Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, November 11, 2019

Okay, Boomer

Blue-winged Teal

Today is my birthday. Usually in anticipation of a new age, I like to focus on cool elements of the number itself. For example, 67 is a prime number, so last year I could say I was in my prime, but now, at 68, I won’t be able to say that again until I turn 71. Meanwhile, 68 is the largest known number to be the sum of exactly two primes in exactly two different ways: it's the sum of both  7 + 61 and 31 + 37. All higher numbers that have been checked are the sum of three or more pairs of primes.

To please my sense of whimsy, 68 is called a “happy number,” which means that if you repeatedly square its digits and add them up, you eventually get 1. That is, when you square and add the digits of 68 (6² + 8² = 36 + 64) you get 100; squaring those digits and adding them up you get  1² + 0² + 0²,  which equals 1. It would be nice to think that means that this year will be a happy one.

Looking at 68 in a less numerical way, in the restaurant industry, 68 is sometimes used as a code meaning to put something on the menu; that's the opposite of 86-ing something, which means to take it off the menu.

Blue-winged Teal

The 68th bird on my lifelist was a lovely little duck, the Blue-winged Teal. I saw my first when I was taking my first ornithology class the summer I started birding. That ornithology class has been the source of my annual birthday birds ever since I turned 41, a trend that will continue for the rest of my life unless I beat my family's genetic odds and manage to reach 91.

I was born in 1951, at the peak of the Baby Boom era, and it’s amusing and weird to be turning 68 at the exact moment when “Okay, boomer” is peaking as a meme meant to somehow shame us old people in a new and trendy way simply for being our age.

The reason “Okay, boomer” went viral last week was that the New Zealand Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick was giving a speech in favor of stricter carbon emissions standards when she was rudely interrupted by a representative of the National Party, which refuses to acknowledge the damage climate change is already doing, much less the catastrophic damage it will continue to do, exacerbated specifically because so many people in power in New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere have for so long ignored science. Swarbrick was in the middle of her speech and justifiably wanted a quick way to shut him up so she could finish. I just wish there was a clever word summing up people who deny science and twist information to promote short-sighted, selfish goals rather than one that insults a whole generation.

In the years when Russ and I were twenty-something students, we lived in several apartments and always took painstaking care to leave each one cleaner and in better shape when we moved out than it was when we moved in. That seemed a simple matter of right and wrong—the Golden Rule. It's a rule that people of all ages follow, but also a rule that people of all ages violate. People our exact age left some of our new apartments a horrible mess for us.

Blue Jay

Following the Golden Rule to ensure that our air, water, and land are clean for future generations, and protecting our natural resources for the future, would seem to be no-brainers. I’ve always talked about how Blue Jays planted oak forests after glaciation—collecting and burying fertile acorns wherever melting glaciers gave them an opening. The jays may not have thought this through—they simply cache away food stores that they themselves might want. So their providing for future generations may have been done without thought—a literal no-brainer. 

Arguably, we humans have more brain power than birds, but some used those brains to fight tooth and nail against the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts back in the 1970s and to weaken them since their passage. Propaganda campaigns to make people think that climate change is controversial among scientists are promoted by the same energy companies that are gearing up to take advantage as polar ice melts. Selling advertising to them is how millennial Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire. In a world where profit trumps everything, intelligence at any age is not all it’s cracked up to be.

When Greta Thunberg did her big tour, the photos that most moved me depicted the 16-year-old girl and 84-year-old Jane Goodall together. These two people so far apart in age are both dedicating their lives to making this planet better for the future. Is Thunberg doing it for the selfish reason that she herself will be living well into that future? Is Goodall's concern about the future somehow more selfless because she doesn't have more than a decade or two left in her own life? Nope. Both of these people are following the Golden Rule, treating the planet, its creatures, and future people as they'd like to be treated, and going so much above and beyond the call of duty makes them both heroes. Which generation they each belong to is irrelevant.

Dividing people into arbitrary age categories fosters distrust and squanders our energy as we look for scapegoats rather than for real-world solutions. As species disappear, oceans rise, and pollution grows apace, we must resist this divide-and-conquer strategy and start planting our acorns together, as Blue Jays do. It's a no-brainer.

Blue Jay

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Chickadee Love

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms

Last week I spoke to the Hampshire Bird Club in Amherst, Massachusetts, about how birds survive winter. I manage to work chickadees into just about every talk, and in this case I told about how chickadees know how to manipulate their environment, including the people in their winter territories, to maximize food availability. Whenever one chickadee flock arrived in my yard, one particular chickadee always tapped on my window to catch my attention to give the flock mealworms. Yep, a chickadee had trained me to do its bidding. A couple of days later, I received a lovely email from Phyllis Berman, who wrote:
We used to have several feeders out year-round.  Our favorite residents were the chickadees.  We were fascinated by their behavior and tameness.  As with you, our chickadee “spokesbird” would not hesitate to let us know when the feeders needed more seed.  He or she would flutter at our glass slider and tap to get our attention...so cute!  We became well trained. 
One pair made a nest in a birdhouse close to our back door leading out to our deck, far enough to not be intrusive but close enough to observe. Success!   
But then there was trouble—a pesky squirrel tried to reach into the birdhouse, most likely to make a meal of eggs or young baby birds.  Mom and dad chickadee fluttered and screamed so loudly that I heard from inside the house. I rushed out and chased the squirrel away. It happened again a few hours later and I saved the day again. You know squirrels...several more tries, but eventually it gave up, taking a long hissy fit in another tree. By the last time the squirrel attacked, mom and dad chickadee were not hovering over the bad guy, but rather hovering and screaming at the door they knew I would rush out of.  I became well trained to their distress calls.   
This rescue operation went on all weekend. I couldn't leave the house—the birdy family was counting on me. So I changed my plans and sent my husband out for errands and chores. He and I both had full time jobs during the week, so weekends were always busy, but now I had another job—keep the birds safe.   
But then Monday came. I dreaded abandoning the chickadees so much that I talked myself into taking a sick day so I could keep guard. On Tuesday, I called in sick again.  By Wednesday, I had to face my responsibilities, especially the ones that actually helped us pay for the birdseed. I went to work, a 10-minute drive away.   
But instead of concentrating on my job, I kept picturing mom and dad Chickadee screaming at my door for me, counting on me—desperate for me.  I was letting them down, and they were going to HATE me. So, after less than ½ hour at work, I said I was still feeling ill (and I really was—with worry), and I went home. That darn squirrel attacked all day. When the call rang out, I came to the rescue. But I was falling behind, and on Thursday, I HAD to go to work, for short interims anyway. I can't remember all the 10-minute-drives back and forth, but there were a lot.  I took a LONG lunchtime, on my deck so the squirrel could see that I was there. Friday went the same as Thursday.   
By the time the weekend rolled around again, I was a wreck! I could guard the birds all weekend, but Monday would come around again. I had to work this out, and when I thought to ask my husband to shoot the squirrel, I had to stop and reevaluate my place in the whole scheme of things. I am NOT Mother Nature. I can’t be responsible for wildlife to the extent of choosing who lives and who dies. I was deeply disappointed that I could not be a hero to the chickadees I had come to love.   
But there’s a happy ending. We soon observed 2 fledglings with the mom and dad. Perhaps there had been potentially more, but I'm in a place that I can deal with it. I was glad to be part of it. There were more chickadee babies to be born on our property, along with the House Wren families on my front porch, the Robins on the back of the basketball hoop, and other birds that are common, but very dear to me. It was SO NICE to hear from someone who obviously feels the same way.
Black-capped Chickadee



Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Sam Cook's Romantic Ravens and a New Study about the Evolutionary Importance of Male Investment in a Pair

Sam Cook's photograph in the Duluth News-Tribume

Evolutionary biologists have long been trapped in a mindset that because males produce millions of sperm at a relatively low physiological cost, males have a vested interest in inseminating as many females as possible, and that fidelity and lasting bonds between two birds are more an evolutionary accident that benefits females than an important way that helps males as well as females produce more offspring. But those species that show fidelity and lasting pair bonds are products of evolution, too.

Yesterday, my friend Sam Cook wrote a wonderful column in the Duluth-News Tribune about his encounter with a pair of ravens. Sam and his wife Phyllis were traveling through the Canadian Rockies when they took a break at a rest stop, and two ravens approached very close. Those of us living up here know how much distance ravens like to keep from us, so I’m always surprised when I go out West and see how savvy ravens understand the value of approaching humans in specific situations, often involving dumpsters. Sam wrote:
The two birds foraged independently for some time before returning to perch on the edge of the dumpster. They sat so close together their bodies must have been touching. They seemed to be taking a break. 
That’s when the cool stuff started to happen. One of the birds would tilt its head forward and down, until its beak was almost touching its feet. And the other, perhaps sensing a request, began pecking among its partner’s head feathers. It appeared to be plucking tiny bits of something from among the feathers. Tiny insects? Dirt? Potato chip bits? It was impossible to know.
Sam quoted me and Sparky Stensaas—we’d both “attributed the interaction between the ravens to pair-bonding activity — little acts that cement a relationship between two birds.”

Meanwhile, in a lovely bit of serendipity, yesterday the University of Chicago posted a story about a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by biologists at the University of Chicago and the University of North Carolina, explaining how male investment in sexual cooperation and bonding evolves.

The article didn’t involve mutual preening between attached birds, but cited the curious case of Zebra Finch plumage. During the 1980s, a scientist named Nancy Burley showed that placing red color bands on a male zebra finch’s legs results in his mate working harder for the brood, and consequently raising more of their young. This isn’t at all related to romantic ravens, or is it? The University of Chicago article yesterday said:
Zebra finches have red beaks already; Perhaps the more of the color red on display, the greater the excitement because it elevates the female’s hormone levels. But while the appearance of the flashy display that stimulates females may be good for the male (he has more offspring), it is likely bad for the female to invest more (she has to work harder, affecting her chances of successfully raising more offspring in the future).   
Using a mathematical population genetic model, [University of Chicago biologist Trevor Price, Ph.D.], Maria Servedio, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina, and their colleagues show how these scenarios could play out to the species’ advantage by weighing the costs of their investment with the number of hatchlings they can raise over many generations. 
For example, say the females of a species usually lay three eggs and their partner helps them to raise the young, but a male with increased blue coloration causes his mate to lay four eggs. The blue males have more offspring than duller males, so blue males become increasingly common over generations. 
However, raising the extra young comes at a great cost to the females, so a female who lays only three eggs has an advantage over one laying four, and these females become increasingly common. At the end of this process, all males are blue and all females lay three eggs. But now, if the male does not create a display, females would only lay two eggs, which is not good for either one of them.
European Goldfinch

Price, the senior author, was quoted talking about trapping a female European Goldfinch to band her, and while she was trapped and he was carrying her to the banding station, her mate followed, calling. “He waited impatiently in a nearby tree as I banded the female, and when I released her the pair flew off together in close company, twittering. This kind of thing happens in many other species, too, so forming a strong pair bond and emotional attachments between a male and female is evidently not only a feature of humans.”

Sam Cook virtually always ends his columns with a cool last line, and this piece was no exception. He wrote about his ravens:
When the grooming and pecking and plucking was apparently finished, the pluckee turned to face its partner. In a fleeting movement, the two birds opened their mouths and appeared to briefly clasp each other’s beaks. The moment was over almost before it began. 
You can make of it what you want. Perhaps that, too, is common behavior between raven partners. 
“Thanks for the preening, hon.” 
“Anytime, babe.” 
I’m no ornithologist, but I think I recognize a good relationship when I see one. I just didn’t think I’d see it atop a dumpster along the Icefields Parkway.
Sam may not be an ornithologist, but he’s way ahead of ornithologists who enter a discussion of evolution with a bias about male promiscuity being the way males reproduce their genes. You don’t have to look far in nature to know that’s not true for every species. Thinking that aggression or male promiscuity are essential strategies for "survival of the fittest" are ideas that belong in a dumpster.

Common Raven

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Humanity of Scrub Jays

California Scrub-Jay

I saw my very first California Scrub-Jay in May 1994, when my publisher sent me to an American Booksellers Association meeting in Los Angeles. I had a morning off, so headed to Griffith Park. I wasn’t even thinking of birds when I got my binoculars focused on a little lizard sunning in a patch of dirt, close enough that the tiny creature filled the entire view in my 10x binoculars. I was charmed, thinking how exciting it was visiting a place where such things were daily sightings, when suddenly a black triangle snapped right into the middle of the little guy. His eyes bugged out, his little legs and tongue splayed out, and that was that. I had to lower the binoculars to see what had happened—a scrub jay had grabbed the adorable lizard in its beak. This happened long before I was photographing birds, but my treasured friend Seth Bond Perry illustrated this reenactment:







I’m the kind of person who sympathizes with the eaten more than the eaters of the world, but the jay wasn’t thinking about existential questions regarding universal justice. And his sparkling eyes looking up into mine didn’t seem challenging or taunting—he simply wanted lunch.

I'd bought a sandwich on my way to Griffith Park, and when I sat down on a bench to eat it, a homeless man sat up from under some newspapers on a nearby bench, so I naturally gave him half. Voraciously, he started to scarf it down, but then a scrub jay hopped in, and that poor hungry man looked at the little bird and broke off a generous chunk of the sandwich to share. This is the world I love living in—where we look out for each other and all share what we have with our fellow creatures. My fondness for scrub jays is entwined with that encounter.

California Scrub-Jay

Scrub jays are among the most human of birds in terms of combining intelligence with complex social systems. We’ve learned that scrub jay individuals who are unusually sneaky and dishonest—the ones who steal food out of other scrub jay caches—are unusually suspicious, too, apparently expecting other scrub jays to be equally sneaky and dishonest. If that isn't human, what is?

We also know that when a scrub jay dies, other scrub jays join in a ritual very like a human funeral. Jennifer Ackerman, in her wonderful book, The Genius of Birds, with a gorgeous cover illustration of a scrub jay, talks about researchers at the University of California, Davis, who set a dead scrub jay in a residential neighborhood. The first scrub jay to find it made a bloodcurdling alarm call and other jays immediately flew in, the gathering getting bigger and noisier for a half hour. When the birds finally dispersed, they avoided feeding near the dead jay for a day or two.



Ackerman quoted one of my own blog entries when I wrote about watching Blue Jays at Hawk Ridge after a hawk nabbed a jay—the other jays reminded me of the Irish wake after my father, a Chicago firefighter, died. I'd written:
At the funeral home on the two nights of the wake, [my uncle], also a Chicago firefighter, met every new firefighter at the door. They’d walk up to the casket, my uncle sobbing, them talking about how good [my dad] looked except for being dead, sometimes also talking about how they should spend more time in the gym or going on a diet or something, the subtext being that they wanted to avoid the same fate. Then they’d head to the bar next door, getting back in time for my uncle to greet the next firefighter to arrive. 
Hawk Ridge isn’t conveniently situated next to a bar as Chicago funeral homes all seem to be, but otherwise the jays’ behavior after one was killed always made me think of my dad’s wake. Those jay gatherings often lasted for over an hour, and if other jays were coming through while the first flock was still squawking, the new jays would join in. It’s impossible for a species with our limitations to know what their widely varied chatter and squawking meant. Were the birds feeling sorrow, anxiety, fear, or outrage? If they could calm their nerves with a good stiff drink at an Irish bar, would they? We may not understand bird language yet, but I can’t imagine that jays of all kinds don’t share a lot more in common with us humans than most people think.
I'm endlessly thrilled that Jennifer Ackerman actually read my blog and quoted from it in her book, thanks to jays.

Our humanity is a tricky subject to wrap our fragile human heads and egos around. We tend to have the kind of arrogance that makes us want—even need—to believe that some wonderful thing defines us as human, setting us apart and making us essentially better than our fellow creatures. Yet any scientist who understands evolution must realize that the idea that we could be any more than incrementally different from other species is not based on science—that's where religion and non-scientific philosophy enter the scene. I was taught in Catholic school that evolution is indeed the way life on earth, including us humans, came to be. We Catholics believed that God created the system, and that at one point He stepped in and breathed into us humans a soul. But even that got murky when we started learning about St. Francis of Assisi, because our science teacher, a nun, seemed to agree with Francis that of course wolves and dogs have souls, too.

I've spent too much time in the company of dogs, cats, even gerbils, and a variety of birds to have any doubt that souls are abundant, and not restricted to humans, on this planet. What is a soul? That question is too big for me. All I know for certain is that when my eyes meet those of a jay, I see an individual being, an equal, who deserves to be reckoned with and respected.


California Scrub-Jay

California Scrub-Jay

California Scrub-Jay

Laura and a California Scrub-Jay
Russ took this photo of me with this scrub jay. I had taken a bunch of photos (including two of the ones above), but now was just enjoying being with him or her. It was cool how s/he was paying attention to me, too, and actually approaching me, though what was going on in that mind I'll never know. 

What Are Scrub Jays?

California Scrub-Jay

When I started birding in 1975, there was a wonderful bird species called simply the "Scrub Jay."  My Peterson field guide, which covered only the eastern half of the continent, called it just the "Scrub Jay;” in the text, the second edition said it was the Florida race of the Scrub Jay.

Scrub Jay art, Peterson guide

Both my original Golden Guide and the second edition, published in 1983, covered the whole continent, and both editions called it the Scrub Jay, the range map showing it both in Florida and in the West.

Scrub Jay art, Golden Guide

The National Geographic Field Guide, first published in 1983, showed the species as Scrub Jay, but included illustrations of three different plumage types, for "Florida," “interior,” and “west coast.”

Scrub Jay artwork, National Geographic field guide, 1st  Edition

National Geographic reused that same plate in the second edition, too, but by the third edition, published in 1999, the guide showed three different species of scrub jays and more. The Florida Scrub-Jay (found only in Florida) and the Island Scrub-Jay (found only on Santa Cruz Island in California’s Channel Islands) were straightforward. But that edition showed two different plumages for the Western Scrub-Jay, and now gave them subspecies names, too: interior, or woodhouseii, and coastal, or californica.

Scrub Jay artwork, National Geographic field guide, 3rd  Edition

That page stayed the same in the fourth and fifth editions, but by the sixth edition, it gave detailed plumage descriptions of the coastal and three different types of interior Western Scrub-Jays, illustrating the Texas Hill Country type, texana, separately from the nevadae subspecies and noting that the woodhouseii subspecies was similar to nevadae.

Scrub Jay artwork, National Geographic field guide, 6th Edition

When the seventh edition came out, the California Scrub-Jay, which had previously been called the "coastal form," had been split as a separate species. Now the three interior subspecies form a new species called the Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay. This newest edition of the National Geographic guide is still showing two types, the nevadae type which it says is pale like the woodhouseii subspecies, and the texana form found in Texas Hill Country.

Scrub Jay artwork, National Geographic field guide, 7th Edition

Perhaps by the time the next edition comes out, we’ll have added the Nevada (which I've seen in Arizona and Colorado, too) Scrub-Jay and/or the Texas Scrub-Jay. All that from what was once just the plain old Scrub Jay.


Some of My Experiences with Scrub Jays

I saw my lifer Florida Scrub-Jay, which was exactly #600 on my life list, with my whole family in Lake Kissimmee State Park in April 1999. There was a family of jays as well as Ericksons, and one of them even dropped down to check out our family mascot, a plush pink puppet named Piggy. 

When my godfather died the next year, he wanted his ashes scattered at the lake where he'd retired in Florida, so I spent a few days with my aunt there in February 2001. Every morning, she would join with some of her "lady friends" on a neighborhood walk to "feed the birds," and naturally invited me along. I was shocked to discover that the birds they were feeding were neighborhood Florida Scrub-Jays. I'd never photographed birds before that, but got some really good photos. Tragically, those photos disappeared on a bad hard drive, teaching me the hard way to back up my data—I only have one low-resolution photo from the set.


Over the years, most of the times when our family visited Florida, we've made trips to Lake Kissimmee State Park or to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. When we first started going there, it was okay to bring peanuts to feed the jays, and my kids got an enormous kick out of that.

Joey and Florida Scrub-Jay

That is now prohibited. Oddly enough, a recent study showed that those Florida Scrub-Jays who take peanuts from people turn out to live longer than those who don't. Apparently nutrition has nothing to do with it; it's just that the birds who figure out how to exploit novel sources of food are apparently more adaptable. Now when I go to Florida, I still look at scrub jays, and I'm still charmed at how easy they are to photograph, even without peanuts.

Florida Scrub-Jay
Russ and I saw this Florida Scrub-Jay last year at Oscar Scherer State Park. The species is declining SO dangerously, but political pressures from developers and other economic interests keep it from being listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

In August 2005, I had what I called at the time "Scrub Jay Sweeps Month." Russ and I started the month in Florida seeing Florida Scrub-Jays at Lake Kissimmee State Park, where it used to be easy to find them right at the park entrance. Being August, they were molting, their plumage about as ratty as scrub jays can get.




Then I attended an American Ornithologists’ Union meeting at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I saw two Western Scrub-Jays on campus, though the birds I saw did not approve of paparazzi and the one who did let me get a photo kept his or her back to me.


After the meeting, there was a post-convention overnight field trip to Santa Cruz Island to see the Island Scrub-Jay. We were staying in the cabins where the biologists who study scrub-jays stay. The birds there are easy to band and observe near the scientists' stations because they're accustomed to coming to the researchers for peanuts. That made them easy for me to photograph, even if my equipment wasn't the best.

Island Scrub-Jay

Island Scrub-Jay


Nowadays just three scrub jays wouldn’t cut it—I’d have to also head to somewhere in the West outside of coastal California to get the Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay to see them all.

But I did get to spend time with Woodhouse's Scrub-Jays when I spent my 60th birthday, on 11/11/11, at the Grand Canyon. My goal was actually to see California Condors, but the jays made a most pleasant diversion.

Western Scrub-Jay

Western Scrub-Jay


Other than the 2005 AOU meeting, I’ve only made it to Santa Cruz Island one other time, during my Big Year in 2013, the only year I’ve seen all four species of scrub jays.

Florida Scrub-Jay
Florida Scrub-Jay, Lake Kissimmee State Park, January 2013
Island Scrub-Jay
Island Scrub-Jay, Santa Cruz Island, December 2013
Western Scrub-Jay
Western (California) Scrub-Jay, Highway 101 Rest Stop, December 2013
Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay
Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay, Cave Creek Canyon, AZ, November 2013


Scrub jays of all types and species are splendid birds. The Florida species is unique in how young males stay with their parents a year or more, helping them raise new batches of young. A long-term study of them at Archbold Biological Station is unmatched in how much researchers have been able to tease out about this fascinating bird. When researchers started doing DNA studies and learning how much "extra-pair paternity" was happening in almost every species, with mother birds mating with more than one male so a single brood of young had more than one father among them, they wanted to learn how much this happens in Florida Scrub-Jays. Because there are so many feather and blood samples of birds of known parentage over generations, it would be easy to tease out how often this occurs, except that of every individual traced, not a single one has ever been the product of any pairing except the mother and father raising it. If you want to use a bird picture on a wedding or anniversary card depicting a species that is faithful for a lifetime, the Florida Scrub-Jay is an excellent choice. Other scrub jays don't have that kind of multi-generational helpers-at-the-nest thing going on, but all of them are noted for a variety of cool behaviors. Watching them wherever I happen to find them, whichever plumage type and species they happen to belong in, makes me endlessly happy.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Day of the Condor

California Condor

On September 25, 2019, a California Condor chick fledged from a cave at Zion National Park. This was not just any chick—it was the 1000th California Condor chick hatched since the condor breeding program began in the 1980s, and also the very first chick to fledge in Zion, coincidentally during the park’s centennial year.  (Read more about this exciting event at BirdWatching.)

Condors had never been reintroduced in Utah, but birds released in Vermilion Cliffs outside Grand Canyon National Park wandered there on their own. This was very heartening news, especially coming while I was still digesting the sad news that a major study had just been released in Science about the huge declines in so many American birds—the U.S. and Canada have lost 29 percent of our birds in just the past 50 years. I needed some good news, and a happy story about the California Condor was just the ticket.

But I yearned for something more tangible—a condor I could actually see with my own two eyes. When I started birding, condors were considered doomed to extinction, with not even two dozen on the planet, but as of last year they numbered 488 in the world and 312 in the wild, including 188 flying free in California. And Russ and I just happened to be in California last week, so we set out from Monterey just before sunrise on October 2 for a California Condor adventure, heading down the coast for Big Sur. It was a perfect fall day—clear and crisp, thanks to California’s strict air quality regulations—and our chances of finding at least one condor were excellent, thanks to the success of the Endangered Species Act.

I have an app that interfaces with eBird to show all the places where any given species has been seen in recent days or weeks—within the last week, that app showed that condors had appeared from several road pull-offs in Big Sur. When I was there in 2013, we saw several in early morning sitting in dense conifers along the highway, some with their wings held out so the birds could dry the dew off in the early morning sunshine.

California Condor

California Condor

This time we didn’t see any in the trees driving down toward what is called the “Condor Overlook at Sea Lion Beach.” That’s where I’d had several of my best sightings in 2013 and where most recent sightings had been made. It’s a fun place to stop, because sea lions always seem to be calling, and we could see otters down in the kelp beds below us as well. 

Sometimes condors can be spotted roosting on rocks, and so I scrutinized them fairly well, but most sightings are made there starting at mid-morning, when condors circle overhead and drop down to the beach to feed on washed-up dead sea mammals. By this time, Russ and I were both getting hungry, and since it was too steep to get down to the beach for any washed up carrion, we headed to a nearby restaurant. We’d missed the early morning roosting condors, but figured within the next hour or so they’d start circling. 

I am pathologically incapable of eating at an outdoor restaurant without paying more attention to birds than to my food, and some Steller’s Jays were even more interesting than a delicious croissant and a perfect cup of coffee.

Steller's Jay

Steller's Jay

I took lots of photos of the jays and also of a beautiful junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

and a Golden-crowned Sparrow,

Golden-crowned Sparrow

but an inner restlessness sent me off in search of condors again.

This time we went directly to the Sea Lion Beach. No birds were aloft or down on the beach, but this time when I scanned, I could see one condor at quite a distance away, on a rock to the left of and below the last of five trees in a row along the road. The row of trees made a great reference, so Russ could find it with his binoculars, too.

California Condor

I’m very greedy when it comes to birds, and I figured we might as well get as close as we could. The sun was climbing, Turkey Vultures were soaring, and conditions were right for this bird to start soaring with them, but it might sit tight long enough for us to get a closer look. So we headed down the road, and wherever there a vantage point to look and snap a photo, she was still sitting there.

California Condor

Finally I reached that very last tree, right where I could step in to look over the coastal cliff, and voila! There she was—huge and hulking, wearing a big purple wing tag with the number 46 on it and a radio transmitter, so close that I had trouble getting her whole body into my camera view at once.

California Condor

During the time I was watching and photographing her, a California woman stopped by for a bit. She’s been to Big Sur a lot, and told me that she’d never seen condors sitting in trees the way I had in 2013, but did often see them on rocks like this one, though not this close.

After she drove on, a guy from Washington, D.C. stopped—he had not been expecting to see a condor at all and was appropriately thrilled. He stuck around taking photos with us.
Meanwhile, #46 stayed hunkered down, not quite ready to start her day, allowing lots and lots of photos.

California Condor

California Condor

Every now and then she’d look straight at me. I’m not sure what she was thinking—she had to be used to gawkers standing around that scenic area, and I knew she’d had some interactions with humans because she was wearing that wing tag and radio transmitter. But whether she associated me with bad things, good things, or just part of the scenery, she was clearly less interested in me than I was in her.

All good things come to an end. Regardless of what she thought of this earthbound human, she wasn’t going to hunker down all day—the sun was getting higher in the sky, and vultures circling from every which way were signaling that conditions were excellent for soaring. So my lovely condor finally took a long, luxurious yawn,

California Condor

California Condor

stretched, stood up for a bit, 

California Condor

and lifted off. 

California Condor

She circled over and over, giving me lots of frame-filling flight shots, and that was that.

California Condor

California Condor

California Condor

Somehow, having that perfect time with her was plenty for Russ and me. The moment we got back to the car, I looked up the Ventana Wildlife Society’s page with Condor biographies and found the one with the purple wing tag #46. Her official number is 646, and she’s called Kodama, which means “Forest Spirit” in Japanese. She was hatched in the wild in 2012, in Big Sur.

Her father, Kingpin, was hatched in the LA Zoo in 1997 and released that same year. He’s been the dominant male in the Big Sur area since 2006. He avoids hanging out near the highway, preferring more secluded canyons.

Kodama’s mother was hatched in the LA Zoo the following year and released in January 1999. Zoo biologists had misrecorded her sex, and for the first several years after her release, thinking she was a male, they called her “Slope Slug” because she hardly ever moved more than a quarter mile from where she was released. She was at the very bottom of the Big Sur condor flock hierarchy, so she was never allowed to approach a carcass until the other birds were ready to step aside. Then love took a hand when she and Kingpin hit it off. She was the first condor on record to lay an egg in the cavity of a redwood tree, and so was renamed Redwood Queen.

Russ's and my bird, Kodama, hatched in a redwood cavity in 2012, but injured her wing before fledging and had to be brought into captivity. Fortunately, her wing healed perfectly, and she was back in the wild in spring 2014. During the time she was in a flight pen, she charmed biologists by pulling up a plant and playing with it like a toy. She hangs out most of the time along the coast, so it was no surprise that she’d be the bird Russ and I found.

Kodama has a mate now, or actually two—the birds the Ventana Wildlife Society calls “the infamous #204/#470.” #204, nicknamed Amigo, was hatched in the San Diego Zoo in 1999, and hung out with two males of the same age—the Ventana Wildlife Society called the three birds the Three Amigos, and had a lot of problems with the boys doing dangerous things and needing more guidance than wild condors normally do. In 2008, Amigo foster-parented a plucky little guy eventually named Fuego because he’s survived two different major fires.

Tragically, Amigo got severely injured in 2010—possibly hit by a car. He was rescued when they found him hiding out in a cave, suffering  serious injuries to his wing, face, and beak. When released, he joined with his foster son Fuego and a female to raise a chick in 2016—DNA paternity tests established that Fuego was the biological father, but both males made great co-parents. That female died of unknown causes, and now the two males have moved on to “pair” (would the more appropriate term be “triple”?) with Kodama. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

California Condor

My morning with this delightful condor makes me want to keep track of her life. The Ventana Wildlife Society’s wonderful webpage helps us keep track of these splendid birds individually even as they work so hard to bring the entire population up to genuinely sustainable levels.  Naturally I’ve become a member to support their work, and will be keeping track of any news about the lovely Forest Spirit.

California Condor