What’s the biggest bird you’ve ever seen?

What’s the biggest bird you’ve ever seen?

What’s the biggest bird you’ve ever seen in the wild? I live by the lake and it is like wild kingdom down there. We have huge herons and egrets and pelicans. Big birds, bigger than the biggest Thanksgiving birds, nearly six-foot-tall birds, some with seven-foot wing spans, all feeding in my yard and flying in my airspace. How cool is that?

We watch them hunt and pair up and make more big birds. They live a really long time too. First, we had a dad and now two of his sons that live in the neighborhood and have been here for 9 years or so… They know us.

What’s the biggest bird you’ve ever seen?

They like our tall trees, some of the strongest branches in the hood. They have totally wrecked the roof of our ancient gazebo. They are simply too heavy for 1x4s with dry rot.

Still not the biggest bird I’ve ever seen.

When I was younger, much younger, a friend and I went for a hike in northern San Diego County in the friendliest village called Fallbrook, out in the boonies east of acres of empty land that belongs to the military. Aint nobody out there, it is untouched California and it is gorgeous.  We had a couple of beers and some local weed and you could drink water out of the creek. We set out and followed the creek for a ways. At one point we looked up and there was a spot on the wall of the canyon where a rock fell out and it looked like you could sit up there.

It was an easy climb and we were the kind of friends that could sit in silence for hours and we did. We sipped the beers and just sat there.

Of a sudden we heard an odd noise off to the right. Where we were sitting we could see the creek winding through the canyon for quite a long way to the left. To the right the canyon swung around behind us. We heard it coming and then it broke through into a patch of sunlight like it was a CGI effect, but it wasn’t. It was real and it was magnificent, majestic, and magical and at our height he flew in below us.

While we sat there a wild California condor flew below us and followed the creek through the canyon in slow motion until it was tiny in the distance. Four flaps tops. Swoop! With a massive sound of air and feathers he’d just glide, then swoop and glide. Oh, my friends, how I wish now I had a phone in my pocket! 10 foot wingspan,  2 feet bigger than the width of my truck and fully 4 feet bigger than me.

I was a city boy moved to the village only a few years before, I had never seen anything like it. Bigger than any bird I’d seen in 4 states worth of zoos and the upstate NY wilderness near my grammas house. One of those images that gets burned on your retinas and stays there forever.

We hadn't moved we looked at each other with our mouths open to see, I think, if the other saw it too. It was a moment in time that cemented our friendship that lasted for 20 years or so. We all had kids and eventually he moved.

Some years later I took my kids to the Wild Animal Park (now called San Diego Zoo Safari Park) to see the condor exhibit. They loved it and they were probably the biggest bird they’ll ever see. They weren’t the biggest bird I’d ever seen and though they were majestic doing it they could only sit there. Maybe glide from the high place in the enclosure to the low part but no way could they pull a full flap. Not with those wings. It broke my heart a little. However, it was temporary then as the park was under renovation. The condor's new spot was still partially under construction.

It is directly due to the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo as part of the California Condor Recovery Plan that the endangered condor population has grown, as they released many birds back into the wild in 1992. With all their efforts, as near as we can tell, there are now less than 400 or so alive and a lot of those are in captivity. If it is half, that means maybe 200 birds are alive in the wild. As hearatbreaking as that guesstimate, is the real number is absolutely less than that. The California condor is still listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Redlist. You can see the breeding area via the Condor Cam on their website.

Sitting there on the face of the canyon like an owl I watched a living, breathing, creature 10 feet wide fly through the sky just below my line of sight. Rare and endangered, I happened to see 1 of less than 200 condors in existance that year. At that size, a fully developed adult probably older that I was then.  A flying dinasaur! So close I could have counted feathers, I could see the tiny feathers around his bald head and neck flutter as he turned his head. I could count every feather of the 20 square foot wingspan as it glided not 10 feet below me. The wingtips splayed out like fingers as he navigated the breeze. I wonder if he saw us sitting there or if his gaze was on the horizon. How silly we would have looked.
I think I said something like, “Dude, did you see that?” We laughed uncontrollably and whooped and hollered and probably scared away every other living creature around and then (this was before high fives) we hugged. 
Two hairy hippies sitting in a rock hole on the side of the canyon watching pterodactyls fly by...

I said “I wish I could do that” and, as I recall, he said “Thinking is the best way to travel.” So, of course,  we sang Moody Blues songs as we climbed down and hiked back to my truck. This was way before geocaching but just know that we left a fatty tucked into the rocks out of the weather for the next travelers to find. I hope they catch an old California Condor’s grandson going by.

That would be Magical.

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