Erik and I celebrated our tenth anniversary this spring by visiting Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, plus Lake Powell, Glen Canyon, and a free-flowing stretch of the Colorado River near Lees Ferry, Arizona. We missed a late April snowstorm back home by being farther south at the time, and experienced warm, sunny days for the most part, great hikes and explorations, and friendly, hospitable people wherever we went.
It was a fun, much-needed vacation, and this time around we stayed in front country lodging rather than having car camping in the mix. One of our most memorable experiences happened at the Navajo Bridge across the Colorado River just west of Lees Ferry.
The original Navajo Bridge is now a pedestrian only bridge, and provides a unique and dramatic perspective both up and downstream along this stretch of the Colorado River. It’s also an Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, while the newer neighboring Navajo Bridge opened in 1995 to accommodate the needs of more modern motor vehicles traversing this still rugged, isolated region.
To our surprise, we saw a massive large black bird perched below the newer Navajo Bridge. At first, we thought it was a raven or a turkey vulture, but its massive size indicated it was a California condor! The condor was likely a sub-adult, as its head was still covered with feathers, and its wings completely black.
As condors become older and sexually mature, they lose their head and neck feathers, revealing a fleshy orange to pink-ish look from the shoulders up. This adult, more naked look is not all fashion and radar for mating attractiveness and readiness, though. Not having feathers on their head and neck makes it way easier to plunge and rip into carcasses without parasites plaguing them, and also makes for less time spent grooming and preening.
As condors mature they develop rather large, isosceles triangle-shaped white linings on each wing, making it easier to identify them in flight from far more common turkey vultures. California condors have nine to ten feet wingspans, making them the largest terrestrial birds in North America. By age seven or eight they reach sexual maturity; they often bond for life, with many condors living 50 to 60 years in the wild.
Back under the new Navajo Bridge, the condor continued preening and grooming itself, avoiding direct contact with persistent rain showers that swept across the area that afternoon. Moments before we left for Lake Powell, though, it glided to a new perch underneath the older bridge, extending its massive wings to dry out from the storm.
California condors were nearly extirpated from the wild before a last-ditch captive breeding program started in the 1980s. Since the 1990s California condors have rebounded to healthier numbers in the wild, soaring freely once again in their namesake state, and in rugged, remote places in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Just like the mesmerizing, remaining free-flowing segment of the Colorado River between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, it was encouraging to witness something profoundly primordial, wild, untamed and free rather than temporarily engineered, domesticated or manipulated by man.
My spirits soared that afternoon as we departed for Lake Powell, remembering that human beings best succeed as a species when we care for and preserve what other beings need to thrive on the one planet we all share.