Pinnacles National Park is one of the national parks closest to Berkeley. It’s about two and a half hours away. Elaine Miller Bond, who often showcases her wildlife photography on Berkeleyside, visited the park recently to shoot photos of condors, a critically endangered species. She also had a lengthy conversation with Richard Neidhardt, who volunteers with the Condor Recovery Program.
By Elaine Miller Bond and Richard Neidhardt
Their wings can span 9.5 feet. Their bodies can weigh more than 20 pounds (compare that to the red-tailed hawk, at about 2 pounds). California condors are glorious, but they’re also critically endangered. Just over 30 years ago, only 22 wild condors remained.
In a high-stakes effort to save the species, these 22 birds were captured and placed into captive breeding programs. The birds proved resilient. And today, there are more than 400 California condors, over half of which are soaring the wild skies—thanks to such programs as the Condor Recovery Program at Pinnacles National Park.
Richard Neidhardt, known in condor circles as “VIP Richard,” serves as a longtime volunteer with the program. In our conversation, we learn more about his favorite bird and what it takes to keep the condor flying free.
EMB: What does the Condor Recovery Program do?
RN: The primary function of the Program is to manage the wild flock, approximately 80 birds in our area. We trap them twice a year and give them health checks. We service their tags and transmitters.
We get new birds, “rookies,” from captive breeding facilities, which we keep in a flight pen at Pinnacles for a few months with a “mentor” bird. There, the new birds get to meet most of the wild flock. Condors are very social animals, and the wild birds will perch around the pen, getting to know the new birds. That way, when the rookies are released, they’re not strangers.
Another essential part of the program is lead outreach, educating the public about the use of lead ammunition and what it’s doing, not just to condors, but to golden eagles, bald eagles, turkey vultures, themselves even.
EMB: So condors are prone to lead poisoning. Do they ingest lead when they eat the remains of deer or other animals shot with lead bullets?
RN: Yes. And it’s the leading cause of death in wild condors. It’d be impossible to say, when only 22 wild condors remained in 1982, whether it was the leading cause back then. But it’s undoubtedly the primary threat today. As long as there is lead in the environment, condors will need to be managed.
EMB: What inspired you to volunteer and help?
RN: It was a Sunday morning in late March 2010, when my wife and I were hiking up the Juniper Canyon Trail on the West Side of Pinnacles. We’d never seen a condor, and we’d read about a condor’s nest in the newspaper. We figured it would be out in some remote place we couldn’t get to, but we went anyway, and right at the top of the trail, we saw a condor biologist rappelling down a big rock face.
He was accessing the nest to replace a fake egg with a “pipping” egg (an egg that is about to hatch). Other biologists had scopes, and they let us see into the nest. We saw the egg. We saw the parent condors, too. The whole thing really excited me. We even found out later that the rock was called “Resurrection Wall,” which is a pretty appropriate name when you think about it. I was resurrected as somebody different after that. I inquired about volunteering that afternoon and started in April.
EMB: What makes a good condor day?
RN: Well, obviously, seeing a lot of condors is a good condor day. I’ve seen condors and golden eagles flying together; that’s a good condor day. I’ve handled many condors, maybe two dozen of them, and that’s another really good condor day. When you handle birds and give them health checks, and they all come back with low lead—it’s rarer than it should be—but that’s a good condor day. A terrific condor day.
EMB: Another great day, I imagine, is to release a condor to the wild.
RN: Oh yes. I remember the first bird I released, #564. He was a 1.5-year-old and had never known anything but the inside of a flight pen. I closed the inside door to the pen, and I opened the outside door to the world. He stepped out onto the balcony for a moment. Then he jumped down to the ground and looked all around, like, “Woooooow.”
I wondered: what are these birds capable of feeling? What goes through their little bird brains when freedom happens?
After 45 minutes, the bird suddenly flew up out of the chaparral. The center of the pen, much like a circus tent, has what I call the “king post.” Sitting on the king post was an adult bird. And this rookie, who didn’t even know how to fly very well yet, flapped up there and kicked that bird off the king post. And he stood there.
EMB: “I’m the king today.”
RN: “I’m the king today because I’m OUT.”
EMB: Have condors taught you any life lessons?
RN: They’ve taught me more about patience than I thought I could ever learn: the patience to sit for hours, watching these birds in the pen. Or the patience to sit at a single monitoring site in the High Peaks, spending all day up there, with just your thoughts, taking radio signals every hour.
EMB: What does the future hold for the California condor?
RN: I think it holds an increase in numbers and ultimate independence. It’s going to take quite a bit longer. But work by the Pinnacles staff, Institute for Wildlife Studies, and Ventana Wildlife Society—to encourage hunters and ranchers to use non-lead ammunition—gives me hope.
EMB: One way you spend your day after the condor-related duties are done, is to take notes in your journal. What entry do you hope to write one day?
RN: “We just took the last tag off of a condor today. There are no more tagged condors.”
EMB: And that means?
RN: That means that the flock is independent. They don’t need us anymore. I’ve just helped work myself out of a job.
Elaine Miller Bond is photographer of The Utah Prairie Dog (University of Utah Press, 2014) and author/photographer of Running Wild and Living Wild, forthcoming children’s books from Heyday Books. Website: www.elainemillerbond.com.