Last weekend, my friend and I (both vaxxed) went on our first camping trip in nearly two years, to Pinnacles National Park in California. We were a bit rusty but… damn, it felt good.
Birds were plentiful but not easy to photograph. That’s okay. I would rather have lots of birds but not be able to get any pictures than to have great images of not many birds.
It began as a conversation during the winter COVID surge. We had to have something to look forward to this year. Surely by April things would be opening up again, right? Right…?
We’d both visited the park in years past — quick stops during days of birding to see if we could get a glimpse of condors soaring or day hikes to through the incredible landscape. Perhaps by spending the weekend, we could get an earlier start and luck into seeing some condors at closer range. Good friends (much younger and fitter) had camped a few years earlier and hit the trails at dawn, arriving at the peaks well before thermals formed. They rounded a corner and found a pair of condors sitting on rocks just a few yards away. That was probably asking too much, but It would still be nice to make the climb before it got too warm. I’d done the High Peaks trail twice before and the highest part is a bit grueling.
The campsites at Pinnacles spread out along a shady riparian corridor. The sites are not huge, but they can handle 2-3 smaller tents without feeling crowded. As the first ones to our loop that day, we had many birds in and around the site — quail ran through, in pairs or small groups, a turkey walked along our tents, crows, scrub jays, titmice and acorn woodpeckers hung out in the branches above us and any number of sparrows lurked, vocal but unseen, in the bushes all around. Even as the sites filled that night and over the weekend, birds were still abundant, though hanging back from all the kids running around during the day.
Our site was in direct sun and pretty warm when we arrived midday, but cooled as trees began shading us. That direct sun came with a big benefit — an unobstructed view of the ridge, and the birds riding thermals above. Within half an hour of our arrival, we noticed one of them was much larger — our first condor sighting of the trip. We spent a few hours walking the campgrounds and surrounding area, level terrain with some points of historical interest and a continuation of the riparian corridor. It was a great way to get back into the camping mindset after the Lost Year.
Back in our campsite, we watched the ridge for condors as we ate dinner and learned to tell them from the vultures by flight style and profile. The condors had a noticeably slower, steadier flight than vultures — somewhat reminiscent of an eagle. If it was gliding quickly, rocking or making tight turns, it was likely a vulture; if it was proceeding at a stately pace in a straight line or a wide arc, it was more likely a condor. (The bold white under adult’s wings made ID much easier when visible.) The vultures showed their typical “V” wings, which were narrower compared to the condor’s wider, flatter wings; in some flight profiles the wider secondaries and the splayed fingers gave their wings a “Cupid’s Bow” shape. Vultures and condors both did the deep wing-flex. A lone redtail and golden eagle that showed up provided additional contrast.
As the sun dropped behind the mountains, it quickly grew chilly. My husband gave me a bat detector for Christmas last year, and this was its trial run. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about ID yet, so it was mostly a way to say: look up, there are bats... still fun. A pair of Great Horned Owls began hooting a duet somewhere nearby. And then, mega-thrill! A Saw-whet Owl began hooting in the tree directly above our site! It’s been years since I’ve seen/heard one, and never quite so close.
And it kept hooting, directly above. For five minutes. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes. At last it piped down after about 45 minutes and we heard more distant hooting across the creek. As we called it a night, the hooting above us resumed. It was still going strong as I drifted off to sleep, and was going everytime I woke during the night — sometimes near, sometimes far but always… hooting. Until 6:00 am. I sure hope the other Saw-whets respected that territory.
We got a slower start than intended Saturday morning — the temperature had dropped into the 30s and we were really savoring the coffee and a nice warm breakfast (fresh orange-poppy seed scones and a warm strawberry compote). We started noticing the sound of cars along the road to the trailhead and headed over a few minutes before 8:00 — just in time to grab one of the last parking spots. (The campground is about two miles from the trailhead, and we didn’t want to add four miles to our trip that day.)
We headed up the Condor Gulch trail, starting through shady woods and gradually moving into open rocky chaparral. Birds were abundant again, though a slightly different mix than in the campground. In the lower, wooded areas we had lingering warblers and thrushes, juncos, towhees, and song and white/golden-crowned sparrows. As we climbed, wildflowers brought out hummers (mostly Anna’s); there were flocks of bushtits, Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers, more titmice and jays, and a small-group of Rufous-crowned Sparrows. As we rounded one turn, my friend spied a dark bird on a rock high above us — our first condor of the day. Some of the other hikers asked what we were looking at and were excited to know a condor was in view. I shared my binoculars with one couple and let them get an even better look. Perhaps some new birders were created that day.
My friend retired last year and has been able to hike a lot mid-week when things are less crowded; I’ve been working and having to avoid weekend crowds in the parks. I’d been upping my walking in the weeks leading up to our trip, but I was still out of shape for the climbing involved. About 2/3 of the way to the top, I realized there was just no way that I’d be able to get to the High Peaks this time. Fortunately, there was a great stopping point — a relatively flat overlook area, which is used by the condor researchers to view and radio-track the birds during their daily activities.
We stayed for close to an hour. One of the monitors was a new volunteer going through training. We got to listen in on their discussion of protocol, data recording and telemetry methods. Nerd heaven! At one point, we had three condors flying together, quite a sight. One exciting moment was watching a peregrine come blasting off the cliffs to drive a condor away from its nest site. That’s something that would have been nearly unimaginable 35 years ago, when both species were critically endangered and restoration efforts were just barely underway. Both birds flew within 100’ of us before the peregrine veered off and returned to its nest. It unfolded so quickly that even the monitors were unable to get the condor’s wing tag number.
They were able to read the tag on another bird a few minutes later, #914 who was hatched in 2018. He is older brother of a famous bird — Iniko, a 2020 nestcam “celebrity”. Last year, Iniko was monitored in her nest inside a hollow redwood trunk in Big Sur. During the fall fires, condor fans feared the worst as they watched flames approach the nest of the still-flightless nestling and then the feed when black. She survived the fires as did her mother, but her father disappeared and is presumed dead. Mom has found a new mate and they are nesting. Their egg will likely hatch this week. (You can find a link to the cameras at ventanaws.org)
Though I was not able to make it up to the peaks this time, I have made the hike twice in the past. These photos are from those previous trips. It’s a really amazing place, and just a short drive from the Bay Area. (There is also a West Entrance, which can be reached only from the other side — there are no roads that go through the park.) If you want to hike High Peaks — and you do, believe me — be prepared with plenty of water. Like, no matter how much you think you want, bring a little more. There is no water source once you’re on the trail. It gets hot once you hit the chaparral zone, and there’s a 1500’ elevation gain in a little over 2.5 miles. But the view from the top is incredible and memorable, truly worth the effort.
We wound our way back down the trail and headed back to our site. We had only walked about four miles but were exhausted. Plans of an afternoon walk were quickly abandoned. Instead, we decided to break out paints and try doing some watercolor sketches — we’re both trying to get back into it. Mediocre results, but I will still love looking at this reminder of the start of our return to normal, watching the condors return to normal on a spring day when maybe, just maybe, the country is starting to return to normal. It doesn’t get any better than that.