towards the Condors when I arrived yesterday.  As I left, before crossing the river, I slowed to wish Lee-Anne a final safe journey on her adventure as I set off on the last few days of mine.

I hadn’t known I was going to Marble Canyon until the day I did, and I hadn’t known I would see a Condor until the moment I did.  I certainly didn’t know that this small place would serve up  a list of characters as rich as John, Big Sally, Eric and Lee-Anne.  Nor did I know that I would meet and spend part of the night with #54 who was a ‘bad’ lady who might lead others astray.

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6 Replies to “Condors again”

  1. Mark,
    Your blogs are a superb insight in to small town or wild open America, rich with character and characters and descriptions that could easily persuade many of us to revisit some of the places you’ve been to. They’ve provided an evocative start to many of my work days. I hope that some Americans are reading them too, and realising what a wonderfully diverse country they have. Have the people you met appreciate what they have; not just those living in Marble Creek, but elsewhere in small town America, off the beaten track? I too share your disbelief that in a town with condors sitting on a bridge, their is nothing to mark their presence, to extoll their being.

    I really think you should collate all these blogs and write a book…

    Enjoy your last few weeks/ days and look forward to reading more. Are you intending to visit another continent and ‘start again’? Australia would be an interesting comparison perhaps?!

    Happy travelling


    1. Richard – those are very kind comments thank you. Australia – now there’s an idea…

  2. If you have time in Califirnia, can I recommend a trip to Mono Lake just outside Yosemite? You’ll drive past a series of funny looking hills, until you realise that they are (hopefully extinct) volcanoes, and then you get to the lake itself. Overabstraction has lowered the levels to the extent that the fumaroles are now exposed and the most incredible rock formations are just sitting out there in the middle of what is left of the lake. There are also lots of small brown birds and lots of lizards that were being pounced on by hawks when I was there a couple of years ago.

    1. Thank you Judith – think I have now gone the ‘wrong’ way for that as I am further South – but you never know. Thank you for the tips and the comments

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