Back in January 10th, 2013 Central California got the spectacular gift of a new national park. This area, Pinnacles National Monument — established in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt — protects a mountainous area located east of the Salinas Valley, about 5 miles east of Soledad, 80 miles southeast of San Jose, and approximately 60 miles southeast of my hometown. The Pinnacles date back 23 million years when an ancient volcano created powerful explosions, lava flows, and landslides for a millions of years, leaving a magnificent landscape. It is breathtaking that this violent past resulted in such a peaceful region for all to enjoy.
It is because of this that I could not think of a better way to celebrate 4th of July than a trip to the newest of National Park. I packed my newly bought hydration pack with a couple of snacks, flashlights, insect repellant, sun screen, and of course wore my usual outfit — hiking pants that have accompanied me through Guatemala, Peru, and Mexico, my Elkhorn Slough hat, and of course my EFTA bird guide and binoculars.
I met up with a friend that lives in Soledad, who not only has been hiking at Pinnacles ever since she was a child but works at a Bed & Breakfast located at the park, and headed our way to the Pinnacles. The ride there was filled with stories of her adventures in the trails and caves and the one time she and two friends got lost after hiking for 8 hours and had to be rescued by a Park Ranger. I assured her that my navigation skills are good enough to not have to worry about getting lost.
Knowing of my newfound interest in birds she began telling me of the California Condors releases at Pinnacles. Having just recently read the thrilling, educational, and heart racing Return of the Condor by environmental writer and Elkhorn Slough volunteer John Moir I was well aware of the history of the California Condor at Pinnacles, however, I decided to keep this a secret and let her have her moment, I mean what else are friends for?
Pinnacles is one of four sites where captive-bred condors are released to live in the wild. They fly for hundreds of miles to live out their lives flying between Pinnacles and the Big Sur coast. During the 1980’s there were only 22 California Condors left in the world and are slowly increasing in numbers thanks to thirty years of captive breeding, careful monitoring, and exhaustive preservation efforts. Currently, there are approximately 400 Condors in existence and 200 of them fly free in California, Arizona, and Utah. Apparently, in any given day 60 condors or more can be flying somewhere in the park so I figured that it wouldn’t be impossible to see one, which would be the third time in my life.
As we were arriving to the parking lot I looked out my window and saw a bird circling around the sky. Considering that it was in the late afternoon I knew that my chances of seeing a new raptor were pretty good. Having looked at the raptors of Pinnacles online and searched for their silhouettes I was pretty sure it was a Prairie Falcon. After looking with my trusty binoculars I realized I was correct. At the very least I could go home with seeing a new raptor. I could live with that.
The hike started with my friend telling me that she is terrified of insects, lizards, spiders, and pretty much anything that one would encounter while hiking. Unfortunately for her, without thinking, I mentioned that as far as experts know the park has more bees per unit that anywhere else on earth, around 400 species. After seeing her terrified face I mentioned that most are solitary and live for only a few weeks. For some reason that made her feel better.
Immediately, I started recognizing the bird songs that I’ve heard at one point or another at the Elkhorn Slough such as the Canyon Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Bushtit, Oak Titmouse, California Towhee, and Spotted Towhee. Fortunately for me I was able to make a good impression right off the bat. Sadly, the rest of the hike was filled with the usual cousins of the condors, the turkey vultures.
Still I was no disappointed. The vastness of the park filled with trees, cliffs, and enormous rock formations left me overwhelmed. I will definitely visit again in the near future.