HUNTING MEXICAN CONDORS

   Through the 1970s, I worked as a research biologist, studying the very rare California condor, hoping to identify its main problems and find a way to correct them. My studies were centered in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in southern California, but I wandered throughout the condors’ present and former range in the state.

   By the 1960s, there were very few California condors south of the Los Angeles area (probably none nesting), but their range had once extended south into Baja California, Mexico. As far as I could determine, 1937 was the latest date for a certain condor record in Mexico. Then, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of travelers on the peninsula reported seeing, or hearing about, large birds that might have been condors. Roland Clement (chief biologist for the National Audubon Society) organized the first attempts to try to verify some of these sightings. In April 1971 they visited the eastern, desert, base of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir, but saw no condors or any habitat that they thought was suitable. Lloyd Kiff, of the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, organized two more trips to that same area in 1971 (May and November), but with similar negative results. 

The east side of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir

   In May 1972, Lloyd shifted efforts  to the high country of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir, the area where many of the historical sightings had been made, and where it was alleged a condor had been seen in the summer of 1971. After that, I made looking for condors in Baja California a part of my research project, and Lloyd and I organized two more trips to the Sierra San Pedro Mártir,  in May 1975 and August 1977.

   On my first trip to the area, we left Los Angeles on 1 May 1975, in two vehicles with six people, and arrived at the entrance gate to Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Mártir about midnight. We camped there the rest of the night, and in the morning drove to the end of the road at Vallecitos. We hiked ten or 12 miles to  La Encantada, one of several high mountain meadow areas in the park. We watched for condors there and along the eastern escarpment of the range until 5 May, then returned to our vehicles and drove home.

The yellow pine forest of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir

  The Sierra San Pedro Mártir is a wonderful mountain range. Rising to a little over 10,000 feet elevation, the upper areas are clothed with an arid yellow pine forest. Much of the mountain range is included within the national park. The Mexican National Observatory was moved there after 1967, because lowland areas on the Mexican mainland had developed too much air pollution, and too much brightness from modern lighting, for the telescopes to be effective. With little air pollution or light pollution, low humidity, and an abundance of clear weather, the Sierra San Pedro Mártir had some of the most favorable conditions anywhere in the world for astronomical work. (I've been in a lot of high mountain and rural areas where the night sky displays were amazing, but they couldn't compare with what I witnessed there.)

 Star trails (time lalpse photo) from the Meling Ranch

   In the 1970s, this area wasn't unexplored wilderness, but it was certainly primitive. The road to the park entrance was an average, paved, mountain road, then it was dirt to Vallecitos and the observatory. From the road end, there were trails throughout the park, some of them hundreds of years old; some were easy to follow, and some were just barely-defined routes. However, none of them had trail signs, there were no really accurate maps, and the "best" trails didn't always go where you wanted to go. Lloyd had been in the area previously, so had a general feel for the terrain; even so, we recruited a Sierra Clubber (who had hiked in the area a number of times) to be our "guide." That worked out well, and we had no trouble finding our way  to and from La Encantada.

   As on the previous trips. no condors were seen, nor was there any evidence of their presence. In early May, none of the mountain meadows were green, and we only saw a few cattle. We did find numerous bones of cattle, and a couple of dried carcasses, showing that condor food was available, at least seasonally. The area reminded me a lot of some of the condor summer roost areas in California, so we decided to plan a concerted condor watch there at a later season.

    The later trip occurred in August 1977, and included 14 experienced raptor watchers, who scanned the skies over the high meadows for over a week. We left Los Angeles in four vehicles, and met up at the famous Meling Ranch (Rancho San José), a low-key "resort" at the foot of the mountains. We camped there overnight, then drove up to Vallecitos. Because we wanted to watch for condors in as large an area as possible, we split the party, my group going to La Encantada as in 1975 and Lloyd going with the others directly to La Grulla, another mountain meadow. Our "guide" from 1975 wasn't available, but he recommended another Sierra Clubber with San Pedro Mártir experience. I don't recall why we decided that Lloyd's group didn't need a guide, in that La Grulla was a new site for us. In any event, the guide went with us, and he managed to get us off the trail a considerable distance. We weren't "lost," because we could see La Encantada in the distance, but it was separated from us by a steep, rocky, brushy escarpment. Rather than retracing our steps to find the trail, we took off over the edge of the cliffs, and eventually worked our way to the meadow. (Lloyd's party, without a guide, had no trouble finding La Grulla.)

La Encantada

 The meadows were a lovely surprise. In May, they had been bone dry; in August, the result of regular afternoon thunder showers, they were moist and green, with water running everywhere. Quite a few cattle were there, but the range was certainly not overstocked. It really looked like good condor habitat.

   The afternoon thunder storms weren't as welcome as the greenery they produced. We had storms almost every day, usually mid-afternoon and usually short duration, so nights were clear and dry, and our observation time wasn't reduced a great deal. One storm drove us into our tents for several hours while it rained, hailed, blew, and generally crashed around us. We estimated we got about two and a half inches of rain in two and a half hours.

   My party stayed at La Encantada five days. Each day, we would split up and find high places from which to watch for condors. The La Grulla group had been doing the same thing. On the fifth day, they joined us, and we birded and camped together, then my group hiked over to La Grulla while Lloyd's group took up the condor watch at La Encantada. On the tenth day, we regrouped at Vallecitos, then drove down to the Meling Ranch where we celebrated with one of their wonderful dinners. We camped there overnight, enjoying coyotes howling and screech owls calling, before returning to Los Angeles the next day.

The top of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir

   It was a great trip, overall. We had the mountains to ourselves, except for one night at La Grulla, when a horseback party from Meling's and some backpackers from San Diego camped there, also. The birding was excellent. We didn't see any condors and, after our efforts over our several trips, were able to say pretty conclusively that there were none in the area.[1]

*   *   *

   I wasn't prepared to give up on condors in Baja California just yet, so in late April 1979, I led a party of four  into the Sierra Juarez, the mountain range closest to the California border. I knew of only one condor report from the area (in 1926), but the range had seldom been visited by scientists or birders. As it was not far from locations in San Diego County where condors had once nested, the Sierra Juarez seemed like it deserved another look.

   We took two vehicles for safety, entered Mexico at Tecate, and stopped for lunch at the village of El Cóndor. I was excited to find out how the village had been named, conjuring pictures in my mind of local folks remembering large flocks of California condors once living in the vicinity. Did our host know any of those stories? Yes, he certainly did, because it was his own father who had bestowed the name on the town. Really intrigued now, we waited for him to elaborate. Yes, his father had named the place El Cóndor, he said, after reading a story about the South American condors in “National Geographic!”

   The Sierra Juarez is similar to the San Pedro Mártir in that it includes a high, pine-covered plateau with a steep eastern escarpment. Part of the area is set aside as the Parque Nacional Constitucíon de 1857. Elevations are lower than in the San Pedro Mártir; consequently, there is less yellow pine forest, and more pinyon pine and chaparral. Rocky areas are abundant, but as big jumbles of rock, rather than as cliffs. Laguna Hanson, the only large freshwater lake in Baja California, had considerable water when we were there, but is often dry for years at a time.


The Sierra Juarez   

   The road into the Sierra Juarez from the north was rough, and portions of it required 4-wheel drive and good clearance under one's vehicle, but didn't pose any problems for us. There were no good maps for the area, and there were a number of unsigned side roads that occasionally led us off course, but we worked our way south down the range for four days, camping and looking for condors in three different areas. We didn't see any other people until we arrived at Laguna Hanson, where there were a number of parties camping. After a day there, we took the rough (but passable with any vehicle, if driven carefully) road to join the San Felipe to Ensenada highway. We finished the trip by driving north from Ensenada to Tecate, and returning across the border to San Diego.

Laguna Hanson

   Birding in the Sierra Juarez was fun, and having water in Laguna Hanson added an unexpected number of water birds to our list: hundreds of eared grebes, and eight species of ducks, including hundreds of ruddy ducks. The highlight of the trip for me was the finding of substantial numbers of gray vireos in the pinyon forests on the plateau. This was a species that had been identified as one that might deserve listing as endangered, and I had just begun to collect historical information on its status. At our first camp site, there were a dozen or more males singing, we heard seven more at another location, and we found individual singing males at two other sites.

   We didn't see any condors in the Sierra Juarez, nor did we get any indication of their presence when we talked to people we met along the way. After seeing the area, it didn't surprise me. There was little that seemed to me to be "typical" condor habitat. Much of the plateau seemed too desert-like to support a dependable food supply for scavengers, and we didn't see locations that looked like good nesting areas. The result of our combined efforts there and in the Sierra San Pedro Mártir: no condors seen by us, and no records by anybody else that could pass even the most basic tests of credibility.[2] We couldn’t positively say that no condors remained in Baja California, but it seemed pretty unlikely.

Footnotes

[1] The Sierra San Pedro Mártir was later selected as one of the locations in which to reestablish condors, using captive-reared birds. I didn't think it was a particularly good site, because there wasn't an obvious year-round food source and because I didn't see how the greatly understaffed Mexican biological and law enforcement agencies could adequately protect the birds. I was proven wrong on both counts, and the releases are proceeding with no more serious setbacks than the projects in the United States.

[2] None of the reports we received met any one of what we considered basic requirements for a condor record to be accepted: (1) that the sighting was made by an observer who had seen condors previously; (2) that the observer was thoroughly familiar with the other large soaring birds that might be seen in Baja California; (3) that a recognizable photo of the bird was available; or (4) that the bird was seen long enough and well enough that the observer could give a detailed description of it.

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