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Flying Free: Reintroducing The California Condor To Arizona

It would usually be easy to miss the dirt road jutting north from a tiny highway near the Arizona-Utah border. But on a recent morning, it was filled with a long line of cars rumbling toward lonely, rosy cliffs, and an encampment forming under them.

Everyone was there for a bird – well, four of them. That’s how many California condors were scheduled to be released into the wild. With a wingspan that can stretch 10 feet, they’re some of the largest birds in North America. They’re also some of the rarest. After the population plunged to just 22 in 1982, all were taken into captivity for safe keeping and breeding.

Now a handful are set free every year.

Chris Parish stood with a microphone in front of the growing crowd.

“This is phenomenal!” he said, his voice carried by solar-powered speakers. “I think there are more vehicles here than we had people in some of the early releases.”

Parish is with the Peregrine Fund, which has been reintroducing California condors to Arizona for more than 20 years, with the help of various organizations and state and federal agencies. This time 750 condor groupies came to watch, with their folding chairs and binoculars, umbrellas and dogs.

Brigitte Le Vea took a turn squinting through a high-powered spotting scope.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” she said, looking toward the top of the Vermilion Cliffs. “This is bananas!”

She could see a pen housing four young, soon-to-be released birds. A handful of older condors, released years ago, were nearby, some circling and others sitting on the rocks, unfurling their big, black wings, oblivious to their fan club.

“This is really, really, really special,” she said, on the verge of tears. “I’ve been trying so hard all season to see a damn condor, and I’m finally here, and I’m so excited about it.”

Le Vea was choked up even though she and the rest of the group were a half a mile away and a thousand feet below the birds. Seeing them so free feels liberating, she said, like that time she saw salmon swimming upstream.

It was easy to forget she was talking about scavengers that even fans sometimes call ugly, with their naked, pink necks and intimidating beaks.

But when Lee Ann McAda saw them through a scope, she agreed with another word that wildlife managers use: charismatic.

“Oh my God, how could they not be?” she said. “It’s like, you look at those wings up there and you look at those heads and how they soar, how could you not think that they’re charismatic? They’re gorgeous.”

And worth her seven-hour drive from Grand Junction, Colorado. Others were there from Flagstaff and Tucson, Camp Verde and St. George. And they were all waiting for something that could last two minutes or all day.

When the pen is opened for the first time, you never know how long the condors will wait to take their first free flight high over the desert.

Finally, biologists started a countdown.

“Five! Four! Three! Two! One!” the crowd chanted.

Then Tim Hauck, a biologist on the ground, radioed to a biologist on one on the cliffs.

The door opened, and after a few moments, there was a burst — and an instant gasp from the crowd.

“Holy cow!” Hauck said. “It never happens this fast!”

Three condors flew out almost immediately, leaving just one in the cage. It was instant, elating gratification.

And for Ron Brown, a park ranger at the Grand Canyon, it was deeply personal.

“I was in the hospital three weeks ago with a pretty major heart attack,” he said. “This is my first big thing was to come here, because I knew that this just makes you feel alive.”

His late wife, Pat, thought so, too. They traveled to this release for years and even came in 2014, after she got sick. Pat probably didn’t weigh 100 pounds, Brown says, but he has beautiful pictures of her from that day.

“Just glowing,” he said. “You know, you would have thought she was her old self again.”

Brown says these birds – and the effort to save them – have that effect on people.

“This kind of thing is human beings trying our best to say, ‘Together, we can do this,’” he said.

Soon, the fourth and final condor flew free, bringing the local population to 89. Thanks to interventions like this one, there are now about 300 California condors in the wild.

For more information about the Peregrine Fund’s work with the California condor, visit peregrinefund.org/projects/california-condor.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to correct the number of California condors currently in the wild.

When senior field correspondent Stina Sieg was 22, she moved to the desert. She hasn’t been the same since. At the time, the Northern California native had just graduated from college and was hankering for wide-open spaces. So she took a leap and wrote to nearly every newspaper in New Mexico until one offered her a job. That’s how she became the photographer for a daily paper in the small town of Silver City. And that’s when she realized how much she loved storytelling. In the years since, the beauty of having people open up and share their stories — and trust her to tell them — has never gotten old to Sieg. Before coming to KJZZ, Sieg was also a writer and photographer at newspapers in Glenwood Springs, Colorado; Moab, Utah; and the Smoky Mountains town of Waynesville, North Carolina. She always had her hand in public radio, too, including hosting Morning Edition on a fill-in basis at WNCW in North Carolina. It’s still the best music station she’s found. When she’s not reporting, chances are Sieg is running, baking, knitting or driving to some far-flung town deep in the desert — just to see what it looks like.