Art of Photography

Fun With Photography

Condors: Soar to New Heights This Year


Winter is the ideal season to capture photos of California condors.

As we look forward with New Year’s resolutions, it is also worth reconsidering the year that has just passed. As a wildlife biologist at Pinnacles National Park, I find myself reflecting on California condors and their trials and victories during the 2016 year.

We have the good fortune to see condors in Santa Clara County and, especially, San Benito County, thanks to the condor recovery and release program at Pinnacles National Park. Condors are the largest landbirds in North America, with nearly 10-foot wingspans. They are scavengers related to turkey vultures.

Condor numbers were reduced to a mere 22 birds in the 1980s because of poisoning and ingestion of spent lead ammunition in dead animals. But thanks to tireless recovery efforts, there are now more than 400 condors. In central California, around 70 birds are active between the Big Sur coast and Pinnacles National Park, with some condors exploring up into Santa Clara county as well.

Thi past year was an exciting one for California condors in our region. Although the birds continue to suffer from lead poisoning from spent ammunition in varmint and game species, their population is doing well. From park visitors and local ranchers to hunters, all of these people are supportive, valuable allies in the recovery effort.

In 2016, several condor pairs nested in central California, including a pair at Pinnacles National Park that successfully fledged one young for the first time in over a hundred years—and this happened in the centennial year of the National Park Service! Seeing the young female condor fly over the west side of the park and the High Peaks Trail serves as a good reminder for conservation efforts that have gone into protecting this inspiring species.

For photographers, the winter season is the ideal time to capture images of California condors: the birds more reliably roost at Pinnacles National Park and can consistently be seen soaring over the High Peaks and perching on Condor Crag and Hawkins Peak. Dusk and dawn are particularly good times, as the birds are more active over the rocky crags The soft light at the edges of the day allows for more dramatic images. A wide-angle zoom can be useful when the condors circle low overhead, but try to bring a telephoto lens, too—condors are large but often perch and fly at a bit of a distance.

I hope you’ll join me in a New Year’s resolution to consider both the plight and success stories of California condors. See you among the birds!

Gavin Emmons is a wildlife biologist and longtime nature photographer in San Benito and Santa Clara Counties. To contact Gavin and see more of his photography work please visit