Heinz Plenge Pardo

Andean Condor

Vultur gryphus

Location: South America.

Endemic: From the South American Andes.

Characteristics

The body is mainly black with a ruff of white feathers surrounding the base of the neck and, especially in the male, large white patches on the wings. The head and neck are almost featherless, and have a red color.

Length: 3.3 m / 130 in.

Threat: Near Threatened.

Best Time for observation: All year round.

Habitat: is found in high mountains, lowland deserts, open grasslands, and along coastlines.

It is the largest flying bird in the world and it was revered as a sacred bird that represented the Hanan Pacha (the heavenly world) in the Andean mythology.

The Andean Condor

As one of the largest flying landbirds the Andean Condor is a magnificent sight and a must-see species for all birders visiting the Andes. Sadly, this once common bird is now quite local and a visit to a known roosting area is often the best way to ensure one sees it.

Few birds have as complex a relationship with man as the Andean Condor. As a species that specialises in consuming the remains of large mammals in open habitats, it undoubtedly declined after the arrival of humans in South America led to the extinction of the continent’s megafauna. Likewise, it is certain that it prospered following the arrival of the conquistadores with their cattle and horses, which acted as a replacement megafauna in the Andean highlands. In the last century the species was actively persecuted for its habit of eating eggs of the Guano birds on coastal islands and its range and population were both considerably reduced.

The Condor is a very important bird in South American culture. It was revered as a sacred bird that represented the Hanan Pacha (the heavenly world) in the Andean mythology and is well represented in iconography in cultural sites from many different cultures including the Inca, Chachapoyas, Mochica and Nazca. In modern times the Condor is the national bird of 5 Andean Countries and many places are named after it. Contemporary music and literature speak of it and it is even the lead character in a long-running syndicated cartoon. The condor is also famed for its role in the controversial Yawar Fiesta (Blood Festival) where a condor is attached to the back of a bull which is then fought before the bull is recaptured and the condor released. Despite its unclear and debated origins, the Yawar Fiesta is considered an important cultural tradition by some. It is undoubtedly having an impact on an already depleted population that is also facing new threats such as high tension powerlines, further reductions in prey, competition for food with feral dogs, and poisoning. The Andean Condor is one of the slowest reproducing birds in the world and any increase in mortality will likely further diminish its population.

Conservation initiatives and particularly ecotourism are an important way to encourage local people to value and protect the remaining condors and visitors can contribute to the conservation of this spectacular bird. The best places to watch condors in Peru include:

Colca Canyon is perhaps the most famous site for watching condors in the world. A morning at the spectacular Cruz del Cóndor viewpoint gives fantastic eye-level views of condors against the backdrop on one of the world’s deepest and most spectacular canyons. There are many hotels, restaurants and local guides.

The Apurimac canyon near Chonta village provides a similar experience to Colca but much closer to Cusco (about 3 hours) and here the condor watching is best in the afternoons. From the car there is a hike of about 3 km to the best viewing areas.

The Sondondo valley in Ayacucho is another roost site which offers good condor viewing and is a bit more off the traditional tourist route. Nearby Pamapas Galeras National Reserve offers additional opportunities to see condors.

Soraypampa in Cusco, the starting point for the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu is also a good locality but sighting will generally be flying high overhead.

San Fernando National Reserve in Ica is perhaps the most reliable site for condors on the coast of Peru. Accessed from Marcona and there is a community run lodge.

Paracas National Reserve is another coastal locality that regularly hosts condors though they can be in the remoter southern part of the reserve.

The Santa Eulalia valley inland from Lima is a regular spot for condors, though most observations tend to be quite distant.

The Illescas peninsula on the coast of Piura is hard to access but provides good views of Condors in a beautiful coastal setting.

Other regular sites for seeing condors include: Abra Porculla, Chaparri Reserve, Leymebamba, Huascarán National Park and Machu Picchu National Sanctuary.

Text by Rob Williams.