Counting Condors

The Dutch premiere of Frans Lanting's "LIFE: A Journey Through Time" with music by Philip Glass was performed in the presence of HM Queen Beatrix at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw on August 25, 2012. Carolyn Kuan conducted the Residentie Orkest in a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the World Wildlife Fund. Check Frans Lanting's Facebook page for photos: www.facebook.com/FransLantingStudio.

Some animals live in the shadows of a mystique we have bestowed on them. Take California condors. Often referred to as relics of a Pleistocene past, their numbers dwindled during the 20th century. In 1987 they went extinct in the wild, when the last ones were taken into captivity to serve as breeding stock for a desperate effort to save the species. Since then a remarkable comeback has occurred.

Captive-born condors were released in 1992 along California's Big Sur coast, where several dozen now fly free—albeit with tags and transmitters on every one to enable researchers to keep track of them.

Many people think of condors as birds of harsh desert mountains because the last few found refuge there. But they are also coastal scavengers, and Big Sur's rich marine environment provides plenty of good pickings. In the last few decades, marine mammals, including whales of all kinds, have dramatically increased in numbers here because of successful protective measures.

When I learned that a dead humpback whale had washed up on a remote beach in Big Sur, I scrambled down and set up a blind at a respectful distance. It took several days of waiting inside before any condors came to the carcass, but then I witnessed something that was described by early Spanish explorers in California, yet had not been seen, let alone photographed, in modern times: North America's largest land bird feasting on the remains of an ocean giant—truly a historic moment for wildlife conservation, and an emotional personal experience for me.

I saw Condor #19 make repeated visits, and he turned out to be the proud parent of a chick sitting on a nest 40 miles inland—the very first condor in centuries to grow fat on whale meat. The turkey vulture standing next to the condor provides scale to a gigantic bird that's iconic for a prehistoric American past, but also a poignant symbol for a new future for wildlife in which every individual counts.

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