Susan Middleton

Photographer

The Endangered Species Act turns forty this year, and for the past thirty years it has been my north star, guiding my work as a photographer. Early on, I realized that most of the species on the endangered species list were unknown to me and, I suspected, to most people. This motivated my odyssey to make portraits of rare and endangered species, which continues to this day. During all my years photographing endangered species, one species stands out from all the others: the California condor.

I had to wait the longest time to gain permission to photograph this species, and once it was granted, I stayed with the condor longer than with any other species. Seven years and seven days. I first attempted to gain access in early 1987, just after the last wild bird was captured and placed with the remaining twenty-six condors in the breeding colony at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park. I was unable to visit the facility during this critical period, as unnecessary human contact was forbidden in an effort to encourage the birds to breed.

Seven days with a pair of condors is a memorable experience. It was a privilege to observe their daily habits; to see them fly, watch them feast on dead rats, bathe, and then spend hours—indeed most of their time—fastidiously preening and shaking themselves, followed by sunning, when they regally extend their wings.

I resumed my efforts to photograph living condors in 1990, when I learned that the breeding program was showing signs of success. I was collaborating with David Liittschwager on a project to photograph one hundred North American endangered species. By this time, there were forty condors and eight chicks that had hatched in 1990 alone. Dr. Michael Wallace, director of the condor propagation program at the Los Angeles Zoo, responded cautiously but with some optimism, explaining that he thought it would be possible to admit us if we could be patient. Call again in a year, he advised; the situation is still too critical. No condors had yet been released back into the wild. Finally, in the summer of 1993, I was told that we could work with the condors. There were seventy-six birds, and eight that had been released, with five still surviving in the wild.

I was thrilled that the condors were gaining strength in their numbers and that I might finally see and photograph these magnificent birds. Packing the van with equipment, including a 13’x16’ black velvet background, we set out from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Upon entering the compound, I was awestruck by my first glimpse of the condors. I could see two enormous birds sitting on ledges inside their flight cages with wings outstretched, spanning nearly nine feet!

We set up our photographic equipment and began what was to be a seven-day vigil, watching and occasionally photographing a pair of condors, Cayama and Cachuma. The birds were named by the Chumash tribe, who believe that condors are sacred. Both of these birds were wild born and had been brought to the facility before they left their nest. They lived their lives inside a spacious flight enclosure approximately 100’ long and 45’ wide.

I was positioned in a blind attached to one end of the enclosure, which reminded me of a tree house. It was a small room about eight feet square and ten feet off the ground, painted black with darkened windows with round hatches cut for camera lenses. To avoid being detected by the birds, we kept our coming and going to a minimum, moved quietly, and spoke in whispers. When I caught glimpses of the birds during our coming and going, they were usually looking back, and I always felt they were aware we were there.

Inside the enclosure are several perches, a nest box, and a pond for drinking and bathing. On only one of the perches were conditions right for making a photograph. Occasionally the birds would glide from one end of the enclosure to the other, often landing on a ledge just outside the blind, where I could hear the whoosh of their wings and feel their weight shake the blind. Finally one of the condors landed on the right perch, and I was able to photograph. In the late afternoon sun, I could see the naked, pinkish-red head and neck, and the inset eyes that looked like rubies framed by a ring of yellow-orange skin. By the third day, I realized that when we arrived early in the morning, the condors appeared to be wearing feather hats and spiky plumed boas around their necks. The ability to pull a feather cover over their heads and necks serves them well in cold weather, and the nights were uncommonly cool during our visit. I decided that this “morning look” was what I was after, so several early morning stakeouts were in order.

Seven days with a pair of condors is a memorable experience. It was a privilege to observe their daily habits; to see them fly, watch them feast on dead rats, bathe, and then spend hours—indeed most of their time—fastidiously preening and shaking themselves, followed by sunning, when they regally extend their wings.

The California condor has been a rare bird for a long time. One of the first recognized endangered species, condors were observed becoming scarce during the 1890s, and by the 1980s extinction seemed inevitable. The Endangered Species Act helped to galvanize the human will, hard work, and devotion necessary to revive this species. Human intervention was responsible for their demise, but it is only through human intervention that condors can be saved. Last fall I was on a camping trip at Big Sur, California, and I witnessed California condors soaring overhead, something I never thought I would experience. Instead of being emblematic of extinction, the California condor is a symbol of hope, and a success story of the Endangered Species Act.

Not all of the species on the Endangered Species list have fared as well as the condor. After the first forty years, we must protect the Endangered Species Act, so that it can continue to provide a tangible framework—a guiding light—for us to act on behalf of our endangered wildlife.


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