The Andean Condor is the most emblematic bird of the Andes. Thinking of an Andean Condor evokes images of towering mountains punctuated by snow-capped peaks and a large dark bird crossing the skies at a great height.
In this photographic journey, Walter Baliero tells us about his experiences photographing the Andean Condor in the Andes of Chile.
The magnificent Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) is a lure to photographers, but getting photos of them has its challenges. Getting a shot of this adult male and female took some preparation. I had to carry the appropriate bait and my photographic equipment over Chilean Andean mountains at an elevation of 3,000 m (9842.52 ft) to access a cliff known to have Condors riding the thermals. At this location, the world’s largest flying bird is seen regularly.
Although its distribution extends throughout most of the high Andes of South America, it is from Peru to southern Chile, where the Andean Condor occurs in higher numbers. I have been lucky to have had up to 35 birds in front of me.
The Andean Condor is a rather curious and confident bird not afraid of humans, at least in flight. When perched or standing near a carcass, they are more skittish. On several occasions adults and juvenile condors have flown within about 15 meters above my head; I was able to hear the sound of their wing feathers cutting through the oxygen-thin Andean air.
Fortunately, the spot where I go photographing condors is just 40 km away from the capital city of Santiago de Chile. The proximity of this location allows me to arrive in the morning and return home at night, without having to spend the night in the area. It gets cold up there.
The spot where I shot these pictures is located near Farellones – a small mountain town at 2,600 m of altitude – is paved; therefore, getting there does not require a four-wheel-drive vehicle. In just under an hour from the city, I’m where condors nearly every day.
One can see condors near the town but, I prefer to walk a kilometer up to a spot where I can isolate myself from interference from curious people and the background noise of cars on the nearby road.
It is not uncommon to see the Andean Condor flying over urban areas. Being a familiar bird to the locals, some believe that the Condor -given its appearance- is a bird of prey. However, it is not; it is a cathartid; that is, it belongs to the vulture family. The Andean Condor is a scavenger.
Personally, and for many years as a photographer of the species, I have never seen a condor attack even a small live lizard, but it always feeds on decomposing carcasses.
After detecting a carcass, condors tend to “watch it” staying in the vicinity until it is rotten enough to begin feeding on it. The guts and other parts of the carcass’s insides are accessed through the animal’s orifices. The Condor’s claws are weak, and its hind toe is small without the ability to grasp. They use their strong hooked beak to tear pieces of meat from the carcass.
Of all the Andean Condor photos in-flight I have obtained at close range, birds always turn their heads sideways to see the photographer with one eye or one side of the face. This behavior has led me to believe that, the Andean Condor is not guided by visual cues to find food, since it has small eyes, and it does not have bifocal vision either, but rather it guided by its sense of smell. The available literature on the Andean Condor suggest that they use visual cues to find food.
In many photographic sessions and with the bait in place, I have been able to verify that they never go directly to the point where the bait is located, but instead approach it, gliding in circles, as if detecting the odor molecules in the air. Condors even detected a bait carcass while it was still covered by a tarp, as I have done on occasions to check my theory.
Without going deep into the several changes in plumage a juvenile Andean Condor goes through before obtaining the typical black and white plumage of the adult, here are two birds of at least four years of age.
According to the literature, an Andean Condor attains its adult plumage in 7-8 years. I emphasize that given the time it takes for young birds to obtain their adult plumage, these two individuals are at an “immature” stage; this would be the equivalent of an adolescent age in humans.
Young condors, even at a very early age, show sexual dimorphism with the males exhibiting a crest that is lacking in females.
Condors are masters of flight, gliding their way through the Andean mountain tops. They roost and breed on the ledges and small caves of vertical cliffs known as “condoreras”. But “Condoreras” or places with the right conditions for condors to use as roosting and breeding sites are few and far between. Known “Condoreras” are likely to have been used by condors for thousands of years.
The Andean Condor can glide for hours without flapping its wings. Yes, they do so when they take off from the ground after feeding but other than that, they can cover long distances without flapping their wings once.
The cold morning air trapped in deep ravines where condors roost begins to warm up with the rising sun. When the conditions are right, condors jump off their perches and effortlessly begin to soar in circles as they gain altitude. Some stay on the ledges incubating eggs or taking care of the young.
Unfortunately, the Andean Condor is often an unintended victim of the fight between ranchers and pumas (mountain lions) (Puma concolor) that often kill their livestock.
When a puma starts killing sheep, it often becomes used to an easy prey and keeps returning for more. Ranchers bait pumas with poisoned carcasses. However, carcasses are also found by condors looking for food. They consume the poisoned bait and die. This unintended killing of condors is a severe problem and a substantial source of condor mortality.
Walter Baliero is a professional photographer specialized in bird photography, based in Chile. For many years he has been conducting photo safaris, guiding photographers of different nationalities, especially those interested in the Andean Condor. He also gives workshops on this species. See his portfolio on Flickr. Contact Walter Via Facebook.