Flying observations

Lynn Farrar contributed this report to American Birds in 1974:

Two [California condors] were seen from a jet airplane over Hollister Apr. 16! They were less than 1000 feet below the ascending jet and were apparently undisturbed. Calculations indicate they may have been flying as much as 15,000 feet above sea level.

At the time of this sighting there were only 30-some condors in the wild and Farrar’s 2 birds were a considerable ways north of their prime habitat. Fortune was with Farrar on that flight.

In the rest of this post, I note 2 older reports of seeing California condors from the air.

Lowell Sumner described seeing condors from an airplane in 1949. Here are excerpts from his report:

… the writer caught sight of two very large soaring birds while piloting a two-place Cessna airplane [near Pyramid Lake].

A few seconds after altering course and climbing so as to approach the birds directly, I was able to identify them unmistakably as California Condors.

By keeping in a very steep bank … the writer reduced the distance to about 100 feet from the closer bird. At this close approach, it stared over its shoulder, flapped heavily and turned still more sharply in its circling so that the plane shot on by, whereupon the bird resumed its leisurely soaring.

Undoubtedly the birds are thoroughly familiar with planes. Their behavior indicated no alarm more acute than that shown by a roadside bird when it flies a few yards out of the way of an approaching automobile.

The author closes his narrative with this warning:

Collision with a Condor could conceivably cause extensive damage to a small plane.

Sumner’s plain description could hardly be more different from the lavish report of Bayard Christy, published in 1932. Below are excerpts:

I wished to see a Condor. An easterner … I took counsel, and a Los Angeles friend, who … is a skilled aviator, proposed that we fly for Condors: he too wished to see Condors, to find some spot frequented by them, and having found it to return to it on the ground …. It was a generous proposal … in which lay a certain suitability; it seemed fitting that, on his newly found wings, a man should match himself against the incomparable aviator of the mountains.

And fly we did. We climbed the heights, we whirred along bumpy crests, we swung across giddy precipices; we looked down upon miles and miles of steepwalled cañons and wedge-shaped ridges … an inaccessible land, yet alluring; hellish, yet beautiful. High in the air, a great hawk flapped … but not a Condor did we see …. It was a thrilling … adventure, but, as for the object of search, it was quite fruitless. Where were the Condors? This was their homeland; here was their fastness; but where were they?

Christy’s high hopes for his flying adventure were not met. He soon set out on foot in search of condors and, fortunately, met with success. His reaction on seeing his first condor was an uncharacteristic 3-word sentence:

An astonishing spectacle!

The conclusion of Christy’s essay struck me. While I expected that early-20th-century bird enthusiasts would see aircraft as powerful tools for studying birds in the wild, Christy expressed a different view:

Of the habits of Condors not a great deal seems to be known. Their rarity, the inaccessibility of their haunts, the wideness of their range individually, beyond the power of the observer to follow, all tend to maintain the mystery which surrounds them. Though I do not know, I surmise that, when we swept overhead in the aeroplane, these Condors were there …. And, if that be so, the aeroplane may, after all, be found to be of little avail to aid in dispelling the mystery.

Nearly a century later, much more is known about the California condor. But plenty remains a mystery.

Greenberg, Russell, and Rich Stallcup. Middle Pacific coast region. American Birds. August 1974.

Sumner, Lowell. California condors observed from airplane. Condor. May 1950.

Christy, Bayard H. A quest for a condor. Condor. January 1932.