Here to return to
MY FIRST CONDOR
NO ornithologist, of whatever grade, ever came to California without hopes of seeing the great California vulture, otherwise known as the condor. It is worth seeing because it is the largest bird in North America, not to say the world, and because, if not rare, it is at least rarely met with. We all love to do what our neighbors and rivals have never succeeded in accomplishing. Difficulty and scarcity go far to set the price in all markets.
So it was that from the day I reached the Pacific coast I kept my eyes wide open for a condor. I knew, of course, from reading, that it was supposed to be found only among the higher mountains; but then, I said to myself, for a creature with wings high mountains are never far away hereabout, and the bird might by some chance be passing overhead almost anywhere.1 If he were at all like other Westerners, I reasoned, he couldn’t be contented to stay in the same place very long at once; and anyhow, there could be no harm in now and then casting a glance heavenward.
After three weeks at San Diego (and a pleasant three weeks they were, in a world as new as Eden was to Adam), I made a trip to Witch Creek, a hamlet among the mountains, advised to that course by a famous local ornithologist. He promised me no condor; I think the matter was not mentioned between us; but he assured me that I should find a totally different set of birds there from what I had been seeing at San Diego. The expression proved to be a shade (a rather dark shade) too strong; the weather, too, was of the worst and the housing bad; but I found a few new things, and, what with the beauty of the mountains and the mountain valleys, — and the magnificent oaks, — I felt (after I got away) amply repaid for my time and labor.
In such a place it seemed in order to look skyward more frequently than ever; but a professional bird-collector, who for several years had knocked about this Western world in the pursuit of his interesting, but, I should think, rather disagreeable, calling (I was glad to hear him say that no matter how badly he wanted a bird, he could never shoot it if it struck up to sing), when I mentioned my great desire to see a condor, responded, “Oh, doubtless; I should like to see one myself.” Dear me! I thought, is it so bad as that? You might as well be looking for the dodo, his tone seemed to imply. But anon hope sprang up again. Such birds there are, I said to myself, and men have seen them. And why not I? So I continued to look heavenward. But the result justified the collector’s word. A good man he was, a Boston man, and did me many a favor. Probably the mountains were not sufficiently high and inaccessible to suit the condor’s purpose.
Then I returned to San Diego, and moved northward to Pasadena. Here, if anywhere, my desire might possibly be gratified. My window looked into the Sierra Madre Mountains; Mount Lowe, some six thousand feet high, was the nearest of them; I would go to its top and gaze about me.
So said, so done. The way was made easy. A street-car took me from the hotel door to Rubio Canon; thence a cable-car lifted me almost straight upward to the top of Echo Mountain, so called, a spur of Mount Lowe, and there an ordinary open trolley-car was waiting to convey me to the Alpine Tavern, at the foot of the mountain cone. A marvelous ride that was in the trolley-car, over a road hung against the precipitous side of the mountain, with numberless sharp curves and crazy bridges, while I from my end seat (which, for some reason, there was no need to scramble for) looked down, down, down into the ravines below.
A mile or two before reaching the tavern the road ran into a forest of spruces — the big-cone spruce, I was told afterward. A promising wood for woodpeckers, thought I; and, when the car stopped, I started instantly for the summit. I wished to be first on the trail for the sake of the birds — woodpeckers or what-not — that any one who should precede me might frighten out of sight.
I need not have hurried myself. There were no birds to be frightened: a few California jays, by this time an old story; one or two plain titmice; and perhaps two or three other things (spurred towhees, as I now remember); and even these not in the spruce woods or the oaks, but about the open summit, where it was plain they had grown accustomed to regale themselves on picnickers’ leavings. As for the condor, I looked and looked, but might have been in the mountains of New Hampshire for all the good that came of it. On the way down, to be sure, a large bird was seen soaring high in air; but, as well as I could make out, it was only a golden eagle.
A GORGE IN THE SIDE OF MOUNT LOWE
Photograph by Herbert W. Gleason
One or two evenings after this the Pasadena ornithologist (there are many worthy of the name, I dare say, but I mean the one) called to see me, and I told him of my disappointment.
“What! You have been up Mount Lowe already?” he exclaimed, as much as to say, “Well, well, you don’t let the grass grow under your feet, do you?”
Then he expressed surprise that I had missed the condor. That was a new and welcome note, the very first syllable of encouragement that I had heard under this head since setting foot in California; and I determined straightway, though I said nothing, to have that trip over again.
Five days passed; for, though the condor is the largest bird in California, he is by no means the only one. Then, on the last day of January, I was again trudging up the cone of Mount Lowe, when suddenly, as I faced about and looked upward for the hundredth time, there was my bird sailing through the air. It was he, the condor himself; for on the instant, even before I had time to put my glass upon him, I saw the unmistakable marks, the snow-white lower wing-coverts and the yellow head and neck. Far, far up he was, moving in a straight course, with wings set.
I looked, and looked, and looked again; and then, unable to contain myself, I turned to a lady and gentleman who were following me up the trail.
“There!” said I, “if you wish to see the largest bird in North America, there he is.”
They were not half so much excited as I thought they ought to be.
“It isn’t larger than an eagle, is it?” said the gentleman, after inquiring its name.
He had seen a bald eagle at Catalina Island a day or two before, and seemed to have gathered that, in the line of large birds, the world had nothing more to offer.
I assured him that the bald eagle was nowhere in comparison (the condor is really only half as large again as the eagle, but, you see, I was feeling enthusiastic), and rather indifferently, as I thought, he gave it another look. He was not what we call a “bird man,” that was evident; and by and by, when the vulture had passed out of sight beyond Mount Wilson, he informed me that his hobby was astronomy. I was pleased to know he had so good a one; but, for myself, at that moment I was amazingly contented with my own. It was wonderful how easy the grade was from that point. Such is the power of mind over matter. I could have gone on indefinitely, and never known I was weary. If there had been nobody near, I believe I should have shouted.
For the hour or more that I remained at the summit I took two looks heavenward to one at the earthly prospect, beautiful as that was; and all the way down to the tavern I was continually stopping to see whether peradventure the vulture might not be again somewhere above me. That, I was to learn, was asking a little too much of Dame Fortune. Already I had received far more than my share of her favors, as the ornithologist before mentioned gave me emphatically to understand when I narrated to him my day’s adventure. Many a good Californian, I understood him, had desired to see what I had seen, and had died without the sight.
Within a week, indeed, I was to have another and much longer and more satisfying interview with the same bird, or another like him; but that is part of another story. Enough to say now that he looked half as large again the second time as he did the first, and that I am more than ever a believer in that mysterious and delectable something which goes by the name of “green hands’ luck.”
1 Three times, since this sketch was written, I have seen (at Santa Barbara) a condor near sea-level, but mountains were always within a few miles.