For the first time ever, thanks to a new app, anyone with a smart phone can go behind the scenes with biologists working to recover the iconic California condor and explore the remote, wild lands that these majestic birds call home all from the comfort of your own living room. By simply opening the Xplore: Condor Recovery Program app and scanning an open space, users are immediately transported to a virtual research station where they can join biologists as they monitor for birds, get a close-up view of a condor nest and even watch a condor fly a few feet overhead. The app was created in partnership by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), and Friends of California Condor Wild and Free.
“The app gives people the ability to ‘look behind the curtain’ and see some of the efforts that go into saving California condors,” said Daniel Cook, interpretive park ranger at the Service’s Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Ventura County, California. “We hope the app generates excitement about the species and allows the general public to connect with, learn about and appreciate condors.”
Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, was established for the recovery of the endangered California condor and contains critical California condor nesting and roosting habitat. The complex helps buffer these nesting and roosting areas from human disturbance and protects a portion of the foraging habitat within a much larger area where the condors have historically foraged and fed.
When Cook demonstrated the app to his neighbor Santha Geschke for the first time, she was amazed at what she saw. Geschke was an avid traveler for much of her life but has found it difficult in recent years to visit the natural places she loves. Thanks to this app, she can once again travel the world, all from her own home.
“I couldn’t believe I could take my phone and look around my room and feel like I was transported somewhere entirely different,” said Geschke. “It was a unique and incredible experience.”
With the app’s virtual reality, augmented reality, and 360° video technology, users now have front row seats to events like condor releases and non-lead ammunition shooting demonstrations. Lead poisoning is the number one known cause of death in condors because as scavengers, condors often feed on animal carcasses that are left behind by hunters and ingest the ammunition that was used during the hunt. Promoting the use of non-lead ammunition is an important way to support condor recovery.
“People have been excited to get so close to condors, and ‘work’ alongside biologists actively performing their duties in the field,” said Cook. “Users can experience activities and locations restricted to the public or even to travel into the past where they can witness the capture of the last wild California condor while standing on the same hilltop.”
While some outdoor enthusiasts believe that screen time has become an obstacle to outdoor recreation, the TimeLooper Condor app shows that technology can be an effective gateway to explore the outdoors by presenting wild creatures and rugged places in a more accessible and comfortable environment. Technology makes the outdoors more inclusive, by creating a virtual world full of opportunity and exploration.
“TimeLooper’s Xplore technology is all about empowering public lands educators to visualize concepts, places, wildlife and time periods that are not readily apparent or accessible,” says Andrew Feinberg, a principal and founder of TimeLooper. “Very few naturalists have grasped the engagement power of augmented reality as intuitively as Daniel Cook. On behalf of FWS, Daniel created a highly immersive experience that deepens learning of students of all ages.”
Many outdoor spaces can be difficult to navigate, especially for people with mobility challenges or limited abilities. Others who have been historically barred and marginalized from natural places might find it challenging to form a connection with the outdoors and trust that it is a place where they can feel safe and welcome. Those who live in urban communities might not have the time or resources to travel which can be discouraging for those who have always wanted to visit these places in person.
But with apps like this one, everyone is given the ability to truly immerse themselves and participate in outdoor activities with relative ease. These apps provide an opportunity for all users to cultivate a sense of place and belonging in these natural spaces and break down many of the barriers that people face when it comes to enjoying the outdoors.
“It’s a great tool because it lets people scope out areas of the world that they might never get to see in real life,” said Geschke. “You can travel somewhere new without having to leave your living room. It’s a great alternative if you live far away and are unable to go in person. People with disabilities or who can’t afford to travel are still given equal access to these wonderful places.”
“By creating this app, we’re seeking to leverage the power that technology and screens have and learning how to utilize them to connect people with natural spaces and wildlife,” said Cook. “Many outdoor experiences feel the need to restrict or limit the use of screens to fully appreciate nature, but apps like this one can be a steppingstone to exploring the outdoors.”
Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex was established to preserve habitat and provide safe space for condors, so tours of the refuges are limited. The app also helps bridge the gap between people of all backgrounds and experiences and the, at times, rugged and remote terrain of public lands.
The California condor is the largest land bird in North America. Historically, the species could be found from California to Florida and Western Canada to Northern Mexico but by the mid-20th century, condor populations had dropped dramatically, and it was listed as endangered by the federal government in 1967. By the 1980s, only 22 condors survived world-wide, and the California Condor Recovery Program was established to help recover and conserve condors from the brink of extinction.
Since 1992, when the Service began reintroducing captive-bred condors to the wild, the Service and its public and private partners have grown the population from only 22 to more than 500 birds, with more than 300 flying free in the wild. The Recovery Program is now in the final phase of recovery, focusing on the creation of self-sustaining populations. With an emphasis on the captive-breeding and reintroduction of California condors to the wild, condor biologists maintain active release sites in California, Oregon, Arizona, and Baja, Mexico.
In addition to capturing, monitoring, and releasing condors, the Recovery Program places a strong emphasis on educating the public about the species and spreading the word about what they can do to help. Part of this initiative includes addressing the need to make condor outreach more engaging, accessible, and inclusive for people from all communities and backgrounds. With the TimeLooper Condor app, learning about these majestic birds has never been easier or more exciting.
“The app is great for a variety of groups,” said Cook. “Folks that live far away, have different physical abilities or are less comfortable out in nature will no longer have those barriers that will stop them from enjoying these public lands. We hope that when people use this app, they will realize that the outdoors is truly for everyone.”
The California Condor Recovery Program is a multi-entity effort, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to recover the endangered California condor. Partners in condor recovery include the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Arizona Game and Fish Department, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Utah Department of Fish and Wildlife, the federal government of Mexico, the Yurok Tribe, San Diego Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, Oregon Zoo, Santa Barbara Zoo, Chapultepec Zoo, The Peregrine Fund, Ventana Wildlife Society, and a host of other governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Friends of California Condors Wild and Free is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization whose purpose is promoting the recovery of the California Condor and the preservation of associated ecosystems for present and future generations through education, outreach, research and the support of cooperative stewardship. We work in collaboration with the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the California Condor Recovery Program, and other recovery program partners.
TimeLooper, founded in 2015, is a global digital experience design firm that specializes in immersive storytelling through the mastery, design, production, and distribution of digital experiences for government entities, public lands, historic sites, museums, and cultural institutions. TimeLooper’s Xplore software platform is its turnkey SaaS platform that allows clients to build and publish their own AR and VR experiences.
You can download the TimeLooper Xplore: California Condor Recovery app for free in the App Store or Google Play Store. For more information about condor recovery efforts in California, visit https://www.fws.gov/program/california-condor-recovery.