California Condor Bitter Creek NWR

The largest bird in North America

California Condors Are Huge

On the morning of April 29, 2020, I woke up having been a birder for over 8 years. I had spent basically all of those years living in California. I had seen over 400 bird species just in the state of California. But not a single one had ever been a California Condor. One of the rarest and most majestic birds of them all could be regularly seen just over two hours from my house. But I’d never seen one. I’d struck out twice at Pinnacles National Park, and failed to see one on a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur. This haunted me. It was a whisper in my ear every time I chased another Swinhoe’s White-eye or Yellow-Crowned Bishop, saying “you disgust me. These birds are garbage. Respect yourself, respect the birds, and go see a condor.”  I had the stats of a serious birder. Others consider me a good birder. But I knew I was an imposter. I was a fraud. I was a California birder who had never bothered to see California Condors.

California Condor Bitter Creek NWR

This bird is taller (bill to tail) than my son was when he turned 8 years old

I put an end to that shame on April 29, 2020. I woke up early and headed north toward Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. It is the main release point for condors in Southern California. There are some 200 free-flying condors in California, and they are regularly reported at Bitter Creek. Since the condors don’t take to the air until the thermals heat up, I stopped first at Santa Barbara Canyon east of Highway 33 (and about 20 minutes southwest of the condor viewing area on Hudson Ranch Road). The road is lined with private land and fences, so it’s mainly car birding.  I picked up a Scott’s Oriole, a surprising Gray Flycatcher, and more Lawrence Goldfinch’s in one spot than I’d ever seen in my life. I would’ve loved to explore longer, but the temperature was rising and I needed to get to the condor lookout.

Google Maps Street View Bitter Creek

Park at this Bitter Creek NWR sign and wait for your life to change

My timing turned out to be perfect. I pulled up to the Bitter Creek NWR sign (8 miles up Hudson Ranch Road from the 166) at 10:10am. It was almost 80 degrees. I got out and began scanning the canyon to the north. Within 10 minutes, five big dark birds materialized in the air far across the canyon. They were shaped like vultures, but didn’t wobble. I couldn’t make out any details, but I had a good feeling. Then I saw a small bird circling with them. I got it in my binoculars. When it caught the sun on its back, I realized that the tiny bird was a Red-tailed Hawk. That’s when I knew for certain that I was watching California Condors soar. 

At first, it looked like the condors were moving north away from me. But then they circled in my direction and made a few eye-level, but still distant, runs through the canyon. At least four condors then soared to the southwest, and I decided I would drive that direction on Hudson Ranch Road and see if I could cross paths. A few miles down the road, I caught up with them. I pulled over and got an incredible show. At least six different birds were circling above me. Two young birds–white #89 and pink #93–flew low directly over me. Each was no more than 20 feet above my head. The wingspan was enormous. The impossibly long flight feathers at the end of the wings dragged through the air the same way I run my fingers through glassy water off the side of a canoe. There was eye contact. I was speechless.

If you get a clear view of a California Condor’s wing tags, you can look up biographical data about the bird here. That’s how I found out the following about the birds I saw:

White #89 – hatched May 5, 2019, raised in the wild
Pink #93 – hatched June 9, 2017, raised at San Diego Wild Animal Safari Park

Pink #5 – hatched June 12, 2015, raised at LA Zoo

Green #40 – hatched April 18, 2014, raised at World Center for Birds of Prey (Idaho)

Counting Condors

In all honesty, I had seen condors at both the Santa Barbara Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park before I visited Bitter Creek NWR. But those sightings didn’t “count” for purposes of my life list. They didn’t count because those condors aren’t free-flying beasts in the wild. The House Sparrows that snuck inside the net and foraged on the ground in the condor enclosure did count, but the condors did not. But it’s not enough for a bird just to be outside a cage. A free-flying Cockatiel spotted in your neighborhood doesn’t “count” either because it’s presence is not natural. Birders call those “escaped exotics.” Even large populations of non-native exotics don’t “count.” For example, many (but not all) parrots and parakeets in the U.S. don’t “count.” There are even prohibitions on counting otherwise free-flying birds whose presence in your area is “ship assisted.” A Brambling that hitches a ride on a freighter in Shanghai and stays aboard across the Atlantic Ocean until Long Beach supposedly doesn’t “count” either. 

Uncountable condor sighting at LA Zoo, 2012

The last wild California Condor was taken into captivity in 1987. At the time, there were fewer than 30 California Condors alive on Earth, all in breeding facilities. The population today, captive and wild, tops 500. Some believe that no Condor seen since 1987 should “count” because the birds roaming California and Arizona today are not an established, self-sustaining wild population (check this out if you want a glimpse into the bird listing weeds). Today’s condors shouldn’t count, so the thinking goes, because many were born and raised in zoos, and all are regularly trapped, examined, innoculated and treated for lead exposure. That is not a self-sustaining wild population. It is, they say, a demonstration species artificially surviving on Earth only because of the aid provided by humans.

Still, in 2017, after years of successful breeding in the wild, California Condors became officially “countable” again according to the ABA. So if you see one today, it is a legit lifer.

I don’t care about the intricate “counting” rules. I’m happy to see all kinds of birds. I appreciate the species I see in zoos. I respect the escaped cage birds surviving in strange lands. I appreciate the parrot and parakeet populations in Los Angeles (and Phoenix and Austin and Florida). And I doubt anyone could pick out birds that have caught a ride on a boat, or been rehabilitated and released if the birds don’t have tags. I don’t report the zoo birds, but anything else I see gets included in my eBird reports. Who am I to deny a creature’s existence?

California Condor Bitter Creek NWR

If you find yourself near Bitter Creek NWR, birder or not, pull off the road somewhere and scan for condors. If you are lucky, you’ll see an incredible bird that, absent dedicated intervention over decades, would be extinct. Bring binoculars, because you can’t count on a low fly-by right over your head. And if you do see one, by all means, put the condor on your list.