Big Sur: California Condors

After leaving McWay Falls on our Big Sur road trip, we drove north to Monterey, thinking about dinner at fisherman’s wharf. A couple miles up the road, we saw two vans pulled to the side of the highway, with a bunch of people outside, looking up. At Yellowstone, this signaled wildlife!

This stretch of highway 1 is narrow and curvy. At the first wide shoulder with room to park, I pulled over and looked up. I thought I saw a big bird soaring, with a number on its wing. We had seen this once before — a Calfornia condor at the Grand Canyon.

California condors were nearly extinct in 1987, when all wild condors were captured to increase the survival rate. Scavengers, condors eat lead shot in dead animals and get lead poisoning. They’re large, soaring birds, so keeping them content in captivity isn’t easy. The breeding program was successful, and condors were released into the wild, including at Big Sur.

After changing to a telephoto lens, I took pictures until the birds flew away, not knowing whether these birds are condors or turkey vultures, a common relative of the condor.

Shown above, a soaring bird landed on a steep cliff and moved to another branch. See the black plumage and the triangular patch of white under its wing. From wikipedia, the condor

plumage is black with patches of white on the underside of the wings; the head is largely bald, with skin color ranging from gray on young birds to yellow and bright orange on breeding adults. Its huge 3.0 m (9.8 ft) wingspan is the widest of any North American bird, and its weight of up to 12 kg (26 lb) nearly equals that of the trumpeter swan, the heaviest among native North American bird species. The condor is a scavenger and eats large amounts of carrion. It is one of the world’s longest-living birds, with a lifespan of up to 60 years.

At home, after viewing the photos in Lightroom and consulting a bird book, I concluded that this is a California condor!

The soaring condors below have colored tags on their wings, and the tags have a 2-digit number. Click on photos to see enlargements.

There is a condor numbering system where each condor has a unique number.

When you see a condor flying in the wild, look for the number printed on its wing tags. The number will either be the last one or two digits of its studbook number. For example, a wing tag that reads “19” will indicate that the bird is either Condor #19, #119, #219, #319, or #419. The color of the tag determines whether the number is in the 200, 300 or 400 series, and so on.

The yellow tag indicates the 200 series, so a yellow tag with 22 indicates condor 222.

This condor is flying close to a ridge, so you can appreciate its size.

condor 351 and turkey vulture
condor 351 and a turkey vulture

We saw birds flying together, up to six at one time. Looking at the photos more closely, the birds are condors and turkey vultures.

Turkey vultures also have black and white wing markings, but their coloring is the opposite of the condors’. For example, the condor has black flight feathers, and the vulture has white ones. The turkey vulture below is flying over the tree where the condor stopped. Here are photos of a turkey vulture at home.

turkey vulture flying over tree where pair of condor landed
turkey vulture flying over the tree where condor landed

These were the first California condors we’ve seen in California, unexpected treasure from our Big Sur road trip.

This condor encounter illustrates the importance of getting your camera ready quickly. I had to find a pullout to park, get out the camera, change to a telephoto lens, and adjust the camera settings to go from shooting landscapes to birds in flight (which requires a shorter exposure, smaller aperture, and multiple exposures). There isn’t time to read the manual, so learning this takes practice and missing some shots along the way. Practice at home or close to home where it’s easier to go back and try again when you miss a shot.

Reading about condors, “The Highway 1 pullouts between Nepenthe Restaurant and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park are good places to stop and scan for condors cruising along the coast or soaring over the ridges.” We saw these condors between those points, so this seems like great advice. If you do a Big Sur road trip, look around, and be ready.

To increase your chances of seeing condors, the Ventana Wildlife Society offers tours where “This two-hour tour will lead you down the coast to view magnificent and endangered California condors. Our knowledgeable staff will use radio telemetry to track while taking in the beautiful Big Sur coast.”


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

3 thoughts on “Big Sur: California Condors”

  1. Really interesting. Particularly liked learning about the numbering and the evident difference (once it’s been explained like this) between the condor and turkey vulture. Nice job orchestrating the extraction of the camera from the bag, lens change, and framing the shots against the bright blue sky and dark trees. Clear enough pictures to be uploaded and zoomed to see the wing markings. Fun. Thanks.


    1. Thank you. Like all photographers, I only show the good shots. When we first saw a condor several years ago, all my photos of a condor in flight were blurry. Moments like that underscore the need to improve — lifelong learning.


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