Condors – California!

California condor

Big Sur spills over with the dramatic ocean views, rugged cliffs, and spouting whales on the horizon. On a summer February day, driving down the coast, the flowers are already in full bloom, and the redwood trees are enjoying their quenched thirst after the winter rains. Sun makes the seals sleepy on the isolated beaches, and the tourists spread their arms, soaking in the warmth.

The best thing about hosting visitors is having a reason for a California road trip. With the unusually warm weather, and clear skies, we decided on Big Sur. I promised whales, sea otters, elephant seals, California condors, and redwood trees; knowing that the only guarantee was the redwoods. The campsites were already all booked, but no problem, because motels in the Monterey area had prices reflecting the low season. The first stop was the monarch butterflies in the eucalyptus trees at Pacific Grove. With the warmth, their days of huddling had already passed, but some were still flying among the trees. Then, onto Point Lobos, in the dramatic waves we saw the sea otters eating abalone on their stomachs. There should be thousands of them, but they are making a very slow comeback, possibly due to Toxoplasma, which is passed to them from the many stray cats in the area. A ranger displayed their extremely soft fur, and my friends understood immediately why they were nearly hunted to extinction.

At the McWay falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns state park, we saw the grey whales in the distance, spouting their misty breaths, and flashing their backs and tails. Wow.   At San Simeon, we avoided Hearst Castle, and instead spent a long time watching the elephant seals. This is high season, with the aggressive males dominating the younger ones. Plenty of mating and plenty of noise from the pups, as they all snuggle on their crowded Copacabana.

McWay Falls, whales were in the distance


Elephant Seals at San Simeon


We did some beautiful hiking among the redwood trees, and then it was time to return to civilization. At one of the high overlooks just north of the McWay falls, we had our picnic. Then they came out of nowhere. Five California condors, and they did a spectacular Blue Angels show. Swooping and flying incredibly close to us, it was a rare experience. With only some 400 birds alive, and about 200 in the wild, we were incredibly fortunate. They are easy to spot, with their extensive wingspan, and identifying numbers on their wings. Each has a radio transmitter, so researchers can track their movements. In my laboratory at San Francisco State University, we are actually doing some research with these birds, trying to identify if they have malaria-like parasites.

A condor within arms reach


Elkhorn Slough is great for birdwatching

On the drive back to San Francisco, Elkhorn Slough enticed us with more birds in the wetlands. Even with all the traffic and huge Bay Area population, this part of the world is truly beautiful. The animals are making comebacks after years of decline. The grey whales are nearly at pre-hunting levels. The elephant seals are rebounding from their bottleneck population. Eventually the sea otters and condors will become commonplace. It is a lesson that conservation can work. It takes a lot of time and money to stem the losses caused by human greed, and it would certainly be easier to curb our demand for limited resources before the damage is done. Big Sur is the place to visit for inspiration.