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Contrary Condor in Arizona 


  Condors call out to inept birders like me since their size should make them easy to spot and identify. But, to borrow the title from a Donald Duck cartoon, the Contrary Condor offers plenty of viewing challenges like low numbers that qualify it as one of the world’s rarest birds. Picky about their habitat, California condors hang out in isolated areas of Western states. This led me back to northern Arizona after a ranger at Red Rock State Park near Sedona noted “I’ve never not seen a condor at Navajo Bridge.”

          Upon returning to the Sedona area a few months later, I mentioned this condor plethora to expert birders at a local nature festival and repeatedly received the arched eyebrows of doubters.  “We drove by Sunday and there weren’t any,” said one couple of the bridge, located about three hours north of Sedona. “Well…” came other responses from residents who spend free moments melting over the sight of any feathery friend.

          “Sure,” they said. In essence, California Condors often roost in bridge rafters; sometimes dawn and dusk works better to catch them especially in spring and fall, but most sightings prove random. Arizona birders suggested driving another 20 miles from the bridge to the federal Vermillion Cliffs Condor Release site where viewing odds might prove better.

          Except. Except, as we discovered, the actual release point on top of the cliffs lies miles away from the permissible viewing area.  Real birders arrive with spotting scopes on tripods to reduce wiggle from lenses that magnify sights 20 or 30 times. This meant my naked eye showed nothing. Travel companion Liz, gifted with a great spotting ability, eventually discerned a roof atop the cliffs, one with a black dot on it.

          “It’s a condor,” she said.

          To me, the sight and scale resembled one poppy seed on a loaf of bread. I snapped a photo with my 600mm zoom lens, then pulled the shot in close.  “It’s a black spot,” I said. 

“It’s moving,” she said.

“Hmmm,” I responded suspiciously after another photo. 

“Another one just flew on the roof,” Liz insisted.

My camera verified this.  Ultimately, about six poppy seeds hovered around the roof area. Despite efforts to confound us, we could add those six California condors to our life lists if we ever get around to starting them.

And though those tiny specks revealed nothing distinct about the  birds, we took a lemonade from lemons approach to life by using our comfortable shaded table to enjoy a picnic lunch alone amidst giant rock formations that clearly demonstrate their colorful name. No condor calls or human chatter broke the intense silence of an area on a dirt road two miles from the highway.

Fortunately, condors at Navajo Bridge decided not act contrary, and three remained when we arrived just after 8 a.m. (late by birding standards). One disappeared quickly, but two lolled about in the morning sun.  Our two lazy friends seemed unconcerned about timelines as they sat on rafters of the impressive Historic Navajo Bridge, whose twin steel arches help travelers cross the Colorado River on US 89A, a route many use for Grand Canyon access.

Though officially called the Historic Navajo Bridge, two separate structures span the river. Vehicles use the newer, larger one, while pedestrians cross the original, admiring red rock views of the Glen Canyon Recreational Area (technically the site qualifies as part of Grand Canyon National Park). Construction started in 1927, and a bridge opened to traffic in 1929 with an 834-foot length stretch of road.  With or without condors, the site offers stunning views worthy of a visit—though many see it simply because they need to reach the Arizona/Utah border about 70 miles away.

I admit to visiting the bridge specifically for condors and feel indebted to K6 and L4 for creating a successful birding journey.  Large tags on their wings let me look them up on the Peregrine Fund’s condor list. Status of Individual California Condors | Conservation Science (peregrinefund.org).     The site shows the duo as a breeding pair responsible for giving the world two offspring hatched in the wild.  K6 started life at the World Center for Birds of Prey in 2010,  and L4 hatched wild in 2011. They seemed a happy couple, not minding traffic sounds reverberating above their roost. They scoped out the river 467 feet below, in between catching sun rays, preening, and dozing.

 Occasionally they stretched wings revealing a 9.5-foot span. Their magnificence made my day, though not for ordinary beauty. Bald but wrinkly pates, kind of like a Nosferatu style vampire sporting bright red eyes on females, make them look like inspiration for a scary Halloween mask. No matter; I felt ready to break into a victory dance celebrating their contrary attitude towards statistics.  Nearly extinct with only 27 left in the 1980s, California condor numbers grew contrary to expectations with nearly 400 by 2024. They fly in the face of a fate that would have left the world a lesser place. 


Condor Cinema

The word “condor” often shows up in movie titles, but not always referring to birds. El Condor represents a hidden treasure site for the 1970 splatter western starring Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef. Flight of the Gossamer Condor deals with an airplane. The term symbolizes the isolation and hidden nature of Robert Redford’s CIA work in 1975’s Three Days of the Condor. Redford’s link with the bird's name made him an ideal narrator for the National Audubon Society’s excellent program Condor : Robert Redford, National Audubon Society., PBS Video. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive. Other documentaries cover condors. Filmmaker Jeff McLoughlan specifically addresses resurgence of North America’s bird with 2013’s The Condor’s Shadow.  Andean rather than California variations show up in 1981’s Alsino and the Condor, historically important as the first fiction movie from Nicaragua and a nominee for a foreign film Oscar. The Andean variation also appears in the 1944 cartoon starring Donald Duck. Condors proved contrary for animators who, try as they might, failed to make the bird look huggable or cute when environmentally inappropriate Donald raids an Andean nest hoping to steal an egg.



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