motorcade started north from Fillmore one Sunday morning in May the
southern-exposure California coast and the mountain ranges behind it were
enjoying brilliantly usual weather: temperature moderate but climbing with the
sun, humidity low, visibility unlimited. Paced by a U.S. Forest Service truck,
23 sedans and station wagons swung off the pavement after a couple of miles and
onto a hairpin mountain road. This was the Squaw Flat road, which leads into
the heart of the Sespe Wildlife Area in Los Padres National Forest.
The cars carried
an assortment of men and women of all ages and an almost equal weight and
variety of high-grade optical equipment. It took them an hour of second-and
low-gear work to reach a broad parking space called Bucksnort Lookout, at about
Here the human
cargo leaped out and went to work feverishly with the optical supercargo.
Tripods were set up to carry Balscopes and both still and movie cameras with
menacing telephoto lenses. One man had a Bal-scope mounted on a rifle stock.
Every last jack of them had binoculars. A Forest Service man pointed out the
objective: a grassy shoulder about 4,700 feet high, just below the head of
Whiteacre Peak (5,079 feet). At this spot, field men for the Forest Service and
the California Fish and Game Commission had spotted the carcasses of two mule
The question was,
had they spotted them, too? And if so, would they spend some time in the area,
so that they could be identified and studied and photographed?
As the Balscopes
were trained and focused, a cry went up: "There are two of them there!"
"Where? Circling?" "No, on the rocks just below the crest—in the
grassy area—a bit right of center."
The entire 75-man
expedition trained its battery of binoculars and scopes on the spot indicated,
as though to lay down a withering barrage. But the only sounds that followed
were well-modulated grunts and murmurs of satisfaction. Soon they appeared in
greater numbers, arriving over the ridge in twos and threes. Success!
What was the
objective of this elaborate safari? What were they?
California condors. And the men and women who had risen at dawn in Los Angeles
and journeyed out to observe them were members and guests of the Cooper
Ornithological Society. The morning's efforts brought them great satisfaction.
For the condor, one of America's most majestic birds, had seemed for more than
half a century to be gliding inexorably downhill to join the great auk and the
passenger pigeon in ignominious extinction.
Now, as more of
the great birds soared over Whiteacre ridge, it looked as though the species
had hit an up-draft. No exact figures are available, and among the observers at
Buck-snort Lookout there were some snorts of apprehension and grumbles of
pessimism. But most veterans of the fight to save the condor believe the birds
have increased from a low of scarcely more than 50 in the late 1940s to at
least 70, and perhaps more, today. On the Cooper field trip, more condor lovers
(including some of the world's most distinguished ornithologists and
conservationists) saw more condors than at any time in this century.
preconservation days such a report would probably have been met with a cynical
"So what?" For, judged by ordinary standards, the California condor is
no beauty when feeding or at rest. Most of its plumage is a funereal black, and
the white bar showing through its wing is as cheery as the carnation in an
undertaker's lapel. The condor's head is brightly colored in orange and red,
but that is because the skin is featherless and naked. Finally, the condor is a
vulture. It lives on carrion, and it is wisest not to ask about details of its