Andean condors can stop you cold

It was my second day in Argentina on the trip of a lifetime, and I was still trying to catch up with the time change and too many hours on airplanes. I was in the town of Salta, in the northwest corner of the country, which sits in a valley crowded by ridges reaching down from the high Andes.

Looking to the west one sees a stacked series of ridges, each one rising higher than the last. I stood impressed with the highest crest of the Andes until I realized there was still a higher ridge behind this one, faint in the hazy air. The Andes are impressive even for someone raised in the mountain west of North America.

I was driving to the nearby town of Jujuy through farm and ranch country acquainting myself with the plants and wildlife. The diversity of birds was dazzling, including wood rails, seriemas, puffbirds and a host of small and colorful finches, warblers and tanagers.

Across the river a flock of turkey and black vultures rose in a thermal as the day warmed, apparently satisfied with their breakfast of dead cow. Farther off another bird circled. However, it moved deliberately, like a much larger bird. Indeed, binoculars revealed my first Andean condor. As it banked, I could see the white panel on the wings.

I had been warned that Andean condor populations were declining, precipitously in some areas, and could be hard to find. I am happy to report that if you spend time in the foothills of the Andes, you will still see them. I hope budding conservation efforts in South America will halt the decline.

The 10-foot wingspan of a bird flying low overhead will stop you in your tracks, even if you care little about other birds. I watched a number of non-birders at a popular visitor destination mesmerized by their flight, distracting them from the spectacular vistas of glaciers and mountains.

One of the most notable features is the extraordinarily long primaries creating wing-tip slots. Wing-tip slots are common in many large soaring birds. They are also present in smaller birds but are much shorter and not as obvious. Wing-tip slots reduce aerodynamic drag, important to such a large and slow-flying bird as the condor. The upturned tips of some airplane wings help in the same way. In all, my wife and I saw 53 condors from the Tropic of Capricorn to Tierra del Fuego.

Closer to home, our California condor is scarcely less impressive with a wingspan of a mere nine-and-half feet, but you have to work much harder to find one. We nearly lost this species in the 1980s when there were only 22 remaining. An intensive captive breeding program brought them back until there are more than 150 in the wild today and about the same number in captivity. The next site proposed for reintroduction is the lower Klamath River, an exciting prospect. If successful, it won’t be long before California condors will be seen again in Oregon. The last was near Drain in 1904. I suspect they once used the Table Rocks as a stopping place, as California birds traveled north each fall to feast on the spawned-out salmon on Oregon’s rivers. I look forward to their return.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

 

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