Community Sports

Thursday, Nov 01 2012 11:24 PM

Steve Merlo: Condor's life, once upon a time

BY STEVE MERLO Contributing columnist

Near the end of the 18th century, on a warming spring day, Teculia, a 15-year-old California condor, perched on a rocky ledge outside his aerie's entrance, spreading his yet dew-wet wings to dry.  His mate of many years, Tumika, sat incubating their single egg several feet back into the cave-like nest.  A week of harsh winter weather in the Tehachapi Mountains had prohibited either of the birds from leaving the rocky crag and both were hungry.

The cold and wet weather had finally broken and light winds and warming sunlight would assist Teculia's search for carrion today.  When his wing feathers were sufficiently dry, he launched over the precipice, catching air with a strong beat of his powerful wings. Circling tightly, gaining altitude with each stroke, he soon reached the ridgeline crest above his home and took immediate advantage of the morning’s first updrafts flowing from the canyon below.

The giant stopped flapping when airflow across his broad wings began to lift him like a glider, and within minutes, he rose at least 1,000 feet, riding the air currents north and west searching for food.  For an hour and a half he soared, twisting and turning to catch every waft of rising thermal heat from the mountainous terrain below, until, at last, he caught sight of his destination. 

Had Teculia been human, the sight of the foraging area would have been breathtaking. Clearing the last peak and descending, he saw the now-rolling hills below give way to a spectacular expanse of flatland surrounded by a horseshoe of mountains to the east, west and south.  To the north, the visibility of the green-hued land continued on in what appeared to be an infinite vista of foliage and water. 

Dropping to within 500 feet of the ground, Teculia witnessed the panoramic view from altitude quickly change into a huge lake, surrounded by dense cattails and tules, and beyond that, desert and sagebrush. Teeming with the presence of wildlife, myriads of animals and other birds, both large and small, dotted the land in incredible numbers. 

Birds of all shapes, colors and sizes were everywhere. Curlews, coots, white pelicans and countless other shorebird species lined the lakes and swamps, while millions of ducks and geese blackened the sky above the water.  Large numbers of hawks, eagles and other raptors soared above the land in their never-ending search for some form of prey.

Mammals and reptiles also thrived on the plainslike area, where herds of deer, tule elk and antelope dotted the vastness, and smaller animals like jackrabbits, ground squirrels and coyotes loitered everywhere.  
Teculia soared above them all, unconcerned with the teeming hordes, his sole interest a search for old death, rather than new life.

Finally, after two hours, above an unusually tall outcropping of granite rocks that sprouted from the flat ground, he spotted a congregation of turkey vultures and other condors gathered to feed on the carcass of a dead cow elk. 

Landing nearby, he quickly hopped over to the raucous feast, bullying his way past shrieking turkey buzzards and complaining ravens in his hunger-imposed haste to get there.  He began to feed heavily with the other condors, each ripping and tearing huge chunks of putrefied flesh from the carcass and then swallowing them whole.

Rather than risk a sharp rebuke from heavy beaks, the others birds simply allowed the giants to feed unmolested, the condors’ size far too intimidating for them to argue. Stealing occasional bits of food when they could, each instinctively knew they would eventually inherit what was left when their giant cousins had finished.
By midafternoon, Teculia had eaten his fill of rotten, decaying meat.  Hop-hopping away from the carcass, the 20-pound bird turned into the wind and, looking more like an airplane on a runway than a bird on the ground, ran and flapped along the flatness of the clearing until he was finally airborne.

Glancing downward as he rose into the sky, Teculia etched the unusual rock formation’s location inside his brain, instinctively knowing that calving time for the Tule elk was upon the land.  When their single egg hatched, the two condors would return to gorge on the other cow elk and calves that would die naturally during the annual birthing. They would need many trips to the great valley so they could feed their hungry chick.

The prevailing northwesterly breeze lifted him into the sky, and only when he was nearly 2,000 feet above the landscape did he turn towards the southern mountaintops and a famished Tumika.
 

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