Posts Tagged ‘Grand Canyon’

Navajo Condor

October 29, 2009


Vermillion Cliffs-1

The Vermillion Cliffs

Long time readers of this blog are used to its author whining about not seeing a California Condor after several attempts at the Grand Canyon.  Another attempt, this time at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, failed last week.

But there will be no more whining about not seeing a condor.

After a trip through parts of the Navajo Nation and a side trip up two of the three Hopi Mesas (Old Oraibi and Walpi) and a night at the Cameron Trading Post, a backpacking buddy and I headed for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for two nights and three days of hiking.  To get to the North Rim from the South Rim, if you don’t have the time to hike 26 miles or can’t fly, is a 200 mile drive.  The only bridge across the Colorado River leading to the North Rim sits at the head of Marble Canyon at Lee’s Ferry. (The Navajo Bridge) After crossing the bridge, the road skirts the Vermillion Cliffs before climbing up to the Kaibab Plateau, about 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim and about 5000 feet higher than the bridge.

Vermillion Cliffs-3

View Looking North from Navajo Bridge

On the morning we made the drive, road work caused us to stop.  Only one lane of the two-lane road was open and traffic had to take turns using the one open lane.  I got out of the car to visit with the flag man who, in the course of conversation, told me that people had been seeing some condors on the Navajo Bridge.  He did not know a Navajo word for “condor” but that was no surprise: The California Condors are not native to Arizona or Navajo country.  But some condors are nesting at a site in the Vermillion Cliffs. He did know how to be polite to the woman who got out of her car further back in the line and demanded, “What are we supposed to do?  Drive around all these stopped cars?”


He was very polite to her but, after she stomped back to her car, did laugh when I asked him if he got a lot of stupid questions.  I thanked him for the condor information and it was our turn to drive through the road work.


California Condor-3

The Shadow without a Telephoto Lens

Naturally, we stopped at the bridge.  Actually there are two bridges, a modern one that traffic now uses and an older one that is now reserved for pedestrians who want to walk out and look down on the Colorado River.

We got out and scanned the bridges and the cliffs and saw nothing.

Fortunately the woman who runs the visitor center at Navajo Bridge was on the foot bridge visiting with a man from the Peregrine Fund who is involved in the condor project.  They pointed to a shadow on the cliff face which resolved itself into the all-black shape of a juvenile California Condor.

Here, thanks to my friend with the better telephoto lens, is what we saw.



California Condor-1

California Condor - Photo by Ron Koopman

Condors’ heads don’t start turning their distinctive red until the bird is about three years old.  Until then, their heads are black as you see in the photo.  This one may only be a year old because he still is not fully grown.

We stopped at the bridge again on the way home and my friend got a fleeting glimpse of one flying away, but the bridge blocked our view and I didn’t see it.

So now, all that is left for me to whine about is that I still have never seen an adult condor or one in flight.  Which means I’ll just have to keep going back to the Vermillion Cliffs and the Grand Canyon.  I hate it when that happens.


Early Morning

October 26, 2009

There were four of them and they came at dawn.  The sun had just crested the rim far to the east and our coffee was gone. The male was domineering; discontented with his women who were dithering along behind him, vaguely flirting with two males of an alien species.  The night had been clear and cold, punctuated by Orion and his loyal hunting dog Sirius, silently stalking across the night sky. A small ravine behind us plunged off a cliff into a 4000-foot abyss and before us a small group of baby Aspen trees stood before an old, majestic Ponderosa Pine like kindergarten kids in front of a beloved teacher.  We were all there together in a house made of dawn.

But the male was not a poet and didn’t care about the beauty of the time. Skulking in the grass, he began making mild threats.  When that didn’t work, he flared his tail.  But even that wasn’t enough, so he marched out, right out into the open, demanding that they come.  And so, without a backward glance, they left us.

Grouchy Blue Grouse Male

Grouchy Blue Grouse Male

Sleeps with Elk

October 13, 2009

Some of the Grand Canyon’s California Condors often congregate for the night on the cliffs below the South Rim’s Bright Angel Lodge, but not on the one day we could be there to witness.  That’s the trouble with Nature: She doesn’t reliably bend her schedule to fit the desires of her human species, so we missed the condors once again.

California Condor on South Rim overlooking trail from Indian Gardens to Plateau Point

California Condor on South Rim overlooking trail from Indian Gardens to Plateau Point

One man, from North Carolina, getting out of his pickup with an Audubon field guide in his hand, testified that he had been about a mile and a half down the South Kaibab Trail that day, eating lunch when one of the Condors soared overhead and the park rangers all report that the condors are doing well, so we’ll see them and get you a photograph one of these days.  You can read the latest condor update at this link.

We’re not complaining too much though.  We were privileged to watch earth, moon, and sky in their glory.  The backpacking tent stayed in the car, never once out of its stuff sack, which is exactly how tents should behave.  On the first night, a small juniper fire cooked the bison steaks perfectly and fresh juniper berries were a fine condiment.  The Milky Way is high overhead right now and the Andromeda Galaxy is barely visible to the naked eye.  Later in the night the waning moon rose and marked the night’s passage as it moved through the branches of the juniper and pinon trees overhead.  Coyotes serenaded the night while the humans slept in sleeping bags stuffed with down feathers borrowed from geese. Dawn brought a Pinon Jay which announced its presence long before favoring us with a sighting.  Shortly after, the Ravens flew in from their nightly roost, wheeling, soaring, doing barrel-rolls, and other acrobatics, talking to one another; you’ll never convince me that only food and fear motivate Ravens: Those birds were joyous.  At least one of them was thinking, “I’m a lucky bird, living here on the edge of the Grand Canyon and I must be a lot smarter than that human down there with the camera who doesn’t.”

USFW Photo of Bugling Wapiti

USFW Photo of Bugling Wapiti

But the highlight of that night on the edge of the Grand Canyon was the elk.  It is rutting season for elk and the bulls bugle to attract females.  Scientists think the cows more strongly attracted to males who bugle the loudest and most frequently.  Early in the evening we heard bugling from a long distance away.  (If you’ve never heard it before, it is an eerie sound to the ears of a human. Here is a recording.)  The bulls, about 25% larger than the cows, stand five feet tall at the shoulder, are eight feet long, and weigh upwards of 700 pounds. (320 kg.)  Loaded with testosterone this time of year, they know what they want and they bugle to get it.

The Footprint

The Footprint

Elk — also known as Wapiti from the Shawnee word meaning “white rump” — got to North America the same way humans did: They walked.  They were here long before the Ancestral Puebloans  drew petroglyphs of them on cliffs and in caves all over what is now the southwestern United States. Revered by the Lakota, young males were given an elk’s tooth — the last part of an elk to rot away after death — as an aid for long life.  Elk, for the Lakota, were teachers, embodiments of strength and courage.

I was dreaming of elk that night but soon realized it wasn’t a dream. Two bulls were bugling within a stone’s throw of our camp.  One off to the left and another that was so close it sounded like it was lying next to me.  We found a footprint the next morning, maybe thirty feet from our sleeping bags.

Elk's-eye view of human camp

Elk's-eye view of human camp with the print in left foreground.

I saw one of the bulls at sunrise the next morning but, in another example of Nature’s refusal to comply with humans’ desires, he was gone before I could grab the camera.  But he will live on in memory’s eye.


For more on elk, try the National Geographic. That site also has a video of Elk with the sounds of several bugling.  Sadly, however, the video is marred by way too much talking and some silly background music.  For elk and their love of Aspen, see The Ecology of Death. And don’t miss this from Wild Resiliency, which, in addition to explaining what it is that Aspen know,  has a great photo of an Aspen which an elk loved.

California Condors – Current Status

November 21, 2007


305. That is the number of wild California Condors known to exist as of October 1, 2007. 78 live in California and 63 in northern Arizona and southern Utah. A new chick fledged in the Grand Canyon this year. It was seen on October 24th and was seen to take a short flight above its nest cave which is just above the Redwall. Grand Canyon naturalists also saw it being fed by its mother. The fledgling is the sixth Arizona chick known to have fledged and the fourth confirmed with the Grand Canyon since the original release program began in 1996. Five of those are still alive.

Four more condors were released from the Vermilion Cliffs area of northern Arizona on October7th.

This photo of a fledgling is not this year’s Grand Canyon fledgling but, let’s face it, finding a good photo of a baby California Condor is almost as difficult as finding a real one. Click on the photo for an enlarged version.


Grand Canyon Ravens

November 3, 2007

Consistent readers of this blog will know that we love ravens. Smart, adaptable, clever, cute; they are survivors. Recently, in the bottom of the Grand Canyon one of us had the opportunity to watch two of them catch an early morning thermal and rise far beyond the cliffs in this photo. You can see one of them in the center of the photo. (The other one of us declined to go along on the trip, noting the absence of showers at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.) grand-canyon-raven-1-of-1.jpg

When I saw this Raven, all I thought was, “What a wonderful place to make a living.” If the Hindus and Buddhists are correct about reincarnation and we come back many many times, it would be good to spend at least one of those lifetimes as a Raven, living in the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.

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