Pictured: A soaring condor above the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. 

Story and photos by Chuck Graham

There wasn’t much going on at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). I was lying in the grassy, rolling hills of this California condor sanctuary, and was waiting for something to stir. It was mid-afternoon and thermal updrafts were just beginning to waft skyward when a solitary condor rose above the refuge like a fighter jet off an aircraft carrier.

A California Condor takes flight at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

I sat straight up, holding my 300mm lens in my lap, thoroughly thrilled to see North America’s largest flying land bird soaring above. It was quickly joined by another condor. They circled overhead, making several passes, their pinkish-orange heads standing out against impressive velvety black 9-foot-plus wingspans, their wingtips extending outward like giant fingers on an outstretched hand.

Even more impressive was when the condors were up, soaring over their historic habitat. Not once did they tip back and forth while inflight. Instead, they soared effortlessly, their flight pattern never wavering as they foraged across Bitter Creek and beyond.

 Signs of recovery

Over the years release sites like Bitter Creek have expanded throughout the condor’s historic range. There are currently five other sites besides Bitter Creek that serve as sanctuaries and release stations. Those include nearby Hopper Mountain, Ventana Wilderness along the Big Sur Coast, Pinnacles National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Baja California.  

An entrance to the National Wildlife Refuge at Bitter Creek.

The wild population is augmented with captive-bred birds. Their flight pens help garner condor behavior. The recovery program has been doing this since the early 1990s. And although the wild population is growing and old territories are reestablished, it’s getting increasingly more challenging to track their whereabouts. Condors average around 150 miles per day in the air.

“It’s a sign of their recovery that they are expanding,” said Arianna  Punzalan, supervisory wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Punzalan has worked with condors since 2012. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing because how do we continue to monitor these birds?”

Bitter Creek a sweet, local sanctuary

Nestled within the Transverse Ranges, between the Carrizo Plain National Monument and the Sespe Wilderness, Bitter Creek NWR is a haven and another launching pad for releasing endangered California condors.

Bitter Creek was once part of Hudson Ranch, a longtime cattle ranch that was used extensively by wild condors. After the ranch was subdivided, however, those rolling hills became uninhabitable for condors and a whole host of other endangered species like the giant kangaroo rat and San Joaquin kit fox. In 1985, multiple conservation groups rallied together and, under the Endangered Species Act, with Land and Water Conservation funding, 800 acres of the Hudson Ranch and adjoining properties were acquired.

One of the residents of the sanctuary at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

More lands were purchased in 1987, with 11,944 acres of the Hudson and Hoag Ranches coming under control of the USFWS. Today, Bitter Creek encompasses 14,097 acres enhancing foraging, roosting and now breeding and nesting habitat for these raptors, which date back to the Pleistocene Era.

Orchard Draw

After walking beneath an old, green-leafed apple orchard on what was once part of the Hudson Ranch, we hiked a short distance north to an exposed ridgeline overlooking Orchard Draw, which resembles something of an open book. The narrow, nondescript canyon was choked in scrubby chaparral, but at the bottom of the draw was a gritty sandstone monolith. The five of us — two biologists, Chris Morgan from the podcast <em>The Wild</em>, his producer Matthew Martin and myself — peered through spotting scopes and binoculars, anticipating for something to happen down below.

For a good 30 minutes there wasn’t any activity, and then finally there was some movement. The sandstone rock outcropping possessed a few gritty cavities. Emerging from the shadows of a dark alcove was an adult male condor, known as Condor 328. There was one egg in the cave and the doting parents swapped out on parenting duties, which means that they share responsibilities on incubating their egg. The female is known as Condor 216.  They’ve been together for 12 years, and in 2019 they reared a chick.

Scientists with the National Forest Service give a California Condor a physical examination.

Condors produce a chick every other year. The chick fledges after 6 months in the cave nest. Condors are monogamous, and if the pair survives, they will return to the same nest site to give it another go. Currently, there are 300 California condors in the wild.

“I got super lucky and saw the egg the day after it was laid,” said Laura McMahon, wildlife biologist for the USFWS. “It’s pretty easy spotting a nest when a condor is standing in front of it.”

That fledgling condor is now known as 1106, and the young raptor left its sandstone nest for the first time on November 26, 2021.

The Bloom and Clendenon pit trap

California condors are Ice Age birds. Fossil records indicate that they once soared all over North America. However, as megafauna died off, so too did the condor’s range. Fast forward to the 1800s, their range had shrunk to the point where California became their last stronghold . . . and even that was shrinking quickly. Predators were killed off, either shot or poisoned. Egg collecting and selling condor feathers were common practices. 

A roadway in the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

By the 1980s there were only 22 condors left in the wild. It was now or never for these iconic raptors. Captive breeding was the only option, so an aggressive plan was put in motion to save these impressive scavengers.

There was one thing that stood out on the barren knoll overlooking the southwest portion of Bitter Creek. It was an old horse carcass lying amongst some vibrant California poppies. It marked the site of an ambitious effort to capture the last remaining California condors. Wildlife biologists Peter Bloom and Dave Clendenon created their pit trap in 1987.

The two biologists dug a shallow grave partially burying themselves with organic debris and a stillborn calf carcass lying across the top. Sometimes the two would conceal themselves from sunrise to sunset, waiting patiently for one of the last remaining condors to land on top of them. All they would have with them was some food, water and a bottle in which they could relieve themselves. When a condor would land, they would grab it. Stories of black widow spiders and rattlesnakes visiting the pit trap while the two biologists hid beneath were part of the pit trap’s lore, but anything to save these exemplary birds.

Taking flight

There were two stations with three to five biologists working each station. Thirteen condors in the flight pen waited to be “worked up” and then released into the narrow canyons surrounding Bitter Creek.

Two California Condors take flight.

A “work up” involves biologists wrangling condors, one at a time, inside the flight pen. Once a condor is secured, a biologist will have a hold of its legs. Another biologist wraps an arm around its wing while holding the bird’s body against their torso. The other hand will be placed around the condor’s beak, not allowing the bird to extend its neck. (The neck is where condors draw a lot of their power from, using it to pull flesh away from a carcass.) Another biologist draws blood to check for lead levels. Each condor is administered a numbered tag and a GPS unit to keep track of their whereabouts as they soar across their historic range. After this, each bird then receives a general health assessment. The other biologist gathers all the data for each condor on an iPad.

I placed myself behind a pile of sandstone boulders as a biologist carried out a condor after its “work up.” The biologist was about to let the condor loose. Watching a condor take flight and immediately soar has always been impressive, but this one nearly took my head off as it flew just inches over my head. I felt a swift <em>swoosh</em> as the raptor flew over, momentarily blocking out the sun. I spun around to track its route before it disappeared into a narrow draw to join its comrades hidden in the backcountry wilds of the Bitter Creek NWR.

Getting the lead out

Besides habitat loss, the biggest challenge for the survival of the California condor is the prevalence of lead bullets  in the territories the species frequents. There are alternatives out there for hunters to use, but change can be slow.

A scene of time long past at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

Condors are vultures; scavengers. They are the cleaners of the forest. With incredible eyesight they can locate carcasses and feed mightily. Lead fragments are soft and break down easily within the condor’s food source. Those lead fragments then get in the condors’ bloodstream, attacking their nervous system.

“If we remove lead from the environment, condors can be self-sustaining,” said Punzalan. “Change is hard, but lead is more of a challenge. Partners are invaluable about getting the word out. Hopefully in my lifetime the condor will be delisted.”

For more information on Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/Bitter_Creek/

For more information on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Recovery Program, visit www.fws.gov/cno/es/CalCondor/Condor.cfm

More information on the California condor can be found at wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Birds/California-Condor