It’s been a rather unusual couple of weeks. And by unusual, I mean our luck doesn’t usually run this well. Unicorns (or really hard-to-find things) have run rampant over the last little while. And it’s been awesome.
It began with a trip to Palm Canyon in the Kofa Wildlife Refuge. Palm Canyon is a small, deep canyon set back about 7 miles off of Highway 95 at the edge of the Kofa Mountains. The gravel road leads up to an elevated parking spot, and the last half mile is accessible only by a crude foot path. It’s a stunningly beautiful spot, well worth the hike. If you’re lucky, you can see Bighorn Sheep along the cliff walls, as Kofa is involved in a large breeding and relocation program to bring the sheep back to healthy numbers. Apparently, the sheep are as invisible as last year’s attempt, as I’m still trying to find them, lol.
But we found this little guy.
Palm Canyon is a special place for another reason. The California Fan Palm is the only palm tree native to western North America, and this is the last place in Arizona where it grows naturally. Even while in the canyon, the trees are not easy to spot. At the end of the trail in the middle of the canyon, we find this:
Looking about 700 feet to our left, and around 400 feet above us, we spot a group of the palms tucked into what appears to be a slot on the side of the canyon wall. For most of the day, the palms are in the shadow of the high canyon walls, so to view them, even in partial sunlight, takes a bit of timing. Apparently if you want to scramble and climb a bit, the palms are accessible, but since it was getting late in the day, we opted for a few photos and a short break in the cool shadow of the canyon instead.
The palms were incredibly important to the desert-dwelling Native Americans. The fruit produced by the trees (which were not dates, but a kind of berry) were used as a food source and ground to make flour. The pith in the center was boiled and eaten as heart of the palm.
The trees were used as construction materials, and the fronds and leaves for roof thatch and weaving, with some tribes even making sandals from them. The dried seeds that fell after the fruit matured were used as the noise makers in gourd rattles. Other uses for the trees included fire making tools and tinder.
The palm groves themselves were used as gathering areas, and their presence often indicated important sources of water, and were usually found along earthquake faults.
Flags and Herring Chokers
Our second unicorn found us, rather than the other way around. As we were gearing up for a ride on Ruby one evening, we noticed a couple walking down the road in front of our camp. Suddenly, the gentleman starts gesturing, waving his arms and calling us over. Mike stops Ruby in front of them, and before we can even say hello, he points to Ruby’s whip and excitedly asks, “Is that a New Brunswick flag?”
Unbelievable. There are so few people down here that even know where New Brunswick is, (”That’s in New Jersey, right?”) that we’ve long ago stopped saying we’re from New Brunswick and just tell them Eastern Canada. Yet here’s a fellow that not only knows where NB is, but recognized the flag! (The fact that I managed to find a NB flag in Yuma is a bit of a unicorn all on it’s own.)
So that’s how we met Gary and Diane. Turns out that although they’ve lived in British Columbia for the last 35 years, Gary is originally from Stanley, NB, about 2 hours or so from our hometown. Cue the Maritime vernacular, the stories of down home, and the fishing whoppers.
Several evenings of campfires and adult beverages later, and we’ve become fast friends. The running gag is that we’ve traveled 3800 miles to land in the middle of nowhere, and a Herring Choker is still our closest neighbor.
The Rarest of All
On Tuesday this week, we found the mother of all unicorns.
The drive from Parker to Lake Havasu is incredibly pretty, and we enjoy it every time we head that way. The road follows the Colorado River as you weave through the mountains and cliffs along the California/Arizona state line.
As we’re passing through Parker Dam, I hear Mike say “Holy s**t! That’s not a plane, it’s a bird! Look at the size of that thing.”
He had been watching something soaring high over the water in the distance, and had thought it had been a small aircraft, until the wings actually flapped once.
I may have mentioned it before, but I’m a bit of a bird nut, so he immediately had my attention.
“It must be an eagle,” he says. “It’s so huge!”
“Nope,” I tell him. “Not an eagle. Look at the wings.” When eagles soar, their wings are straight out from their body, a perfect 180° line. This one’s wings form a slight ‘V’ shape, and it wobbles a bit from side to side. “Eagles don’t fly like that. It looks like a buzzard or a vulture.”
“It’s the size of a pterodactyl! Do buzzards come that big?”
“Not unless it’s a Condor,” I joke.
Scramble to grab the phone and get Google online. In under half a minute, I have umpteen maps pulled up showing the range of the endangered California Condor. Several come somewhat close to where we are, but none close enough to confirm what we’ve just seen. In the meantime, I discover that a Condor is the largest North American land bird, and its wingspan can reach up to 10 feet. Ok, so far it fits.
As of 2017, there are 463 Condors left worldwide (including those in captivity), the species is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as critically endangered, and that it remains one of the world’s rarest bird species. The odds of our bird actually being a Condor are fading fast. I shut the phone back off and wonder what else it could have been. It was such a large bird.
And wonder. Definitely not an eagle.
And wonder some more.
But if there’s one thing you learn about birds, it’s that they don’t always follow maps. They tend to go where they please. And I know if I was lucky enough to see something as rare as a Condor, I’m going to let everyone know about it.
On a hunch, I try Googling “Condor Sightings”.
I don’t strike the gold I’m looking for, but I did come across a PDF about the breeding and release program for the Condors, A Review of the First Five Years of the California Condor Reintroduction Program in Northern Arizona. It’s a 70 page file, full of charts of data and long drawn out paragraphs. Undaunted, I start reading.
I learned how that even after the original 1996 release of 47 Condors into the wild, 18 of those birds had died and 4 more returned to captivity due to behavioral problems and other complications such as predation, lead poisonings, human interactions and shootings. Public meetings and educational sessions were introduced to help people understand how important it was that these birds be left alone to be given a chance of survival. Areas of release such as the Vermilion Cliffs and the Hurricane Cliffs were mentioned. Even how some of the birds were given a “time out,” or a temporary return to captivity to adjust or modify a detrimental behavior that it had either picked up in captivity or from another Condor.
Finally, 20 pages into the document, I found what I was looking for:
“… However, on at least six occasions (Table 3) condors have moved outside the experimental population area. The longest movement recorded so far was about 310 miles to the northeast, to the Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Wyoming/Utah border. Other significant movements include three birds venturing to Grand Mesa and two to Mesa Verde National Park in western Colorado, one bird traveling as far as Milford, Utah, and most recently, one bird to an area near Parker Dam on the Arizona/California border (Figure 6). “
I felt like John Payne at the end of Miracle on 34th Street, when the U.S. Post Office, an official branch of the U.S. Government, recognized Kris Kringle to be the real Santa Claus. With an official report from the California Condor Recovery Team and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I had the proof I needed.
Jeebus H. Tapdancing Cripes! We had spotted a Condor! And it wasn’t even invisible. No, I wasn’t fast enough to get a really decent photo, but the sight of that creature soaring over the water is forever burned into my brain.
And it just doesn’t get better than that.
Ok, maybe it gets just a bit better. After finding the Condor, we continued heading into Lake Havasu. One lucky quick glance to my right from the highway, and we found these fellows, who apparently forgot to activate their cloaking devices:
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