On a late May day in 2020, a rare sighting occurred. For the first time in nearly 50 years, California condors had landed within Sequoia National Park, along the U.S. west coast’s Sierra Mountain range. People within the park spotted at least six of these New World vultures. There were two standing atop a massive granite dome known as Moro Rock, and four others in the park’s Giant Forest—a landscape of towering sequoia trees.
Condors had been frequent visitors to both Sequoia and neighboring Kings Canyon parks up to the late 1970s, when their numbers were nearing extinction. Now, thanks to a highly successful recovery plan, there are upwards of 340 California condors in the wild.
Condors are the largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere: odd-looking avians known for their prehistoric faces and extraordinary eyesight that many Indigenous American cultures consider sacred. There are only two condor species in existence—the California condor, which was once prevalent across North America but is now limited to areas in the Western U.S. and Mexico’s Baja peninsula; and the Andean condor, with a range stretching from Venezuela to southern Patagonia. Although closely related, the two birds vary in length, weight, wingspan and appearance. However, both are known for their longevity and are more closely related to storks than to Old World vultures like eagles, hawks and kites.
Often called “nature’s garbage collectors,” condors primarily feed on carrion, aka the carcasses of dead animals. They typically hit the skies early each day, using their broad wings to soar high in the air over long periods, searching for food. The bigger the carcasses (think sheep, horses, deer and cattle) they find, the better. Condors then feast on these corpses, using powerful stomach acids to break down any nasty bacteria they consume.
Despite the vital role they play in ecosystems, condors face significant threats like poaching and habitat loss, as well as lead poisoning stemming from bullet fragments. Condors mistakenly ingest the latter when feeding, resulting in more condor deaths than any other identifiable source.
As one of nature’s great treasures, condors are a sight worth seeing, and it just so happens that Nat Hab knows exactly where to look for these rare birds. But first, here’s a bit more about these two amazing avians that grace our planet.
The Andean Condor
With its combined maximum weight of 33 lbs and a maximum wingspan of 10 ft 10 in, the Andean condor is considered the world’s largest flying bird: a behemoth that rules the skies over South America’s Andes mountain range and along its neighboring Pacific Coast. It’s a national symbol of several South American countries, including Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, and is also found as far north as Colombia and Venezuela.
Approximately 6,700 Andean condors still exist in the wild and—with no natural predators—adult birds can live to be more than 70 years old. Still, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed them as vulnerable, due to the numerous threats mentioned above.
Along with its strong talons, wide-spanning wings with feathers that look like outstretched fingertips in flight, and a hooked beak, an Andean condor is identifiable by its nearly featherless head and neck. The birds also feature a frill of white feathers surrounding the base of their neck. Their adult plumage is mostly black, while their heads range in color from blackish-red to red.
Keep an eye out for Andean condors nesting on remote rocky ledges and at high elevations of up to 16,000 feet, or in small narrow crevasses that are somewhat shaded along coastlines. Andean condors rarely flap their wings when flying. Instead, they utilize wind currents to soar through the air for hours at a time.
The best places for spotting Andean condors in the wild include Peru’s Colca Canyon, above the open grasslands of Patagonia’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago, and Torres del Paine National Park. One of the most accessible places to watch and photograph them is in Chilean Patagonia’s Olga Teresa, a century-old ranch about an hour’s drive outside Punta Arenas. It’s home to the Cerro Palomares hillside, where nearly 200 Andean condors tend to congregate every late afternoon and evening.
Nat Hab’s Patagonia Wilderness & Wildlife Explorer also offers an opportunity to catch sight of these magnificent beings in the wild, including three full days exploring Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.
The California Condor
While the California condor is slightly longer in length—with an average of 4.5 feet over the Andean condor’s average of four feet—than its southern cousin, it’s also lighter in weight and with a shorter wingspan. Still, this impressive vulture remains North America’s largest land bird, with only the golden eagle posing an avian threat.
You can identify a California condor by its large wingspan (average 9.8 feet), black plumage with white patches on the underside of the wings, and a bald head that ranges in color from yellow to bright orange on adults. These condors also sport a neck frill, but in this case, it’s black.
For centuries, California condors existed from California to Florida and as far north as Western Canada, but the species faced substantial threats in the 20th century, including agricultural chemicals like DDT. In 1967, the U.S. Federal Government listed California condors as endangered. Twenty years later, Federal wildlife officials rounded up the last 27 or so of them remaining in the wild (a movement that wasn’t without controversy) and brought them to both the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park for captive breeding.
Since 1991, the government has been re-releasing California condors back into the wild, in such areas as Los Padres National Forest (just outside of Los Angeles); Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs National Monument; and beginning in March 2022, Redwood National and State Parks in northern California. While the breeding program has been highly successful, their numbers remain critically endangered.
California condors tend to nest in cliffside caves and even in the trunks of giant redwood trees. Like Andean condors, they utilize air currents to stay aloft and can live for decades, typically up to about 60 years old. If lucky, you might see some soaring in the skies above California’s Pinnacles National Park, or along the Big Sur coastline at Andrew Molera State Park or Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Or opt for Nat Hab’s Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion, which visits the red rock wonders of the American Southwest, including two popular condor sighting spots: Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah.
The Importance of Condors
Not only are condors iconic and sacred birds to many, but their ecological role is undeniable. By consuming animal carcasses, they can help prevent the spread of disease, and their longevity is a prime indicator of ecological health. Remember: if condors are thriving, then their natural surroundings are likely prospering, too.