Driving to the birds

Those seeking birds, including the California condor, have long employed many modes of travel.

In 1901, Chester Barlow wrote about bird watching along the stage road between Placerville, California and the southern end of Lake Tahoe (the path of what is now US Route 50):

The road for the most part is excellent during the early summer months and travel by team is an enjoyable means of progression if one has the time at his disposal. To those less favored with time I would recommend going by rail to Placerville, thence by stage (running semi-weekly) to such point along the road as may be desired. If a more varied itinerary is desired one may continue on to Tallac, cross Lake Tahoe by steamer and reach Truckee, whence the return home may be made by the Central Pacific Railroad.

Barlow’s list of birds seen along the stage road includes a California condor, based on a secondhand observation. This location is substantially north of where condors are found today.

Barlow described seeking birds by stage coach, train, and steamboat. So when did the automobile become a “tool” for seeing California condors and other birds? Soon after Barlow’s report, Milton Ray describes a remarkable automobile journey in search of birds. The title of Ray’s report, “A-Birding in an Auto”, was a nice play on the title of Florence Merriam’s book about bird watching in California, A-Birding on a Bronco.

Ray begins:

T[hat] faithful friend, the horse, was forsaken this year [1905] for that modern, rapid but rather uncertain conveyance, the automobile. To be technical, our machine was a sixteen-horse-power double opposed cylinder Wayne touring car.

01 Wayne Tonneau 1904

The adventure began with a ferry from San Francisco to Stockton. From Stockton, the birders drove south, more or less along the route of the present US Route 99, to Los Angeles. They then turned north, along the route of the present US Route 101.

On the northbound leg, a California condor was seen near “Calabassas” (Calabasas) and, Ray wrote, “afforded us, on foot and wing, an exceptional view”. Another condor was seen two days later, near Los Olivos.

The trip took almost 6 weeks. But twice there were week-long hiatuses for major repairs of the Wayne. In both cases the birders made good use of the down time to add to their species count. Ray’s article provides a daily diary and a list of the 111 bird species tallied on the journey.

Having driven between Los Angeles and San Francisco many times, I find it difficult to imagine the experience of Ray and his brother given the limitations of their car and the roads. But Ray seldom mentions difficulties. One exception was during the drive up to Fort Tejon Pass, a 2500 foot climb from the floor of the San Joaquin Valley. At one point, this climb required “stripping the car of its burden, which we carried to the top of the grade, and reloading”.

02 Touring Topics 1930
Traveling by car to see birds soon became a commonplace. A 1930 article in Touring Topics, the magazine of the Automobile Club of Southern California, subtly challenged readers to seek out condors:

So, in your wanderings about the Southland and Lower California, if you see a very large bird aloft in the blue – train your glasses on him and look for the two distinguishing condor characteristics – large white patches on the under sides of the wings, and an orange colored, naked head. If you can make out the white wing patches, you are looking at a California condor. And you have seen one of the rarest sights in nature.

The writer then notes locations where condors have been seen recently and in the past. But the substantial article is not a travel guide, as one would expect from an automobile club magazine today. Rather, the article provides an overview of California condors and their relationship with humans, all based on published sources, not firsthand reporting. The article features several black and white photographs of condors by noted wildlife photographer William L. Finley.

03 California in the 1930s
California: A Guide to the Golden State, published in 1939 (and reprinted in 2013 with a longer title), is an automobile-based touring guide. This substantial volume was produced as part of the federal government’s program to maintain employment during the Great Depression. In this case, the goal was employing writers; some of the leading authors of the day contributed to this guide.

The guide’s detailed itinerary for “Tour 12” takes travelers from the California-Arizona border west to the Pacific Coast on the famed “Route 66”. Along the way are the San Gabriel Mountains, including Condor Peak. Located north of Pasadena, this high point is described as being “named for the rare California condor, which rivals in size the great vulture-like Andean condor.” The guide also informs readers that the California condor is “rapidly disappearing”.

Would the pioneering motorist Milton Ray have imagined, just 2 years after the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, that people would some day fly around the world in search of birds? How we travel to observe birds has and will continue to change as new technologies are developed. Coming full circle, some of these technologies eliminate the need to travel at all (a subject for a future post).

Barlow, Chester. A list of the land birds of the Placerville-Lake Tahoe Stage Road: central Sierra Nevada Mountains, Cal. Condor. November 1901.

Ray, Milton S. A-birding in an auto. Auk. October 1906.

Merriam, Florence A. A-birding on a bronco. Houghton Mifflin. 1896.

Hess, Chester Newten. King condor. Touring Topics. August 1930.

Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. California: a guide to the Golden State. Hastings. 1939.

Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. California in the 1930s: the WPA guide to the Golden State. University Of California Press. 2013.