Peaks and Valleys

You know what they say about the best-laid plans. The original scheme for our post-pelagic adventure was a scenic drive down Highway 1 through the Big Sur area. I’ve heard rave reviews about the stunning vistas and wildlife encounters possible along this stretch of road, and I was looking forward to checking it out. In the days leading up to the trip, I learned of the Soberanes Fire: a devastating blaze that is still burning fiercely as of this writing. Firefighters are having a difficult time combating the wildfire due to dry weather conditions and rugged terrain, and apparently the traffic jams along the coastal highway are not helping. I took the “let’s wait and see” approach and hoped for the sake of the locals that things would get under control soon, but on Friday afternoon it was clear that the situation was still developing. Time for Plan B.

As we were disembarking from the Check Mate, I overheard Debi talking to another passenger about Pinnacles National Park. A recently-promoted property, Pinnacles was upgraded to National Park status in 2013 after being known as a National Monument since Teddy Roosevelt designated it so in 1908. I had forgotten to consider this spot as an option after the original itinerary had been roughed out, but it was sounding like an attractive, less hazardous fallback. I picked her brain for a few details and tips before thanking her and departing the docks. On Saturday morning, our host stopped by to check on us as we were packing to leave, and he wholeheartedly approved of our new plan to visit Pinnacles. He promised we would not be disappointed by the scenery, and he also mentioned a few trails where we could catch a glimpse of the park’s most famous residents, the California Condors.

Condors hold a very special place in my heart. I’m a sucker for raptors, ancient animals, and larger-than-life critters. Condors check off all of those boxes, and this charismatic endangered species has a hell of a history. The giant birds originally ranged over much of the continent, feasting on the carcasses of megafauna alongside even bigger scavengers called teratorns. Condors were a part of the landscape that included mammoths, saber-tooth cats, and giant ground sloths. When the mega-mammals disappeared, the condor outlived its cousins and managed to hold on in western North America. Beached whales and grizzly bear kills were enough to sustain populations of the long-lived, slow-breeding species, but human alterations to the landscape disrupted this balanced ecosystem. By the late 1980s, biologists had made the difficult decision to trap the last few condors for a captive breeding program. Against the odds, it worked. From a low point of just 22 individuals, the population has climbed to over 400. More than half of that number are wild birds flying, feeding, and breeding in California, the Grand Canyon region, and Baja California. The condors still face serious threats like lead poisoning and habitat loss, but conservation efforts have taken great strides to keep these impressive creatures around.

I first caught condor fever 11 years ago in the Grand Canyon, where I briefly, barely glimpsed a large silhouette when my dad got a much better look at the huge vulture. I was eager to enjoy a proper encounter, and the birds can be found in both Big Sur and Pinnacles. I did not want to end this trip without seeing one, and my stubbornness knows few bounds. As we approached the park from the eastern road, I diligently scanned the high peaks with my binoculars. Intel from the park website and eBird mentioned that the hills behind the campground and visitor center are a hub for condor activity in the morning and evening. As soon as we parked the car, I caught sight of a powerful-looking bird soaring through the air alongside some tinier, teetering Turkey Vultures high above the ridge. I got my glass on it and saw a bald, reddish head, white wing markings, and finger-like primaries at the ends of a 9.5-foot wingspan. Absolutely magnificent.

Dylan, Aly, and I spent some time admiring the massive flyer as it circled on thermals overhead. It eventually moved on out of sight, and we set off to further explore the park. As midday approached, temperatures rose to break 100 degrees. We packed plenty of water and snacks and did our best to keep to the shade as we hiked Condor Gulch and Bear Gulch Trails. The views were worth the sweat and effort. Pinnacles is a really beautiful place.

Despite the heat, we encountered no shortage of wildlife during our visit. Tiger Whiptail lizards scuttled around the edges of the trail. Flame Skimmer dragonflies zipped around in dramatic chases at the parking lot, occasionally pausing to rest on shaded cars.

Acorn Woodpeckers and California Scrub-Jays were everywhere, vocalizing loudly as they moved about in family groups. I also caught sight of a Nuttall’s Woodpecker and was surprised to find a group of Lawrence’s Goldfinches drinking at a stream. Both species are endemic to the California ecoregion and can only be found in a few places outside the state. Other avian highlights along the trails included Bushtits, Canyon Wrens, and a California Quail heard calling from the hillsides. It was a great opportunity to catch up with western species that I haven’t seen in years and add them to my 2016 list.

Satisfied with the successes of our side trip, the three of us turned the car north and headed back towards San Francisco. I convinced the others to make a slight detour as we approached San Jose, driving through farm fields towards a point of interest I’d found marked as an eBird hotspot. The roadside pastures of Laguna Avenue, as promised, were home to a large flock of Yellow-billed Magpies. There are many organisms endemic to the coastal habitat west of the Sierra Nevada, but these flashy corvids are unique among birds for being the only species that cannot be found outside the boundaries of the Golden State. They are true, native Californians, and we enjoyed their noisy antics from our vehicle and snapped a few pictures. We returned to base, where I hung up my binoculars and camera for the day. Monterey and Pinnacles were well worth the visit, but I was overdue for a relaxing night on the town with food and drinks.

Year List Update, July 30 – 370 Species (+ California Condor, California Quail, Western Tanager, Pacific-Slope Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Canyon Wren, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Magpie, Western Meadowlark)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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2 Responses to Peaks and Valleys

  1. Pingback: 2016 Top 10 Lifers | Studying Life

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