A Field Guide to Dinosaurs
Encounters with our theropod companions
Although I very much enjoy watching, listening to and photographing birds, I do not consider myself a serious birder. I don’t have a life list. I can identify only a few dozen species by sight without resorting to a field guide, and even fewer of them by song or call alone.
Nevertheless, some of the most memorable experiences of my life have involved birds. Most have involved California condors, members of one of the rarest species of wildlife in North America.
In part, these experiences were the result of professional interest: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Condor Recovery Program is headquartered in Ventura, and I wrote about its efforts to bring the giant vulture back from the brink of extinction for many years as a reporter, editorial writer and columnist for the Ventura County Star.
But there was personal interest in play as well. Once you have seen one of these birds in person — relics of the Pleistocene era, soaring on wings that reach nearly 10 feet from tip to tip — it’s easy to fall into fascination with their behavior, their physiology, their history, and the story of the decades-long effort by scientists, conservationists and dedicated bird lovers to prevent them from vanishing altogether.
A group of these birds also vandalized my truck once at a backcountry trailhead. So there’s that.
To tell stories about these great raptors, I interviewed many condor experts over the years, and visited the Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park, one of the few locations where condors were being bred in captivity to increase the population and prepare individuals for release into the wild. (At the time, in the late ‘90s, other sites included the San Diego Zoo and the Peregrine Fund facility in Boise, Idaho.) I visited condor release sites in Southern California and Utah, sometimes accompanied only by USFS biologists, but other times as part of a scrum of reporters, photographers and assorted bird lovers drawn to high-profile events in the days when each release of the captive-reared birds was a rare and newsworthy occurrence.
I’ve written before about the days I spent in the Vermillion Cliffs area, on the border between Utah and Arizona, covering the first release of captive-reared condors outside California. That was in December 1996, and it was an intense experience. I returned to that location for another release five years later, and that time it was even more intense.
The field crew in charge of the release drove me before dawn on a very bad road to the top of a cliff, and ushered me into a plywood blind not far from the enclosure where the new crop of young condors awaited their first taste of freedom. Along with a two other observers, I sat down on a plastic chair in the frosty darkness, awaiting sunrise and drinking coffee from a Thermos.
Not long before the captives were to be set free, the flock of adult condors that had been released in 1996 came soaring in over the mesa, circling down out of the sky on those enormous wings like a squadron of bombers returning to base, and began landing on or near the enclosure. When the enclosure was later opened and the young captives tentatively crept outside, a significant percentage of all the free-flying California condors in the entire world was suddenly in the viewfinder of my camera.
In the mid-1990s, I also visited what was, at the time, the primary condor release site in Southern California: Lion Canyon, in the rugged Sierra Madre range above the Cuyama Valley in northeastern Santa Barbara County. I rode up to that remote site with David Clendenen, then the senior condor biologist on the USFWS recovery team, and hung out for a day with the field crew assigned to monitor the reintroduced birds from a cramped trailer on a dirt road atop the ridge. The weather was inclement, and condors generally don’t fly when it’s wet, so my binocular-aided observation of them on that trip was of ground-bound birds awkwardly walking around in the mist-soggy grassland on the ridge crest.
The crew later ferried me back to Ventura, and I learned that if you must spend a couple hours driving lonely backcountry roads with a carload of relative strangers, you can do worse than have those strangers be a bunch of young bird biologists, every passing power line and rock outcrop serving as the perch for an interesting feathered creature.
I had thought I might turn the condor story into a book, combining it with the sagas of two other high-profile, endangered-species recovery efforts that involved captive breeding: the red wolf, a much-diminished native of the American Southeast, and the black-footed ferret, a Northern Plains prairie-dog predator. The ferrets and wolves had passed through a genetic bottleneck even more profoundly constricted than the one the California condor encountered: At its nadir, the entire living California condor population amounted to 23 individuals; the ferrets reached 18; the red wolf had been reduced to 14 in captivity when it was declared extinct in the wild. My proposal was sufficiently interesting to entice a literary agent to represent me, but apparently not interesting or commercial enough to attract a publisher. So I just kept writing for my employer about the giant prehistoric birds increasingly found soaring on thermals in the backcountry skies of my home.
Although condors look like prehistoric creatures, the evolutionary link between the birds of today and the dinosaurs of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of Earth history was not really understood when I was a dinosaur-obsessed kid. But today it is, and when you look closely at certain species of modern birds — the condor among them, but also wood storks, cassowaries, herons, ostriches, cranes — their physical morphology makes the lineage seem retrospectively obvious. Descendants of feathered theropods, the only dinosaur line to survive the mass extinctions of 66 million years ago, walk and fly among us today.
And sometimes, they vandalize motor vehicles.
My encounter — or, should I say, my Ford Explorer’s encounter — with the avian vandals occurred atop the Sierra Madre, not far from the primary Southern California condor release site. I’d driven up there on a rugged dirt road, parked my rig at a locked gate, and mountain biked 6 miles farther to an archaeological site called Painted Rock. It’s a large sandstone outcrop featuring a pair of caves, liberally decorated with spectacular pictographs attributed to the indigenous Chumash, who regarded the surrounding area as sacred. One of the images is believed to represent a condor, which figured large in Chumash cosmology.
When I returned to my vehicle, I found the windshield wipers pulled away from the windshield, standing up vertically as if in preparation for a squeegee, and the rubber wiper blades stripped from their frames.
I was baffled — who would travel hours on primitive roads just to commit an act of petty vandalism? — until I noticed the giant three-toed bird tracks in the dust on the Explorer’s hood.
Later consultation with condor experts confirmed that tugging on rubbery materials — wiper blades, seat cushions, automotive hoses, wiring — is fairly common behavior among young condors who find their way into human territory, as if they are practicing the skills and techniques they need as scavengers to tear into desiccated animal carcasses. (Around the same time as my encounter, a gang of condors broke into a cabin in the tiny community of Pine Mountain, not far from the Sierra Madre as the vulture flies, and tore the furniture apart; another group disemboweled a Volkswagen van in the same general area.)
Name that bird
Even when they aren’t dismantling my ride, I find birds endlessly interesting and entertaining. And recently, I found a way to up my observational game. Unsurprisingly, given the techno times in which we live, it involves a smartphone app.
This one is called Merlin, and it is a product of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Originally an academic department at Cornell University, the lab is now a nonprofit conservation and research organization devoted to the planet’s avian inhabitants. Its website hosts a wealth of information, useful whether you are an avid birder or just a casual fan like me.
Merlin is basically a software tool that helps an observer identify the birds he or she is seeing or hearing. You can, for example, answer three questions posed by the app — how big is the bird, what are its main colors, and what is it doing — and Merlin will use your GPS coordinates to suggest a list of candidates based on your location. You can also take a photo of a bird with your phone’s camera — something I find pretty unlikely unless the bird has been sedated and you can get within four feet of it — and Merlin will pull up possible matches from its database.
Or, you can use the feature I find most valuable: Sound ID.
Face it, in the wild, you are often more likely to hear birds than to see them, especially if they are small and the countryside is forested or otherwise heavily vegetated. Sound ID uses your phone’s microphone to “listen” for birds, whether you can see them or not, and uses an algorithm to match what it’s hearing with the most likely candidate(s) in its database of thousands of recorded calls and songs. Material in that database has been collected by a global tribe of citizen contributors and uploaded to the Cornell Lab’s online eBird platform, and it is constantly being expanded and refined.
Once Merlin has identified a bird you’re hearing, it pulls up a thumbnail picture linked to recordings of calls and songs made by that species, allowing you to confirm the ID. Sometimes the app is wrong, and sometimes it can’t identify what you’re hearing. But overall, Merlin has transformed the way I experience bird life in the outdoors. No longer is a grove of trees with tiny birds flitting about and chirping just a grove of trees with tiny birds flitting and chirping. Now it’s a mixed-conifer forest inhabited by red-breasted nuthatches and mountain chickadees. That’s transformative knowledge.
You can save the recordings if you like. And this is how I know that on March 19 of this year, while camped with Next Chapter near a coastal lake in Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, Leslie and I enjoyed our morning coffee while being serenaded by Baltimore orioles, ruby-crowned kinglets, Hutton’s vireos and golden-crowned kinglets lurking in the dense undergrowth.
It was a lovely morning, enriched by our new-found knowledge about the birds supplying the soundtrack. And not one of them tried to trash our van.
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Thanks again John for a great factual article, story!
I now have both apps.