One day last December, I was lucky enough to be a part of a historic event in the ongoing story of California condor conservation: the release of condor AC4 back onto Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, where he was captured in the 1980s as part of an attempt to save the species.

AC4 was one of the few California condors remaining in the wild in the ’80s, and he spent 30 years in captivity after being captured at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, then known as the Hudson Ranch.

Now, AC4 is no longer needed for the captive breeding program, as his DNA is already well represented in a new supplemental population of captive-bred condors.

On that December day, we arrived at the refuge around 9 a.m. and were greeted by biologists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees who outlined the day’s schedule. Soon, we headed up the mountain in vans to an area where we could see the flight pen that held AC4. As we arrived at the mountaintop, we saw four California condors and one golden eagle soaring in the distance, not far from where AC4 was being held across the canyon. We set up on a ridge and watched increasing numbers of condors passing above our heads, recording the color and number of the tag on each individual’s wing.

Pete Bloom, Jesse Grantham and Jan Hamber, conservationists and biologists who have been instrumental in the California condor recovery and critical to the captive breeding program, told us about AC4’s life history.

When the few surviving wild condors were captured in the 1980s, wildlife biologists identified individual condors by distinctive markings on their primary feathers. AC4 came to be recognized by a hole in one of his primaries. Before capture, he was frequently seen soaring in the Santa Barbara backcountry and eventually was trapped at the Hudson Ranch.

As the moment of AC4’s release drew closer that December day, preparations were made to ensure his safety, including scaring off a coyote near the pen and maintaining radio contact between the biologists at the flight pen and those of us across the canyon.

AC4 was released through a procedure known as a “soft release,” whereby the gate of his pen was opened and he was allowed to wander out and fly off on his own, as opposed to a regular release where the biologists would remove him and release him by hand.

After a period of anxious observation, from across the canyon we saw the gate of AC4’s pen opened. AC4 dropped to the ground but didn’t venture outside the pen, prompting the biologists to close and reopen the gate to entice the condor toward it. Soon, AC4 jumped out of the pen and began running and flapping, ignoring a nearby carcass that had attracted several condors earlier. AC4 shortly took flight and soared to our left, away from the pen and over the canyon. He crossed a ravine, passed over several ridges and followed the canyon. We last saw AC4 as he disappeared behind the top of the hill where he was caught in the ’80s.

AC4 represents a thin, but unbroken, link to the 10,000 years of condors. Witnessing his release was a truly inspirational moment, not in the least because of the amazing and phenomenally dedicated people who have worked, and continue to work, to preserve this icon of North American wilderness.


Diego Blanco is a 15-year-old member of the Pasadena Young Birders Club in California.