At the first creek crossing, you know it's not going to be a smooth ride up Hi Mountain Road. It's steep and deep, with rivulets of earth carved out by heavy creek flows rolling up the other side.
This road was graded and re-opened to the public in 2018, but a winter of heavy rain flowing across packed dirt put deep grooves into the path of vehicles. Climbing into Los Padres National Forest, the ruts up ahead make the trek bouncy and slow-going. A high-clearance vehicle is a necessity. Four-wheel drive is recommended.
- Photo By Camillia Lanham
- BIRD SIGHTING A group of condors soars above the Big Sur coastline near McWay Falls in 2015.
At the 3,198-foot-high summit, land stretches for miles in all directions. Lopez Lake, wineries, the Pacific Ocean, and sometimes—on the clearest of days—Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada are visible from the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout.
The restored fire tower is accessible one of two ways. From Pozo to the north or from Lopez Lake to the south. Both are bumpy, and the road isn't really maintained in either direction—sometimes it's closed. Basically, you have to be committed to get there.
On the first Saturday in May, a handful of volunteers and visitors made the commitment, attending the Hi Mountain Lookout Picnic and Social. A life-sized condor mural soars from the first floor of the tower. Up top, glass windows give unfettered 360-degree bird's-eye views of the surrounding wilderness.
Heading into its 22nd year, Hi Mountain Condor Lookout is preparing for another summer of condor tracking. Through volunteers and Cal Poly student interns, the lookout has served as a radio-telemetry site for monitoring the giant scavengers since at least 1996. The lookout was restored in 2002 with funding from the Morro Coast Audubon Society and the help of dedicated volunteers such as Audubon member Steve Schubert, Kevin Cooper with the U.S. Forest Service, and Cal Poly professor Francis Villablanca.
"It was kind of bird driven with a lot of cooperators," said Cooper, who recently retired from his position as the Los Padres forest biologist. "It represents a lot of the work that I've done with conservation over the years ... and it's really been a community thing. ... Plus it's just beautiful up there. It's a very special place."
Cooper met Schubert in the 1970s through their work monitoring peregrine falcons, a species that was close to extinction at the time. Peregrine falcon nesting habitat is similar to what condors prefer—rocky cliffs and sometimes tall snags. Both the Forest Service and Audubon volunteers were using the lookout to track falcon recovery. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the desire to help re-establish condors drove Cooper, Schubert, and others to restore the lookout and use it as a condor monitoring site.
The falcon nesting sites observed from the lookout in the '70s are considered to also be historic nesting sites for condors. Although condors haven't used the nearby cliffs for more than 50 years, biologists hold out hope that as the population of condors continues to grow in Central California, they will return to their old stomping grounds.
For now though, the telltale "beep, beep, beep" on the radio of a condor passing through from the north or south will have to suffice.
The population of California condors dwindled to 22 in the wild before the wildlife conservation community underwent a huge experiment, capturing all of them, breeding them in captivity until the population had multiplied enough, and reintroducing them to the wild. More than 400 exist today, and the numbers are growing. Most of the condors are tracked, Cooper said, either through a radio transmitter or a GPS monitor.
"The birds have been reproducing on their own pretty well," Cooper said. "A lot of individual attention was given to the birds, and it's paid off."
However, condors still face hurdles to recovery, including lead, DDT, and something called micro-trash—tiny pieces of garbage (bottle caps, pieces of glass, broken plastic fork tines, etc.) that people leave behind.
"From a philosophical standpoint, those things that affect these species, like condors and falcons, also impact humans," Cooper said.
Continuing to address these impacts and bring back species that have been pushed to the brink of extinction is something people should strive for "as caretakers of our environments," Cooper said. "And also taking responsibility for the impacts that we've had on those species because we've changed the survivability of them."
Schubert introduces himself to the group gathered at Hi Mountain Condor Lookout on May 4. He and Cooper have been in it since the beginning, working to keep the lookout's program running. He talks about the historic nesting sites before encouraging people to volunteer if they want to.
"We now have a release site in San Simeon," he says as he points northwest. "Condors are now in our backyard, and we're hoping that as time goes on ... they will find their way back."
As a Cal Poly graduate, Schubert believes his work with the lookout is a way for him to give back to the school that brought him so much. He's been involved with the Audubon since he was a freshman in 1974, and he's been a link between the society, which often funds part of the student internships, and the lookout. As a graduate student, doing field work with the Los Padres National Forest changed his life. He would camp out near peregrine falcon nests to collect data and prevent thefts, which he said was a problem in the '70s due to the birds being popular with falconers.
"It was a big deal," he said. "It impacted me in a huge way."
Cal Poly biological sciences student Marie Solis interned at the lookout in 2018 with a fellow student. Three to four days a week for 10 weeks, she and her partner lived at the lookout, sleeping on the metal walkway that runs all the way around the outside of the second story. The lookout does have space to sleep inside, but some volunteers prefer being in the open.
- Photo Courtesy Of U.S. Fish And Wildlife
- SOARING California condors often fly more than 100 miles a day, scouring their territories for food.
"My partner and I slept outside on that every night, and we woke up to the sunrise every day," Solis said in an email response to questions from New Times.
They manned the lookout so people could come out and visit (inquiring before you go is highly recommended because it isn't always open). But Solis said they also worked on other projects, continuing a multi-year survey of narrowleaf milkweed started by professor Villablanca, putting up a handful of game cameras to document some of the local residents, and using the radio telemetry equipment to track the condors. The final project they worked on became Solis' senior project for Cal Poly.
The pair conducted micro-trash surveys in roadside pullouts along Hi Mountain Road. Comparing what they found to a 2007 study in Los Padres National Forest on micro-trash collected from condor nests and necropsied condor chicks, the students found that the birds prefer plastic micro-trash to other materials.
"An important thing to note about the project is that the pullouts we sampled were only along Hi Mountain Lookout Road, and the Los Padres National Forest is a huge national forest (about 3,000 square miles)," Solis cautioned. "Therefore, it's totally possible that the proportions we collected aren't necessarily representative of the entire area. However, it's a good start and potentially an interesting research question that can be further studied by future interns at the lookout."
Solis presented her work at a February meeting of the Western Section of the Wildlife Society, which is part of a national organization of professional wildlife biologists and managers in the U.S. Due to her work with condors, Solis will be interning with the Ventana Wildlife Society after she graduates with a bachelor's degree in biological sciences this June.
The Ventana Wildlife Society has played a key role in the condor recovery process on the Central Coast. The nonprofit releases captive-bred condors at sites in Big Sur and Pinnacles National Park, with a recently added release site near San Simeon. Solis attributes her success to the work she did at the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout.
"It can help open the door of many different opportunities, simply because one of its main focuses is simply exposing the interns to many field techniques and allowing the interns to experiment with different studies and assignments to see what their interests are," Solis said. "The Hi Mountain internship is a great stepping stone in any biology undergraduate student's career."
John Perrine, a Cal Poly professor who teaches wildlife ecology and conservation, recently took over for his colleague Villablanca in working with the lookout. He said that projects like the one Solis and her partner completed enable people to organize to help mitigate the issue. For trash, a simple sign could make all the difference, Perrine said. Informing people to pick up after themselves because the little bits they leave behind could harm condors might be a big step in preventing micro-trash from accumulating in the future.
Obviously, this kind of work aligns with Cal Poly's motto—learn by doing. With wildlife ecology, Perrine said, it can be a struggle to get students involved in hands-on roles.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- POISONED AND STUFFED Now hanging in a biological science classroom at Cal Poly, this condor died of lead poisoning last year before being taxidermied.
"That's challenging because some of these species are highly protected, so you need permission and permits to work with them, and some of these species just aren't very abundant," he said. "If you can accomplish that, you can help send someone right on their way to becoming a field biologist because these opportunities are very hard to come by."
Cal Poly's collaboration with the lookout is a win-win for everybody involved, Perrine said—the Forest Service, nonprofit collaborators such as the Audubon Society, and the university. Plus, there's not a lot of money in wildlife conservation, which is a largely volunteer-run enterprise. So an internship that has a stipend, such as the one at the lookout, makes it an opportunity for all students, not just those who can afford to not be employed during the summer.
"Everybody wants to help conserve the condors and restore the condors, and they want to help train the next generation of wildlife stewards," Perrine said. "If you've got an undergrad coming out of school saying, 'I've done radio-telemetry on condors,' it gets your attention."
Hi Mountain is right in the middle of the only two condor flocks in California. Joseph Brandt, a supervisory wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's California Condor Recovery Program, said Fish and Wildlife manages a southern flock that extends from Los Padres' southern end to almost as far north as Yosemite. The Ventana Wildlife Society and Pinnacles National Park manage the central California flock, which hangs around Big Sur, Monterey, and Pinnacles.
"[Hi Mountain]'s kind of the ideal place to monitor any exchange between these two flocks," Brandt said. "It's nice to have folks strategically positioned so that they can do telemetry ... and that's a big part of the way that we track condors."
- Photo By Camillia Lanham
- INTERPRETIVE WORK Steve Schubert went out to the Hi Mountain Lookout before visitors arrived on May 4, prepping the lookout and installing interpretive signs that identified vegetation around the fire tower.
Small radio transmitters with tags on them are attached to the condors' wings, allowing people with radios to try to tune in to those telltale beeps that indicate where the birds are flying. It's how they can detect birds in real time, Brandt said, but those locations aren't exact—they're more triangulated. Some condors are outfitted with GPS trackers, which pinpoint a more exact location and collect detailed information, but the data is only available when the bird is in an area with cellphone service.
Condors often fly upward of 100 miles per day within their territories. The farthest that one has ever been tracked is 220 miles in one day, Brandt said. Overall, he said, reintroducing condors into their historic habitat has been a success.
"The population is growing in part because we're making headway in terms of recovery," Brandt said. "The habitat's there, the population just needs to get large enough and expand into the [Hi Mountain] area."
And the population of that southern flock is starting to expand north. Recently, Los Padres in Santa Barbara County had its first nesting pair of condors since recovery efforts began. Their range covers hundreds of miles, occupying a territory that's larger than any county.
- Photo By Camillia Lanham
- SEASON'S GREETINGS The Hi Mountain Condor Lookout had an opening event on May 4. Volunteers repacked the lookout with all of the essentials for a summer of tracking condors, and visitors brought lunches with them for a picnic on top of the world.
"We now see that Santa Barbara backcountry little family of condors. The parents are starting to fly around with their chick and introduce them to that range," Brandt said. "It's exciting to see nesting in Santa Barbara; that's an expansion of where birds are nesting. We hope that that nest will draw other birds into the Santa Barbara backcountry because there's lots of nesting habitat."
While condors have come a long way, the species still isn't quite to a place where wildlife biologists feel comfortable. The population is growing at a rate that outpaces those that die each year, but the way in which scientists believe condors are dying is troubling. DDT, the legacy pesticide banned in 1972 that wreaked havoc among bird populations (including the peregrine falcon), is still around. It's part of the water column and the food chain, accumulating more in each species as it gets eaten.
DDT is affecting the central flock, Brandt said. It causes thin shells and chick mortality. Biologists' most educated guess is that the condors get it from feeding on sea lions—which are at the top of the marine life food chain on the coast. The level of DDT that's found in the birds, though, is dropping, Brandt said, which is promising.
An even bigger issue is the number of condors that die from lead poisoning each year. The majority of condor deaths (as in, more than 50 percent) are associated with ingesting lead, Brandt said. That lead most likely comes from bullet fragments that condors eat as part of dinner, wild animals that have been shot—either from gut piles left behind by hunters or from pests like wild pigs, which are shot and left for scavengers. Those dead animals are also key to condor recovery.
"Shooting of wild game plays an important part of the diet of condors," Brandt said. "It's definitely a part of their food base and what they're feeding on, and we want to maintain that food source. We just don't want to have lead; we just don't want it to be contaminated."
- Photo By Camillia Lanham
- FOREST SERVICE Retired U.S. Forest Service forest biologist Kevin Cooper worked with Steve Schubert and a couple of others to get the fire lookout on top of Hi Mountain restored and ready to use for tracking wildlife like the California condor.
California's state Legislature passed Assembly Bill 711 in 2013, which requires the use of non-lead ammunition when taking any wildlife with a firearm in California. The law will complete its years-long phase-in on July 1, 2019.
The 2013 bill was controversial, and it polarized the issue—pitting condors and conservation against the hunting community. Non-lead ammunition was also hard to come by when the bill was first passed. Although it's easier to find now, non-lead ammunition still isn't as pervasive as lead ammo and it costs a little more. As part of that process, some wilderness conservation nonprofits such as the Ventana Wilderness Society started handing out non-lead ammo to hunters.
"Sometimes when things are well-intended, it may also have consequences of making that conversation more polarized," Brandt said. "I definitely see why a hunter would have [their] gripes. No one likes to be legislated against, especially when you don't know why. That's why outreach and education is imperative."
As part of that education, Brandt said the Fish and Wildlife Service tries to stress how essential hunting is to the condor recovery process. Fish and Wildlife continues to work on education and outreach with the hunting community about the issue, and Brandt said he feels like it's starting to make an impact on the debate.
The key is to understand that everyone's in this conservation process together. Setting land aside for condors benefits open spaces, other species and habitats, and sometimes preserves hunting land. Lead isn't just poisonous for condors, it affects humans and other species as well, even if it's mere traces of lead that are being ingested.
"Showing that we can recover a species from just 22, we learned a lot from doing. Condors are well-funded and we've invested a lot into this species, but it's not just about condors," Brandt said. "It's also just benefitting our knowledge of conservation and endangered species as well." Δ
Editor Camillia Lanham can be reached at [email protected].