Franz Carver didn’t venture out looking for a California condor. Who would have? Until Thursday, there had been more buzz – not to mention photographic “evidence” – of Bigfoot in Southwest Colorado. Carver was exploring Montezuma County carefree by car on his day off from his seasonal park ranger job at Mesa Verde National Park, looking to photograph birds, ordinary birds such as jays and juncos.
He hadn’t even intended to be where he was. Birding around Joe Moore Reservoir north of Mancos, he had missed his turn onto County Road 32 and wound up on County Road 31 instead. Sometimes, the wrong road turns oh-so right. Carver’s missed turn Thursday put him 40 yards away from condor N8, a bird so rare and out of place it didn’t register in his mind.
At first, he thought it was a turkey vulture.
“The logical sense in my mind said that’s the only thing it could be, because condors should not be here,” Carver said, acknowledging the more than 200-mile distance between where condors normally live in Utah and Arizona and the Montezuma County field he happened upon.
The size difference between a turkey vulture and a condor is the difference between a fourth-grader and a professional wrestler. Carver is well aware of this, having seen them up close while working at Pinnacles National Park in Central California. Downloading his photos, he realized just what he had: an encounter with one of the 219 condors living in the wild.
Rare and endangered, sure, but condors also are North America’s largest bird, standing up to 3½ feet with a dinosaur-like 9½-foot wingspan. Put it together, and you have a sighting that will draw even a nominal birder such as me out of bed at 6:15 on a Saturday morning.
It helped to have my bird-watching parents in town on a serendipitous visit from Littleton. Zig-zagging Montezuma County roads all day in search of a beyond-rare bird would be welcome activity.
How long the condor would be in the area was anyone’s guess. Weather, carcass supply and the whims of a young condor would determine that. Recently, fledged condors have been known to embark on such long-distance flights “checking out the countryside, stretching their wings,” said Greg Holm, Wildlife Program Manager at Grand Canyon National Park, where 70 or so other condors live. “It’s hard to say scientifically what they’re up to.”
I expected Montezuma County to be inundated with regional birders with such a mythic, celebrated, endangered and massive bird pit-stopping so near. All day, however, we saw exactly one person toting binoculars.
Carver said a handful of visitors to Mesa Verde had asked about the condor sighting. The citizen-reported bird-tracking website eBird reported zero condor sightings in Colorado as of Tuesday. Posts on cobirds, a Colorado rare bird alert blog, dealt not with attempts to see the condor but quibbled over if it would count on various official sighting lists because it was bred in captivity at the San Diego Zoo and introduced into the wild.
Our route ultimately resembled the scribbles of a kindergartner, up, down and sideways on Colorado Highway 184, U.S. Highway 160 and county roads 29, 31, 33 and 34.
Driving the backroads, my eyes scanned the sky, cliffs and fields for hours. While Carver’s brain turned a condor into a turkey vulture, mine turned anything into a condor. Each of the dozens of turkey vultures induced anxiety and frustration, the day’s slate skies rendering the birds mostly patternless.
On Highway 160 outside Mesa Verde, a massive bird glided over the car. I barked something unintelligible to my dad and scrambled for my camera. After consultation with multiple field guides, we settled on a golden eagle, certainly mocking and taunting us as it flew by.
Other condor sightings were less than realistic: weathered fence posts, burnt tree stumps, ravens, black calves in distant meadows, 50-gallon drums, chimineas, old-timey plows. In front of a farm on Highway 184 was an enormous exotic chicken with a white head whose black tail stuck in the air beak-like when pecking the ground, laughably resembling a condor. Knowing it was a chicken, I’d look away, then look back, and still think it was a condor.
Like Carver, we saw plenty of birds we expected to see – tree and violet-green swallows, American kestrel, Western meadowlark, spotted towhee. Normally these birds would be nice to see. But not on this day, not with such a superstar potentially around the bend.
After poking around at Mancos State Park, Dad returned to the car and said, “I must have seen 150 dark-eyed juncos.” All I could think was how that amounted to more than a third of all condors alive today (there are about 162 million more dark-eyed juncos than condors in the U.S., for the record).
In the end, N8 eluded us. Call it a wild-buzzard chase. He could have been under our noses the whole day or in another state altogether. Yet, knowing before setting out if we were certain to see it, or knowing its precise location, would have eliminated much of the fruitless fun. Contrast this with the acorn woodpeckers we sought on our way back into Durango.
The Colorado Birding Trail guide took us to a precise location in the Rafter J subdivision, telling us to “look on the right for a very large dead ponderosa behind a mobile home.” The woodpeckers were waiting as if expecting us. The easiness of the sighting felt unsatisfying and predetermined, the opposite of chance.
Back in Durango, driving down north Main, I found my eyes scanning the sky and ground, still searching, making condors out of ravens. I realized my pursuit had only just begun.