In recent years, many Grand Canyon visitors have spotted North America's largest land bird. Members of the vulture family, California condors cruise more than 100 miles a day, at speeds approaching 50 mph. When mature, condors are grayish-black except on their heads, which are orange and featherless. Under each wing, a triangular white patch -- a characteristic field mark -- will be visible.
In December 1996, six of these birds, whose wings can span 9 1/2 feet, were released on the Vermilion Cliffs along Highway 89A, 26 miles from Lees Ferry. Since then, 10 or so condors have been released each year. The releases were part of a larger project aimed at reintroducing the birds to the wild after they nearly went extinct in the 1980s. Of the 198 California condors in the wild, 67 now live in the canyon country of northern Arizona and southern Utah.
Because condors primarily rely on eyesight to find their food, they sometimes follow turkey vultures and other scavengers. Other than size, the easiest way to tell the two species apart is the way they soar. Vultures hold their wings in a "V"; condors generally keep theirs in a flat plane.
Unless the condors change their habits, they will probably continue to make appearances above the South Rim and in Southern Utah in the years to come. In the summer of 2003, biologists confirmed that at least three pairs of California condors nesting in Arizona laid eggs. Two nests were unsuccessful, but one pair produced a young condor. It was the first time in hundreds of years that a condor had hatched and survived in Arizona. Unfortunately, the young condor died 2 years later; the cause of death was most likely malnutrition. Fourteen additional condors hatched and fledged in recent years, eight of which survive today.
North of the canyon, you might spot a condor by driving 14 miles east of Jacob Lake on Highway 89A to House Rock Valley Road (the first road to your left after you leave the national forest). Turn left (north) on BLM road 1065 and go 2 miles to a shade ramada, kiosk, and restroom; scientists leave food for the youngest birds atop the cliffs to the east. If condors are in the area, you'll probably meet workers who are tracking them. They carry a spotting scope and binoculars, and if asked, will likely help you see the birds.
Wherever you spot them, do not approach, feed, or otherwise disturb the condors. If you see one who appears to be hurt or sick, notify the Peregrine Fund Condor Project (tel. 928/355-2270; www.peregrinefund.org). Be prepared to identify the time and location of the sighting and, if possible, the bird's wing-tag number. If you want to read more about these fascinating creatures, grab a copy of Condors in Canyon Country (Grand Canyon Association, 2007) by Sophie A. H. Osborn.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.