Toad in the Hole

March 21, 2006

Monterey-Big Sur, 2003

Coupla-two-t'ree years ago we drove down to Monterey and the Big Sur coast to see the "new" condors. I wasn't sure what this would be like; the last condors we'd seen wild -- half a dozen on one day in 1970-something, on Mount Pinos down south -- were before the captive breeding program, a dismaying large percentage of the original wild population. That was an incredible experience. They definitely look back at you, make eye contact. They glide around with no apparent effort, not even bothering to move their wings except for an occasional curl of the outer primaries. We saw a pair of them gliding in tandem, perfectly matching each other's every tilt and bank and turn, as if by magic.

Then a few years later we were visiting the San Diego Zoo's wild animal park, and walked over a hill to a lath house where I knew the late John Naka had some bonsai on display. On the next hill there was a great big cage draped in dark mesh cloth. Something moved across it, one end to the other, a big dark shape that glided low, huge nonponderous movement. We realized simultaneously that it was a condor, that all those dark shapes were condors, that these were part of that breeding program. My legs gave way and I fell to my knees. I don't think I even felt the bruises till later. Talk about ambivalence -- great joy at seeing them again, and more at seeing them alive; immense regret and sorrow at seeing those masters of the air imprisoned, though still insistent on flying even if it was only a few feet above the ground.

So we were going to see the descendants, knowing they'd all be wing-tagged, with human fingerprints all over them. More ambivalence.

I'm here to tell you that it didn't much matter, that (as I've said elsewhere) it's possible to weep great floods of tears without fogging up your binoculars if you're pointing them straight up. Gods it was good to see them. It was old friends supposed lost, it was beloved and revered family at long last, it was resurrected deities, it was restoration, limbs and eyes regrown, pure joy re-found.

And what a place they have, this group, over those cliffs on the ocean. They share it with at least six pairs of peregrine falcons, as we saw that same day, and other raptors (including a pygmy owl who spent the day roosting not ten feet from a heavily used path, in a bare tree-let) and turkey vultures, and assorted sea- and shorebirds.

I remember supporting our local Audubon chapter against the captive breeding program. I've never been so glad to be wrong in my life.

I don't have any photos of the birds, who were way out of our little camera's range, but I can show you the place a bit. Here's just over the roadside pullout, over that cliff.


For perspective: see those little golden-tan linear things in a cluster near the bottom left? That's (horrors!) a tuft of pampas grass, and each of those tan seed stalks is taller than you or me.

There's a spot near where we saw the condors, where a waterfall pours into the sea at high tide, onto the sand at low. There's something so... not quite smug, but plentiful about that, Nature saying, in a sort of anti-memento mori, "...unto me you may return; all will."


And this fellow, wearing a winter head of gray streaks (in breeding season it would be white, a striking complement to the smooth-gray body plumage and bright red bill), is a Heermann's gull. They accompany the brown pelicans who come north from Mexico and the southern California islands after nesting season. In fact, they make a living largely by robbing those pelicans. You'll see one like a duenna shadowing almost every pelican sometimes, and meowing like cats when they've snatched a fish or have a likely prospect.


Quite a place. I'd love to be on one of those cliffs right now (preferably in a nice dry cabin or even car) watching this rainstorm move in.

Posted at March 21, 2006 07:28 PM


Great pics - it's so different from our shores.

Posted by: Rurality at March 22, 2006 12:30 PM


Posted by: Pica at March 22, 2006 03:09 PM

It'd be hard not to get good pics of that place; it's incredible. There are two more with that bunch on Flickr, verticals that I couldn't get the site software to reorient, though I believe I'd loaded them vertically. I think I know why, and there's nothing to be done about it from this computer and that camera, but if you can turn your monitor sideways (well I can) have a look anyway.

Those roads take some getting used to. We took my poor mother up Route 1 around the seaward flank of Mount Tamalpais years ago. I hadn't thought it would bother her, as she'd grown up and learned to drive in the mountains of Pennsylvania, and she was a fairly fearless driver in my recollection. I asked for some info from the map she was holding, and she couldn't open it; she'd been clutching it so hard in sweating hands that she'd reduced the middle of it to papier-mache.

Yes we took an inland route home.

Posted by: Ron at March 22, 2006 05:08 PM

oh -- very lovely, ron.

there are parts of hwy. 1 that i just don't think i can do anymore. that stretch in marin is worse going southbound, on accounta the cliffs and all, so i bet mom was glad to see the sights on the inland route home.

Posted by: kathy a at March 22, 2006 06:52 PM

I think I've only seen condors in photos and films.

What birds I've seen from breeding programs are hawks and falcons, and also seen (from a distance) some falcons that had protected nesting sites that closed down some cliff climbing trails at Acadia, in Maine.

Even through binocs the sight of a perigrene tail-chasing a pigeon did this city-boy's heart good.

Posted by: Craig R. at April 3, 2006 02:05 AM

Come West, Craig -- you can see condors on the Big Sur coast and over the Grand Canyon. Very good idea, that: starting a new population in a different place. As you've probably noticed, seeing birds like that in person is several powers better than on film.

Someone found condors nesting in a redwood in the general Big Sur-Ventana neighborhood last week. Yesssss!

Posted by: Ron at April 3, 2006 05:39 PM