Not an Oakmont Bird – Yet

Late summer is the doldrums for bird-watching here. Many of the birds who arrived in spring have raised their young and are leaving for their tropical wintering grounds. The birds who winter here won’t arrive for a month or two. Year-round residents are plentiful – House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, etc. – but even they seem less inclined to show up for feeding (though they do love a reliably filled birdbath).

So what to write about? One of my favorites – not found in Oakmont now, but maybe someday.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane…no, it’s really a bird. Seeing a California Condor sailing overhead, with a 9+ foot wingspan, you can easily mistake it for a small aircraft – and what a thrill! Adults are black with white patches on the leading edge of their underwings and bald orangish heads. They are noticeably bigger than any other North American bird and hold their wings out with “fingers” spread at the tips. Their flight appears stately, not teetering like Turkey Vultures, and their soaring circles are very large and slow. They rarely flap.

Today Condors usually roost and nest in high rocky cliffs and crags, but in earlier times they also used coastal redwoods and giant sequoias, and they are thought to be experimenting with these sites again. Their size demands a significant amount of space in which to get aloft, so height helps.

Condors are carrion eaters – they spot dead animals (the larger the better) with keen eyesight, either directly or by watching for crowds of other raptors, and then move in to devour meat and bones. They will eat anything from whales to deer to rabbits. Surprisingly social creatures among themselves, they are happy to share a carcass with other Condors but send smaller birds packing. After a meal, they enjoy bathing and then sunning.

The heyday of the Condor was the Pleistocene, when megafauna were plentiful and no carrion-eater went hungry. Condors ranged all across the Americas. After the last Ice Age, their meal tickets extinct, they retreated to the western US. A combination of lead poisoning (from eating animals shot by hunters), habitat loss, and other factors led to a formal declaration of extinction in 1987, when all known remaining birds in the US were captured and put into a breeding program, with the goal of reintroducing a population that could self-sustain in the wild.

Significant effort has resulted in building a wild population approaching 300 individuals in the central California mountains and Arizona. Condors can be regularly seen around the Pinnacles and Big Sur, and seem to be slowly soaring north – one was spotted in June just south of San Jose. A new cohort was released earlier this year near Redwood National Park in far northern CA, so it’s now possible they might appear over Oakmont one day from the north or south.

Have bird questions? Want a “Birds Seen in Oakmont” checklist? Send an e-mail to

CA Condor #67 Soaring


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