The individual condors in Northern Arizona/Southern Utah are not given names – they get numbers. This is supposed to help the biologists not get too attached to individual birds, lest one of their favorites dies. It doesn’t work. I’m a photographer, not a biologist, but condors are my favorite subject. Whenever I hear one dies, I get choked up. That’s an understatement, I damn right bawl. I know most of these birds.
In 2014, I made it a goal to photograph every member of the AZ/UT condor population. At the time, there were just under 70 individuals in this population (there are other populations in California and Baja). It seemed a foolish quest – even with the help of biologists, finding every single bird in an area that stretched from the Grand Canyon to Zion seemed impossible. But I’m nothing if not stubborn, and within a year, I had photos of most of them.
Because all the wild condors wear number tags, I could tell the individuals apart and keep a running list of those I had yet to photograph. A year later, I had them all but Condor 203, who became my white whale. It would take me another year and a half to finally meet up with him during a dramatic sunrise atop the Vermilion Cliffs. Slate-gray smoke filled the valley below while the first rays of light bathed him in orange as he gorged at a carcass (left by biologists to provide safe lead-free meat for the birds). He put on a show that morning, and it was one of those experiences that went better than I had ever imagined.
When the news came out recently that the H5N1 avian flu strain had killed 15% of the population in the last month, I was utterly gut-punched. The virus is showing no sign of letting up and the situation is as dire as can be. Condors are tremendously social birds, and the virus is highly transmissible. The biologists are scrambling to save as many birds as possible. While the identities of the deceased have not been released, I’ve no doubt I’ve spent time with many of them.
To get an idea of how dedicated the biologists are and how hard they work, please view the attached video I made documenting the rescue of Condor 999 in 2022.
Now imagine that effort times 116 (the latest total population count before the virus struck) and you get an idea of the scope of the problem.
Very few people ever see a wild condor. Even fewer are lucky enough to photograph these majestic birds. The condors need our help – please, click on this link to join me in contributing to the emergency fund.
Every contribution goes a long way. With this, hopefully one day a condor will fly over your head, its wings stretched nine-and-a-half feet across, tearing the sky in half as your lens follows along and you capture the moment.