Ornithologists and Condors

I just returned from my first visit to the national parks of Utah – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, etc. Spectacular places, truly majestic scenery. I didn’t expect to see many birds, and my expectations proved true. This part of the U.S. is arid, sparsely vegetated, desert. Ravens were pretty common, but not much else.

            On our second day of this tour, one of our guides asked me if i was a birdwatcher and I said I was an ornithologist. Her face went blank. Only later did I discover that she had no clue what that word meant. She wasn’t the only one. One of the other travelers asked me what my specialty was in science; I said I was an ornithologist. She said “I thought you were a biologist.” Overall, the group was intelligent, but ornithology was not a well known term among them.

          Anyway, in Zion park, the guide pointed upward and said there were California Condors here. I looked up and saw Turkey Vultures. I checked my field guide and it indicated that Condors were possible, but rare. I concluded that with her knowledge of ornithology and the field guide’s information, I’m not going to make any effort to search for Condors.

            Our group hiked along the river, with a virtually unbroken line of other tourists moving up and downstream. My binoculars hanging from my chest, I managed to see nothing, birdwise, but heard one wren. After a mile and a half of disappointment, I returned to join the variety of tourists milling around the visitors’ center. Before going inside to admire the snow globes and stuffed dinosaurs, I happened to look up at the cliff edge across the way. Two California Condors! Soaring overhead, clear as day, accompanied by a couple of relatively tiny Turkey Vultures. I said something like “I’ll be darned”, or something less family friendly. Lifers for me. Turns out these are a nesting pair in Zion that had been there for a few years. Quite a thrill.

The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a New World vulture, the largest North American land bird. This condor became extinct in the wild in 1987 (all remaining wild individuals were captured), but the species has since been reintroduced to northern Arizona and southern Utah (including the Grand Canyon area and Zion National Park), the coastal mountains of central and southern California, and northern Baja California. Although other fossil members are known, it is the only surviving member of the genus Gymnogyps. The species is listed by the IUCN as critically endangered.

            We moved onto other parks. The geology and landscapes were honestly awe-inspiring. To look at what nature carved out of rocks over the years is just unbelievable. I learned a bit of geology in the process and will pay more attention to rocks as geologic wonders, not just habitat for Rock Wrens.

            A week later we took a cruise on Lake Powell. A few ducks, a gull, some grebes, and the usual ravens made an appearance, but they were few and far between. Three hours into the tour the boat docked at a trailhead to Rainbow Arch, a national monument and one of the natural wonders of the world. Rather than traipsing along with a boatload of people a half mile up the trail, I dawdled behind and enjoyed the relative solitude along the small creek next to the trail. I looked down and 10 feet below me was a Virginia Rail probing the mud along the bank. Haven’t seen one of these guys in many years. Then I hiked up the trail far enough so that I could see half the arch. I thought that was a nice compromise between geology and ornithology at the end of the trip.

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