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The California Condor Cam

They’re back—and ready for their closeup.

Condor in flight

Condor in flight (note tagged wing).
By Pacific Southwest Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from Sacramento, US (Flying California condor. Uploaded by Snowmanradio) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, as with many species, time and human beings have not been kind to the condor. The first recorded sighting of a California Condor in Monterey Bay occurred in 1602, by Spanish explorer Father Antonio de la Ascension. At the time, California Condors roamed large areas of the American Southwest and West Coast. By 1987, the birds were nearly extinct due to poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat destruction.

The last remaining condors in the wild—the entire population consisted of 22 individuals—were captured in 1987 and moved to zoos in San Diego and Los Angeles in an attempt to save the species through a captive breeding program. That program has been a success: since 1991, condors have been slowly released into the wild, and today there are 435 condors in existence, 237 of which live in the wild.

In mid-October, the first camera to capture live streaming video of condors in the wild was turned on in the remote hills of Big Sur. The camera, called “condor cam,” is solar-powered, and transmits a live-streaming online video feed which can be viewed by the project’s biologists and the general public.  Ventana Wildlife Society partnered with Oakland ZooFederal ExpressCamZone, and Wilderness Wireless to design and install the camera and the network that supports it.

The camera is a big step forward—biologists used to drive 90 minutes each way on dirt roads to monitor the condors at this feeding site. The area is remote, without electricity or connectivity, and the engineers devised clever and relatively inexpensive solutions to both problems.  The equipment, including the waterproof pan-tilt-zoom camera, is solar-powered.  A series of antennas were installed to relay the signal from the camera up to a mountain top and down to a high-speed T1 line at a private residence in Big Sur, 12 miles away.  The whole system cost about $15k and took about a year to design and install.

Condor Cam image

A screen grab from Condor Cam.

In addition to watching the condors online, the biologists are keeping tabs on each bird, using radio tracking to monitor them on a near-daily basis. They trap and treat condors that show signs of lead poisoning, and monitor nests to provide as much protection as possible for nestlings, to ensure that the population of wild condors will continue to increase, bird by bird.

The live feed shows the condors doing what condors do: eating, preening, and interacting with each other. Although they don’t know that they’re endangered, we do. Watch them, because you can.