I recently returned from some training at the Grand Canyon and two things made an impression:
1. Nothing can really prepare you for the Grand Canyon. Sure, maybe you saw the Brady Bunch episodes filmed in the canyon or perhaps a trip in a commercial jet has taken you over it, but standing there on the rim and staring down into the gaping maw of ancient rock that goes a mile deep and you suddenly realize, "Oh hey, that's fault line"...it kind of bowls you over.
I think my friend BirdSpot put it best, "This place cannot be oversold."
2. How do more people not die at the Grand Canyon every year? They get about 5 million visitors and average only 12 deaths a year. That's pretty incredible given some of the dangerous terrain and quite frankly, the average person's ability to do something stupid like texting and walking, going off trail because that one ledge would be a really cool selfie on Instagram or just tripping over your laces.
I was primarily there to get some training in and though it was several days long we had time in the morning and evening to explore and even two whole days off in the middle. Our training facility offered bikes for us to use to explore the area. I was up early every morning because I was used to a different time zone and I thought it would be fun to bike around the rim before my classes. I got a hard less in that high elevation turned what would be perfectly reasonable hills in Minnesota into thigh and lung torture at 6000 feet in Arizona.
I opted instead to go birding around my dorm in the morning and opened it up to others who might interested. There were some great birds to be had including oodles of pygmy nuthatches, ash-throated flycatchers (one even nested on the training center's dorms), mountain chickadees, black-throated gray warblers, white-throated swift--basically a host of cool southwestern birds that a northern girl like myself doesn't get to indulge in very often.
There were also large herds of elk and mule deer. I don't trust any animal with a hoof and it was incredibly unnerving to walking out of your room at night and find yourself within ten feet of the butt end of an elk. I did my best to give them a wide berth but they really liked coming close to people.
For my day off I found a spot using the BirdsEye app that reportedly had painted redstart, nutcrackers, western bluebirds, western wood-peewee and other southwest specialties. It was a different part of the canyon to explore and thought it sounded like a fun spot. Due to the heat and daylight hours I thought I'd start at 6am and offered it up to others in my class to come along.
Now comes the weird part. This was a training for people who work in the National Park Service. I was the only birder. Oh sure, there were one or two who knew local and specialties species of their parks but going birding outside of their parks? Crazy!
It gets better. We had the option on our two days off of getting a permit to go hiking into the bottom of the Grand Canyon. While I was there it was in the 90s--granted that's a dry heat but it's still hot. That was just at the rim. Down in the canyon it was actually 120 degrees. So to safely hike in there the group was going to get up at 3am and hike the switchbacks down into the canyon, spend the night (did I mention it's a 120 degrees) get up at 3am and hike back up. Yeah, they were going to go down first and then go up second. That basically sounded like tourture to me. Couple that with the fact they were leaving at 3am and my bird walk started at 6am...I was the reasonable one. How often does birding seem like the more reasonable thing to do?
We followed the driving directions in the app and found a nice shady spot among junipers and ponderosa pine for some light birding. We didn't get the painted redstart but we had most of the other birds that were on the eBird report and a singing hermit thrush. Two other intrepid rangers joined me and what they didn't know about birds, they made up for in residual knowledge about wildflowers and trees.
But the best part was when we hiked in and came to another opening of the South Rim and had a terrific view of the Grand Canyon...alone. We got to sit and meditate on the grandeur without being surrounded by tourists. There really is no ugly view of the Grand Canyon. Sure, it changes color throughout the day but it is spectacular no matter where you are. But what a treat to sit for an hour or so with friends to talk and not talk and not have people maneuvering about you with selfie sticks. I think it was one of my favorite moments of the trip.
My main goal in coming to Grand Canyon was to see a California condor. I didn't want to just see one perched, I wanted to see one fly. California condors were part of that trifecta of endangered birds I learned about the in the late 1970s and early 1980s: bald eagles, peregrine falcons and California condors were all about to disappear. Bald eagles and peregrines have made quite the comeback, but not condors. There are several factors like the condor's ability to lay one egg a year that contribute to their slow return to the wild. Also it's arguable that this is a species that's on its way out even without humans mucking up the environment. They were meant to forage on the carcasses of megafauna like giant sloth or mammoth not deer or elk. Will this be a species that will forever need human stewardship to stay around?
That canyon has a lot of birds soaring about...many of them turkey vultures. Here's a great photo showing the difference between a soaring condor and soaring turkey vulture.
I've seen condors in captive settings and I've even been in a clinic when one was sedated for examination and got to touch it. But I wondered how something that huge flies. It's kind of like seeing a giant bustard fly, you can't imagine it until you actually see it.
As my fellow park service employees found out about my interest in birds they all wanted to know what I wanted to see. When they learned it was a condor they were all eager to help. I loved how everyone had a vested interest in helping me find a condor--isn't that just like a park ranger, make sure the visitor gets the experience they want. I wasn't too worried. Sure I wanted to see one right away, but I knew I had ten days to find a condor, it had to happen. There are roughly 72-ish birds using the area, one had to fly over at some point. The first few times we went to the canyon as part of our training, I tried to play it cool...but of course I had my scope with me. I got a fast education of just how many turkey vultures and common ravens roam the skies.
Everyone was pointing to large soaring birds asking if I had seen them. "Yes, I saw the turkey vulture." Or to be technical, one day I did say, "Yes I see the turkey vulture...oh wait...oh crap, that's a zone-tailed hawk which flies like a turkey vulture--bonus!"
My Saturday birding companions were also on the lookout to find me a condor. Other colleagues who hiked the canyon or did other things on our day off me throughout the day asking if I found the condor or even better alerting me to condor-ish things they saw in various locations soaring around the canyon. It was really, really sweet.
After a fun morning of Saturday birding, we then headed for Bright Angel Trail Head where condors were reported regularly on the BirdsEye app. As soon as we arrived on the trail, all three of us looked up and saw a bird, one said, "Uh...Sharon..."
Yep, there it was, an adult California condor soaring overhead, high in the sky but easily identifiable without optics. Of course I tried to digiscoping it, but a bird in clear blue sky high overhead is next to impossible to find with a scope and I decided, "Screw it, just enjoy it" and put up my binoculars and savored my condor. The thick wing shape, the bulky body, the proportions nothing like a vulture or eagle...so old world looking. Spectacular. I did snap a phone of a dark speck in a luscious blue sky as a souvenir. How could I not?
I had a second view of a bird high overhead the following week. And delighted in saying casually to my colleagues, "Has anyone not seen a condor yet, there's one right over our heads."
Again too high to get a great photo but man how cool to see something like that airborne. I've condors in captivity and even got to touch one in a clinic situation, but see something that huge, flying around in the wild was truly something special. I don't know if this is a species that will be able to survive without human intervention, but I like that that a bird that huge has a place like the Grand Canyon to move around in.
I did get a kick out of the ravens around the trails near concessions stands at the Grand Canyon. Unlike crows, ravens can soar on thermals like hawks. The ravens here soar around the rim and keep a vigilant eye on tourists who drop food and then immediately land in the sea of human bodies to grab a fallen Cheeto. Brazen and huge, what a delightful bird.
I also got so see some fun regional birds like the red-back race of dark-eyed junco. Remember when we used to have, like, species of junco and then they got lumped and a bunch of birders lot their minds? Good times.
I also got to see...and not digiscope the local white-breasted nuthatches who look and sound a bit difference than the nuthatches we have where I live. World on the street is that the American Ornithologists' Union might split the white-breasted nuthatch into six different species. Maybe that will make up for the junco lumping of long ago?
The canyon has something for everyone: views, fossils, birds, archeology, geology, hiking...ok, it maybe lacking in good wifi so maybe it doesn't have something for someone like Non Birding Bill but man, it truly lives up to the reputation of being a spectacular place.
I hope everyone has a chance to visit it at least once in their lives...and that they don't die in doing so.