20 April 2014

The last condors of California

I made yet another stop. It was in one of the many bends of the scenic Big Sur road, in southern California. I parked the car as I had just noticed three people enjoying the scenery from the cliff top. They seemed to be waiting for something – birds undoubtedly –, two of them with binoculars and another with a telephoto lens hooked up on his camera.

Condor along Big Sur in California
Condor along Big Sur in California

A minute passed. I saw nothing beyond the soothing calm ocean across the horizon and the waves crashing onto the rocky coastline. As I started the engine, the photographer darted past my car – and then I saw them: a couple of Californian condors shot up in the sky, suddenly appearing from below the cliff I was parked on top of. Another tiny parking area was thankfully to be found fifty metres down. In no time, I had my own telephoto lens hooked up onto my camera. And shortly after, a couple of additional photographers joined the party, and obvious signs betrayed the fact that they were not amateurs: a huge telephoto lens with a teleconverter on one side (a 300mm with a 1.4 converter from what I gathered), an antenna to detect the radio-tagged condors on another.

Condor along Big Sur in California
Condor along Big Sur in California

Radio-tagged, I say? There’s a sad reason for that: the California condor, the largest North American land bird, actually became extinct in the wild at the end of the 1980s, mainly because they collided with power lines or poisoned themselves with lead contained in bullets. The 22 remaining wild individuals were captured, trained to avoid power lines(!), before being reintroduced – only two hundred or so today flying out in the wild, half of them in California. The largest land bird, really? Well, its wingspan is about three metres – that’s more than the average height of a ceiling in a house (look around you and try to picture that).

Condor along Big Sur in California
Condor along Big Sur in California

One could therefore think that it’d be fairly easy to photograph them, since they are so large and since they fly in relatively straight and graceful lines at speeds up to 90 km/h. Unfortunately, in the case of a BIF (the acronym for “bird in flight” as I came to realise when I started meddling with the “experts”), a really long telephoto lens is key – so even with my cropped-sensor camera and a 200mm lens, I was a bit too short to be able to hope for the autofocus system to catch razor-sharp images. Yes, once again, I find reason to be a little dissatisfied with my work, especially since I was much better equipped and a little more savvy than when I shot those Andean condors (http://goo.gl/NPOZs) when I was in Peru a year and a half ago. Fair enough, there were some reasons for increased photographic difficulty: those ugly-bald-headed vultures possess an entirely black plumage and the background was a light-reflective ocean, limiting the contrast of the object and distracting the autofocus system. Perhaps should I have selected less of a wide aperture to find the lens’s sweet spot around f/5.6, especially since I could have easily bore with an increased ISO in such bright daylight conditions, as was suggested to me afterwards when I cried on forums.

Enough of my geek talk, back to my costly condors, for they have on average cost $100,000 per head in conservation costs. Guess what? There’s actually a link to Andean condors. To test whether reintroducing captured birds back into the wild would work, captive female Andean condors were released in the US. The experiment being a success, the Andean condors were recaptured… and sent back to South America. Despite their contribution, it is therefore safe to assume they didn’t get any green card. Any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental, of course.

Condor along Big Sur in California
Condor along Big Sur in California
Condor along Big Sur in California
Condor along Big Sur in California
Condor along Big Sur in California