Tuesday, April 15, 2014

El condor pasa

Carunculated caracara

Four photographers are aiming our long lenses at a carunculated caracara, one of the signature birds of the treeless Andean paramo. It's a big raptor, about the size of the red-tailed hawks that we know from California. As we approach, we're surprised to learn that, rather than hunting from the air, it spends much of its time scratching in the dirt like a chicken, looking for worms, insects, lizards, and other small prey.

Suddenly we hear Jorge Cruz, our host and guide, shouting, "Condor! Condor! Condor!"

Andean condor

Four lenses swing around in unison. Shutters click furiously as the world's largest flying bird approaches, apparently curious about the latest visitors to its territory. The giant vulture soars over our heads, turns, and in less than a minute disappears over the horizon. I guess we weren't as interesting to the bird as it was to us.

Condors are vultures, and we've all seen plenty of vultures of various species. So you might think that seeing a condor would be much like seeing any other vulture. You might think that, but only until you actually see one. However you think about them – biologically, culturally, spiritually – condors are different.

The condor has been a part of indigenous Andean art and mythology for thousands of years, and is considered to be the ruler of the physical world. (The word condor is derived from the Quechua kuntur.) In modern times, every country the condor inhabits has adopted it as a national symbol, representing strength and power.

Andean condor

Physically, condors have an ancient, dinosaur-like appearance, which is only exaggerated by their huge size and the vastness of their mountain habitat. Watching a condor, it's easy to step back in time and imagine it competing with saber-toothed cats for the remains of a giant sloth. Condors soar with no apparent effort, their ten-foot wingspan carrying them up to 120 miles in a day as they search for food.

After our spiritual experience, we complain about the flat light, the featureless gray sky, and the difficulty of finding the proper exposure for the underside of a black bird. We're photographers, after all. But later, over a dinner of fresh trout, local potatoes, and beans that were picked that morning on the slopes of Mount Antisana, we all agree that photographing an Andean condor was one of the highlights of our time in Ecuador.

Join me in Ecuador for a chance to photograph a condor yourself!

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