Lunch with Condor #19
Out in front of the Battleship

Thursday, November 11, 2004

by Dennis Foster

Condor #19 hangs out with me
in front of the Battleship.

Click on any picture to see a larger image.

     It is Veteran's Day, and there are no classes, which means I don't need to stick around in my office and can, instead, go hiking.  It was cool day, but not cold.  There was sun early, but quite a bit of overcast later.  And, despite some early missteps, it was a day to remember.

     I had thought to do a quick day hike to Phantom Ranch, and back, on the South Kaibab trail.  I do that a lot.  It is a nice, challenging, trip, and totally wears me out - 13+/- miles from rim to river and back.  The parking at the trailhead was still "closed for the season."  Aarghhh.  During the busy summer months, only a shuttle bus plies the route out to the trailhead.  During the winter, this road is open and parking is available right at the trailhead.  But, that was still a few weeks away.  So, my modus operandi is to park at a picnic area, along the main road (the East Rim Drive) and walk in.  OK, so that's what I did.  And, when I got to the trailhead, at about 9:15 a.m., there was a sign, stating that the trail was closed.  Double aarghhh.  Why not put that sign out at the intersection, where the road closure sign is located?  Well, I guess that is because that makes too much darn sense!  [And, why not post a sign to that effect at the entrance station?  Triple aarghhh.]

   So, I trekked back to my truck, and decided that I would head off to the Bright Angel Trail, and hike down to the river and back, or, maybe, just to Plateau Point, and back, if I felt I couldn't return during daylight hours.  [While it wasn't cold during the day, after sunset, the temperature falls precipitously.]  I parked behind the Bright Angel Lodge, and soon started down the trail.

Authorized personnel only.  Cairn marks the Battleship route. Just passing the Battleship.
     All was going well, for about a half mile.  Then, I noticed that my . . . ahem, . . . pants zipper was busted.  I wouldn't call myself a prude, but I did feel a bit uncomfortable in such a state on such a popular trail.  So, I pulled out my shirt tails and let them hang down, while I pondered my circumstance.  I decided to stop at the 1.5 mile rest house and do some inspecting.  Hardly anyone climbs up the steps to get into this rest house, and certainly not on a cool day.  So, while hikers passed back and forth along the trail, I was up in the stone structure examining the extent of the damage.  I thought I could use a safety pin to provide some measure of modesty, but I didn't think it would last all day.  I decided that I could get to Plateau Point, and have 20-30 minutes there to myself.  During that time, I could duck over the edge and sew up the offending gap.

    So, off I went down the trail.  Within about two minutes, my safety pin job had run its course, and I was, once again, over-ventilated.  I didn't especially relish the idea of continuing another three miles to Indian Garden.  Time to execute plan B - leave the trail at "2 mile corner" and follow the route out around the Battleship, lunching at the end of the terrace, with a sweeping vista of the Grand Canyon that is second to none.  It had been five years since I was last out here.  Although it is a neat trip, it is not an especially long one.

     The route finding isn't difficult, although it is rough.  Once to the saddle, between the South Rim and the Battleship, the terrain flattens out a bit, and the going is better.  When you have passed by the Battleship, you can easily follow along the terrace for quite a ways.  Near the end of your trek, the terrace narrows dramatically, and is probably no more than thirty feet across when you reach your destination.  I took off my pack, spread out my blue foam pad and arranged my stuff for an extended lunch break.  I started with the sewing right away.

     I hadn't been sitting down for more than ten minutes when a condor - #19 - swooped down and landed about fifteen feet away from me.  At first I was stone still, wanting to enjoy the moment, which I thought would pass quickly.  The bird just stood there, turning completely around two, or three times.  I finally decided that I would risk getting out my camera, hoping that she (ref: Peregrine Fund) wouldn't fly away before I could snap off a couple of photos.  She didn't and I did.  In fact, she totally ignored me, although I do think that she was quite aware of my presence.  She started preening her feathers with her beak, and I thought, "This is a sound that nobody else ever gets to hear!"  With good binoculars, visitors on the rim can usually catch great views of these giant birds.  But, who has ever heard the sounds they make up close?

     About ten minutes passed, and #19 didn't appear to be in any hurry to leave.  So, I slowly began to pull my lunch out of my pack.  Over the next thirty minutes, I had my sandwich, some pudding, and apple and some trail mix.  The bird didn't leave her rocky perch.  She spread her wings out a few times.  Now, that was cool!  Mostly, her neck feathers were puffed up, although when the sun came out from behind a cloud, and it warmed up, these feathers would lay flat, exposing her hairless/featherless head.

     After an hour had passed, I finally decided I had to leave.  I stood up slowly, putting on my pants finally (!!) and gathering up my pack.  Straps in place and a quick check to make sure I didn't leave anything behind, and I was off.  Condor #19 just looked at me a couple of times during all this and she was still there when I left my little lunch spot and headed back along the terrace to the Bright Angel trail.

Condor #19 checks me out.  Overlook on Supai terrace. Condor #19 keeps checking me out.
Wings spread and feathers puffed out. Wings spread and feathers flat.
     What a memorable lunch.  The return hike was, by comparison, uneventful.  Some may say that I should have acted aggressively towards the bird, shooing it away from me, to help imprint a generalized fear of humans into it.  But, I was mesmerized by condor #19, and am glad to have had the opportunity to enjoy her company for so long a time.  I did not approach the bird, nor did I try to entice her off her rock; I followed the requisite protocol, as best I understand it, when encountering these birds.  According to the Peregrine Fund, she was released into the wild on May 14, 1997 and "[d]oing well in the wild" when I last checked their web page (9/22/07).

     Update July, 2012 - According to the page posted at the Peregrine Fund, condor #19 died of lead poisoning in December of 2006.  That seems odd because, as I reported above, they had her listed as doing well in September of 2007.  Their web site also lists her as condor #119, with #19 given in parenthesis.  But, on a positive note, the web site says that she had mated with condor #22 in 2004 and that she hatched condor #350, which is listed as doing well as of their last update in November of 2011.

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