Wild California Condors of Big Sur

Today I photographed two California condors feeding on a dead sea lion. California condors are the largest land birds of North America. They are a rare sighting with only 232 California condor birds in the wild as of October 31, 2012.

There are about 50 wild California condors in the Big Sur area. Other locations where California condors have been bred and released are the Arizona Grand Canyon, southern Utah, mountains of southern California and the Pinnacles National Monument about 40 miles east of Monterey.

About 14 miles south of my home on the road to Big Sur, just off Highway 1 is Garrapata State Park and Soberanes Point. This is a place where I like to go walk outside with beautiful ocean vista, birds and marine life.


These hills were likely covered with Monterey pines and coast redwoods 200 years ago. Most of the coastal lands of central coast California were cleared for lumber and cattle ranching in the 1800s. The only remaining coast redwoods this far south in California are in some of the coastal valleys along the central coast of Monterey County Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Parkand San Luis Obispo County around Cambria and Hearst Castle.

I saw my first whale of the season swimming south within minutes of reaching the coast at Soberanes Point.

Whale Dec 2012

Watching for whales was difficult with all the bird distractions like a group of California brown pelicans flying overhead.


The breeze was picking up and I felt like a couple of turkey vultures were my pets checking me out as they circled back and forth around me. There were several turkey vultures flying within 20 feet of me along the coastal trail. These are one of the largest birds in California. I hear tourists around Big Sur often mistake them for condors.


This week is one of the three greatest tidal changes of the year meteorologically and the tide was especially low. Fishermen were on the rocks gathering something.


Looking south to Point Sur.

Turkey vultures are one of the largest birds flying along the California coast. I looked up to see a bird flying with the turkey vultures that was quite a bit larger. I suspected I had just seen a California condor passing overhead. It landed on the rocks about 200 yards away from me. I approached for a closer look.

Loyalty Traveler Warning: Some pictures below show the California Condor scavenging a dead California sea lion.

Condor 31

The condor is concealed fairly well on the rocks (slightly left of center). I spied the yellow wing tag. All wild California condors carry radio tracking tags on their wings. This is only my second confirmed condor sighting verified by seeing the wing tag.

I needed to get closer for better photos.


I crawled along the ice plant and positioned myself on the edge of the cliff about 40 yards from the condor on the rocks below. Then I realized this scavenger bird had found a dead sea lion on the rocks to eat.

Condor 31 on seal

California Condor #31 standing on dead sea lion at Soberanes Point, Big Sur, California.


The condor worked hard pulling on the tough sea lion skin to expose the interior. In video, the condor is active and methodical. The bird looked around frequently, but did not seem too agitated at my proximity. I stayed as still as I could.

Condor #31 flew away after about five to ten minutes.


I watched California condor #31 fly away hundreds of yards to the north.

The sudden approach a minute later of the condor from the south surprised me.


Condor #77 landing at the site of the sea lion carcass.


Sea lion carcass is just below condor at bottom to the left.

Radio tag number 77 is clearly visible on the condor’s wings.


The condor sees me, yet is not frightened away from the carcass.


Condor #77 jumps onto the dead sea lion.


Condor #77 feeds on dead sea lion.


Condor #77 hopping across rocks.


Condor #77 hops up to land on highest rock, turns around and flies away.


Condor lift-off.


Condor thrust.


Condor flatten wings.


Condor cruise control.


Condor #77 soaring away to north.

Three minutes later Condor #77 returns for more feeding. The young male condor tugs at the skin some more to expose the interior of the carcass.


And when I look up, I see condor #31 still flying overhead.


Turns out that condor #31 is actually California Condor #231, a female hatched at Los Angeles Zoo April 30, 2000. Her name is Wild1. She was released in the Big Sur area April 5, 2001. Supposedly she prefers quiet wilderness, so it might be unusual for her to be near Highway 1.

Condor #77 is Phoenix, a male juvenile hatched April 22, 2008 and actually is condor number 477. Wild1, condor #31, is the mother of Phoenix and his father is condor #199 The Great One, who is a large condor.  These California condors were the first two condors to lay an egg and raise it themselves in the Big Sur wilderness in recent decades. Phoenix is the first wild born California condor in Big Sur from the revitalization program for the species.

Phoenix received his name due to surviving the Big Sur Basin Complex major fire of June 2008 when much of Big Sur burned. Phoenix hatched two months before the summer fire and the grove of coast redwoods where his nest was high up in a tall redwood burned about half way up the trees. The crown of the redwood grove survived and so did Phoenix, arising from the ashes after the fire passed.

Condors can live 60 years.


Ventana Wildlife Society – Condors

Ventana Wildlife Society – photo of condor #31(2008) watching a whale carcass. California Condor #231 profile. California Condor #477 profile. allows you to look up Big Sur area condors by tag number.

About Ric Garrido

Ric Garrido of Monterey, California started Loyalty Traveler in 2006 for traveler education on hotel and air travel, primarily using frequent flyer and frequent guest loyalty programs for bargain travel. Loyalty Traveler joined in 2008.

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  1. Dude,, if this is where you live, you are one heck of a lucky guy and Condors, i heard that the poor vultures are getting killed because of lead and the population is on the downward slope since 2006, is it true?

  2. Fantastic! You have inspired me to plan for a visit to the park when we travel to CA in the spring, for a trip up Highway 1.

  3. I got lucky and saw two condors at fairly close range standing on one of the rock spires at Pinnacles several years ago. One doesn’t appreciate how large these birds are until seeing them up close.

  4. Very cool, thanks for sharing! We just took our first trip up to Big Sur about a month ago, and I loved it there. This makes me want to go back!

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