Pin It

Condors Over Arcata 

click to enlarge A California condor over Arcata.

Photo by Leah Alcyon

A California condor over Arcata.

During most of the sturm und drang of the Cal Poly Humboldt protest, I was across the country, on a pilgrimage of sorts to honor my dad and scatter his ashes at one of his favorite fishing spots. By the time I got home (let's just forget about my unplanned stay in Newark, New Jersey), all that was left was the sadly predictable denouement of police intervention and arrests. As Dad liked to say, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

But the day before all that went down something else happened in Arcata — the culmination, 37 years in the making, of a different sort of protest. That day a young birder on the trail of a rare sandpiper looked up and saw three California condors soaring over Arcata.

The news spread like hot fudge sauce over butter pecan ice cream. Within 30 seconds of the phone alert, I was out on my deck scanning the heavens. And there they were, a trio of magnificent condors drifting east on a lazy thermal until they soared right over my head and out of sight. It was breathtaking.

Local birder Bill McIver was at work at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office on Heindon Road when his phone pinged. "I ran down the hall and told my co-worker about the condors, and we both hustled outside to see three condors circling high overhead," he said, adding that despite several attempts he hadn't seen any of the condors reintroduced to the northern reaches of the county in 2022. Other birders who caught a look were able to zoom in and read the big birds' wing tags; they were Cher-perhl So-nee-ne-pek' ("I feel strong," A4), Neee'n ("Watcher," A5) and He-we-chek' ("I am healthy or I get well," A7).

Just over a year ago, a woman wrote to me and asked if I thought condors would ever be seen in the skies over Arcata. Someday, I told her. That day turned out to be April 29, 2024.

But the train of events leading up to it began almost four decades ago. California condors teetered on the brink of extinction for most of the 20th century, their numbers ravaged by the pesticide DDT, lead poisoning from spent ammunition, habitat loss and poaching. Their lackadaisical approach to reproduction, typically laying a single egg every other year, made a comeback even more improbable. The largest North American land bird, condors had few natural predators; humans were and are their biggest threat. In 1987 the condor population had dropped to 22 birds in the wild. By virtually every measure, these giants of the sky were gone.

But multiple agencies and individuals came together and fought the inevitable, using the power of the newly minted Endangered Species Act. And so one of the most intensive and astonishing conservation stories of all time was underway.

One of those individuals was ornithologist Jan Hamber, whose commitment to tracking and monitoring the last few wild condors proved instrumental in saving them. Hamber, a pioneer among women in the natural sciences who was once excluded from a field research team because of her sex, dedicated herself to the study of condor nesting habits and was the first to observe that condors could nest in back-to-back years, a discovery that proved critical to the successful captive breeding program. Hamber won multiple honors for her work on condor restoration, including the Trailblazing Women in Science Award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Audubon magazine profiled her in 2020 in a story titled, "This Bird Lives Because She Never Quit." Now in her 90s, she's still working on behalf of condors as the manager of the Condor Archives at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. She is a hero.

The mammoth effort to bring prey-go-neesh home to Humboldt — through the tireless work of the Yurok Tribe, Redwood National and State Parks and many other partners/donors — was heroic, too.

One might argue that saving California condors is a pretty easy cause to get behind. What's not to love about these prehistoric-looking birds that are so homely as to be incredibly beautiful? That live in a tight social hierarchy and parent by pinning an unruly chick to the ground with a massive foot? That rip through the tough hides of beached whales and dead elk with ease, filling their crops with up to three pounds of tissue and bone and not eating again for days or weeks? That cool themselves by peeing and pooping on their legs? Sign me up.

But there are myriad causes in this world and heroism has many faces. Among them are the students, young people and faculty members who took part in what began as a peaceful demonstration intended to focus attention on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. What they did took guts. In the end the heavy-handed response from CPH's leadership shed light not only on the war in Gaza, but the wars happening every day, right here, on free speech, LGBTQ rights and women's control over their own bodies.

There are a lot of hammers out there right now. It can be overwhelming; we've all felt helpless at times. Sometimes we need to stand up, sit down, march, write to our representatives or write a check.

And sometimes we just gotta look up.

Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.

Pin It


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

About The Author

Sarah Hobart

more from the author

Latest in Get Out

Readers also liked…


Facebook | Twitter

© 2024 North Coast Journal

Website powered by Foundation