Condors in Patagonia

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The sight of any soaring bird - an eagle, hawk, or even a gull - is a special thrill that always stops me in my tracks. The hope that I might see an Andean condor, the largest flying land bird in the Western Hemisphere, was a major incentive for my travels to Patagonia. In North American, the condor was nearly extinct by 1964. Our forefathers murdered them wholesale, out of sheer whimsy, or the mistaken thought that condors killed livestock. The only use of a dead condor, that I've heard of, were the quills of the large feathers that miners collected for stashing their gold dust.
Alive, condors are magnificent birds, floating on the air for hours. The evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin described them in flight as "never having to flap their wings except when taking off and landing, covering vast distances, up to 100 miles a day, in search of food." With wingspreads of up to 12 feet, their super-light hollow bones support a body structure more perfect than any aircraft made by man.
Here is an excerpt from my journal on the 1964 Cuernos Expedition, describing an encounter with condors while on the approach to the Paine Massif:
January 20, 1964. Arriving in Paine, we dumped our backpacks and loads at our new base camp, where the flat, grassy pampas met the forests and slopes of the great Paine Mountains massif. I caught my breath and a cup of tea, and was re-energized to move again. I hiked up the slopes of the nearest peak, scrambling over blocks of giant boulders and up scree-filled gullies that allowed passage between outcropping buttresses of sleek black slate. Working my way up steeper terrain, I finally stopped on top a rock ledge. Now, at about 1,600 feet above camp, I sat and took in the view.  Rolled out below me lay vast miles of southern Patagonia—what is now Torres del Paine National Park. I saw the cobalt blues of lakes Nordenskjold and Toro; the winding Rio Paine--crystal clear and dotted by the white lace of rapids and waterfalls; vast pampas folding into distant mountains, where tongues of glaciers could be traced back up canyons into that huge plateau of ice, the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap.
On the ledge, I was weary to the core, and not just from my climb up, but from the long 8,000-mile journey that included a drive across the United States, a flight to Quito, Ecuador, and then an overland drive across most of South America to reach Patagonia. I stretched out. I noticed a large bird, what seemed just a speck in the distance, floating and drifting through the sky. Watching it, a quiet sense of relief sank into my body and I shut my eyes.
Not longer afterwards, however, a sound, like the flap of a large sheet of canvas, awoke me. I lay still, disoriented for a second. But as I opened my eyes an electric shock of awareness soon raced through my body-- a huge black bird, a condor, had floated by, just a few feet from my ledge!  As it abruptly banked and turned to circle back, its wings curled and beat to quickly change direction. "FLAP!"  Even though alarmed, I somehow kept my cool, instantly realizing that this was an exceptional opportunity to watch a condor in flight. I managed to stay prone, "playing dead." It floated by, closer now, just above stall speed. I could see the long finger-like flight feathers at the end of its wings, each moving independently, as if massaging the air.
Another condor joined the circle, and then another! Within minutes eight of these giant black vultures were in the air, maneuvering to pass my ledge. Their wings operated in micro-adjustment to catch faint updrafts of air –subtle ones that I could not detect --to control the intricacies of their flight. To slow down, they lowered their feet. While the birds' bodies performed these delicate movements, their heads operated independently, swiveling to look in all directions, even straight down and back over their wings. Mostly, they looked at me.
My god! They were checking me out as food! I kept a grip, moving nothing except my eyes. They saw my white eyeballs as perfectly as I saw their’s -- jet black with a red tinge. I nervously maintained my presentation as the archetype carrion, and they soared in ever closer. I could see the delicate tiny white feathers of their elegant neck ruffs as they fluttered lightly. Their beaks stood out like a butcher's cleaver, with a hook at the tip for shredding the toughest carcasses. Finally, I could not take it any more. I jumped back to my feet, flapping my arms and shouting: "I'm alive, you bloody critters, get back! I'M ALIVE!  GET BACK! 
They veered off, and I collected my wits. The eight condors I'd seen would be equal to a full one-third of the entire population of North American condors known to exist in 1964. Serious preservation efforts of the condors only began later in the U.S.  Likewise, ranchers and "sportsmen" were still shooting them in South America, but the mentality to preserve them soon caught on throughout the whole Andes cordillera. The condor is the age-old symbol of freedom and power, decorating the Coats of Arms and currency of nearly every Andean nation. Now, it has also become respected and admired, and not just as a trifling, stuffed trophy, but as a living creature for all its magnificent features.

Photos courtesy of Evelyn Pfeiffer, Sebastian Leon Wilson, and Elaine Bettaney via Flickr



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