Caves, Vultures . . . or Condors

Pinnacles National Park, California, Late August

After spending three days in the Monterey area — visiting the splendor of Big Sur, birding at the state parks and beaches of Point Lobos, Zmudowski, and Moss Landing, and just hanging around a bonfire on the beach – it was time for our long drive to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. For a week, we had enjoyed 70-degree weather in August and were now gearing ourselves for temperatures to rise 30+ degrees. This would mean slower treks, as well as time to refresh in a pool. It would also mean desert birds.

Still, we were reluctant to leave, for many reasons. Not only was the Monterey area beautiful and relaxing, there was still a bird we kept missing. Two really. The Red-Footed Booby and the California Condor. Both we spent hours looking for, even venturing on semi-dangerous journeys along a pitch black beach and a sinking road. Just like the Brown Booby, it’s cousin was elusive. The chase of the condor was just as tantalizing. And what made it worse were the hundreds of  Turkey Vultures soaring along Big Sur. Each time we stopped to make sure. And when we asked if any had been seen, we got mixed messages: a couple of days ago or years ago.

The Booby we might find in other places, but not the condor.

So as we began driving out of Monterey toward a series of water treatment plants, we considered other locations where we might see condors. That’s when we remembered the Oceanic Society naturalist’s suggestion of Pinnacles.

Eventually, after finding the treatment plants closed to the public, we redirected our GPS to Pinnacles and hopefully a last shot at condors.

Within a couple of hours, we were out of the Pacific fogs and driving up the side of a low mountain of chaparral, brilliant blue skies above us. As the road narrowed and twisted, our speeds slowed enough to look out for birds. At first, there was very little movement. Then around one curve, a California Quail stood on the side of the road, its curved head feather bobbing slightly. Excitedly, we stopped the car to take pictures. Some of us had seen other quails in Texas, while this was a first for the rest.

Continuing up the mountain, we came to another switchback and found an entire group of quails scrambling up the embankment. It never fails. We look and look for a bird and once we see it, we keep seeing it. By the end of the day, we would have seen over 25.

But it wasn’t until we crested the ridge, that we discovered the true magnificence of Pinnacles. Suddenly, we felt like we were back in the desert, though nowhere as hot. Below us appeared to be small canyons and towers of reddish rock, all against a backdrop of blue. Stubby chaparral continued along the canyon floors and base of the Pinnacles. And above these, soared large, black birds. Could they be?

Leaning out of the window, we used binoculars and cameras to zoom in, examining both wing and head colors. The wings remained a dark brown with white along the back edges. The heads were a unmistakably deep red. Again, we were fooled by Turkey Vultures.

At least three more times, as we descended to the visitor center, we stopped to see more vultures. They were everywhere and probably the most visible creature so far. But between sightings was something very different: a Golden Eagle.

When we arrived at the visitor center, we hope to check with some rangers about where we could find California Condors. But the center was closed. However, a map of trails was posted outside and we chose a short and intriguing trail called Balconies Cliffs and Caves Loop, which was further down the road at the Chaparral parking lot.

Getting back in the car, we noticed five more turkey vultures lazily sitting on a tree. On top of a smaller tree, an American Kestrel scanned for prey.

During the short drive to Chaparral, some of us began pondering whether there would be bats and poisonous reptiles and arachnids laying in wait. The other big question, aside from the condors, was how narrow and dark would the caves be.

The Chaparral parking lot was as abandoned as the visitor center. It was a little eerie to be the only ones exploring canyons and caves full of the unknown. What would happen if we got lost? Or worse? Putting those fears aside, we stepped back in the heat, which was still nothing compared to what we be in later in the day.

And instantly we were fooled by another common bird. Not only does its voice mimic so many others, but its appearance seems to shift and play tricks on your eyes. It had done so in Florida and in Texas. Now the Northern Mockingbird was doing it again.

The trail ended up being a nice stroll through the chaparral and eventually further down into the canyon. However, with the intense sun and the opposing shadows, spotting birds was not always easy. It took us awhile to pick out the Acorn Woodpecker slowly hopping around what appeared to be a scorched tree. But as it moved into the light, the white around its black face and the circle of white around its eye popped out, as did the red cap.

The deep we went, the more we noticed small birds darting from bush to bush. But they were almost impossible to catch. There was one wren that kept calling from the base of a cliff. Every time we tried to get close enough to take a picture or record its song, it skipped away. In the end, we were frustrated because we could never get definitive evidence to its identity. We thought it was most likely a Bewick’s Wren.

Further beneath the shade of the cliffs, we walked under large boulders and found an open metal gate. Behind it was more large boulders leaning up against the cliffs, creating what are known as talus caves. The sign at the gate warned that headlamps were need past this point, Another signed warned of emergency conditions, at which Maura opted out, especially when she saw the narrow section we had to eventually crawl through to enter. Instead, she decided the explore the open more.

The first section was actually easier than expected with a place where Jackson and Fiona could do a little Parkour, Spidermaning the narrow passage by stretching out legs and arms to their sides. It was reminiscent of a much more challenging slot canyon in Capitol Reed, Utah.

Then the fun part appeared before us. I had done a lot of caves in my life, but none were quite like these. Basically, we had to go almost straight down into a black hole. And that hole continued for quite a long way. I kept my phone light ahead of me and descended one ledge at a time, turning to hold the light for Jackson and Fiona. The deeper we got, the more we wondered where this could possibly end. Surprisingly, we weren’t too concerned, even though there seemed to be no markers.

Finally, a bit of light shone below us and to the right. In a few minutes, we climbed out into a lusher canyon than we had left and obviously on the other side of a mountain. Again, we passed a metal gate and then explored the trail.

On a boulder ahead of us, a small Spotted Towhee danced around. It was the only bird we found on that side of the caves.

Knowing that Maura would be worrying, we turned back to ascend into the darkness, this time with little mystery ahead of us.

However, when we got back, Maura was not there. We wondered if she had decided to head back. We hoped she hadn’t decided to come look for us. Luckily, we found her near we had studied the wren.

On the way back to the care, we kept our heads craned to the sky, looking for condors. There were numerous vultures and possibly some swifts. We also found a Nuttall’s Woodpecker and, one of our best surprises, a Phainopepla. Its crest was a dead giveaway.

At one point, Fiona decided to go ahead. Though we knew she wouldn’t go to far, we still got concerned when we couldn’t see her for a while. So we sped up a bit. It wasn’t long, though, until we found he returning and looking a little shaken. She asked what kind of snake was blue and orange. We couldn’t think of any. But looking it up, we did find that the Ring-Necked Snake fit the description but was uncommon to the area. Still, we kept close from that point on.

Trudging along the final ridge, with our car in sight, we watched a pair of vultures circle the Pinnacles. Before going down to the car, we zoomed in as best we could. This time, though, we weren’t so sure. Back and forth, we debated whether or not we caught the gleam of their wing bands, the size of their wings, the way the fingers of the wings spread out, the large spread of white along the front of their wings, and whether their heads were red or pink. Taking as many pictures as we could, we waited until we got to the car to settle it. But all the while, we kept turning back.

Within seconds entering the car and turning on the air conditioning, we had the camera out and we zooming in further. The more we looked, the more we doubted it. Then we saw the wing bands. We had found the California Condor. And not just one, but two. That’s two out of 500 in the world. We felt extremely fortunate.

Other birds we saw included California Scrub Jay, American Crow, Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch, Common Raven, Northern Flicker, and Steller’s Jay.

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